Winter is not a favorite time of
year for most folks when it comes to gardening. The
bright flowers of summer are a faded memory. The
colorful leaves of fall have mostly dropped to the
ground. The days grow shorter as we approach the winter
solstice — chilly, cloudy, damp and dreary conditions.
Of course, this is also the season you can comfortably
work outside without getting drenched in sweat in less
than five minutes. The changing seasons also bring about
transformations to the landscape that cannot be
appreciated at other times of the year.
winter months are a perfect time to take a critical look
at your property. Trees, evergreen shrubs, the hardscape
around your home (patio, paths, fences, walls and other
structures) and garden “ornaments” comprise what you
could call the “bones” of your garden.
yard seem like a hodgepodge of plants here and there
without rhyme or rhythm? Ideally, a visual flow should
blend all the elements into a pleasing whole. This
doesn’t mean formality; rather, the winter garden should
have a visual harmony and a sense of place.
ANATOMY OF TREES
Now that trees are
bare, their interesting branching architecture can be
appreciated, along with any glaring defects such as
dangerously broken or hanging branches. The attractive
peeling bark of sycamore, river birch, crapemyrtle, Lady
Banks rose and Chinese elm can be more fully appreciated
once stripped of their leaves. Other interesting bark
patterns also pop out during this time of year after the
leaves have been shed to unveil what lies underneath.
One fall day when I was taking a photo of a Japanese
maple with bright red-orange leaves, I noticed its very
unusual warty bark on the trunk — something I had missed
all these years of regularly passing this tree. This is
quite different from the typical smooth bark on most
Japanese maples. This variety is named ‘Arakawa,’ which
means “rough bark” in Japanese. An already great tree
for the landscape just went up another notch on my
Another popular Japanese
maple variety that really shows off in the winter months
is the coral bark maple (‘Sango-kaku’). Late in the
growing season, the green shoots turn a pleasing bright
coral-red color, looking their best during winter when
viewed against a darker background such as a dark wood
fence or tall evergreen shrubs or trees.
only in winter that one can fully appreciate Harry
Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana
‘Contorta’). During the summer, one is underwhelmed by
this plant, definitely not the star of the spring or
summer landscape. But once the leaves are gone, the
dramatically twisted, curling branches jump out at you
visually and become the center of attention.
trees also reveal poor pruning practices, such as the
indiscriminate heading-back of crapemyrtle trees. Yes,
they are trees, and they are best enjoyed in winter with
their sinuous trunks and exfoliating bark resulting in
beautiful patterns of colors and form. If you desire a
shorter crapemyrtle that doesn’t require annual
trimming, select a cultivar whose mature height will fit
into your overall landscape. There are dozens of
varieties of varying colors and heights, from true
dwarfs all the way up to 30-foot trees.
Crapemyrtles are truly trees for all seasons. I used to
be annoyed at the seedheads left behind each winter. But
I later changed my attitude, and I now consider them an
added bonus to the winter scene. Come next spring, they
will be quickly hidden by new growth.
HOLLIES AND BERRIES
Trees and shrubs with
berries take center stage as they now mature to their
final colors. The vibrant purple berries of the American
beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) often don’t
last long with the mockingbirds, cardinals and other
birds also enjoying them. Some rose varieties set
abundant red or orange fruit called hips, adding another
season to their beauty.
Of course, hollies are
synonymous with berries and are one of the more popular
groups of plants used in landscaping. Not all hollies
have berries. A holly plant can be either male (which
only carry pollen-bearing flowers) or female (which only
carry pollen-receptive flowers that turn into the
berries). This fact is important if seedlings pop up in
your yard that you might like to keep and grow in other
parts of your garden.
The good news is that
hollies sold in garden centers are clonally propagated.
If a named variety is known for bearing fruit, it will
have fruit in your yard, and bees will take care of the
pollination issue. American holly, yaupon holly and
possumhaw (or deciduous holly) are three of the more
common landscape plants that are native to Texas.
Other hollies that bear notable fruit include
‘Nellie Stevens,’ ‘Burford,’ ‘Dazzler’ and ‘Needlepoint’
hollies. Note that the most common dwarf yaupon holly
variety is a male clone, so it will never bear fruit.
Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) loses its leaves
in the winter, revealing a bounty of red-to-orange
berries cherished by a wide variety of birds, especially
mockingbirds and cedar waxwings.
Yaupon holly (Ilex
vomitoria) is a small, evergreen tree that makes an
outstanding landscape specimen. The small, dark-green
leaves make a perfect foil for the bright red berries
covering the tree. ‘Scarlet’s Peak’ is a narrow, upright
variety that bears a good crop of red berries. A few
varieties bear other colors, such as ‘Virginia Dare’
with orange berries. Weeping yaupon holly provides extra
winter drama with its strongly descending, pendulous
branches loaded with red berries, a winter magnet not
only for our eyes but also for cedar waxwings, which
will strip a tree in a short amount of time.
(Cornus florida) not only have pretty spring flowers,
but after the colorful fall foliage drops, its
attractive red berries are on full display until
consumed by birds. The blocky, patterned bark of
dogwoods is an added attraction.
Azaleas are not
commonly thought of as having interest during winter
months. The foliage of many varieties, however, turn
various colors in later fall, persisting on into spring
as flowering and new growth commence. The leaves of many
of the varieties with orange, pink or red flowers, such
as ‘Coral Bells,’ ‘Fashion’ and ‘Midnight Flare’ turn a
dark-bronze-to-burgundy color, and they look fabulous
against a lighter background such as a white-painted
wall. Others with white flowers such as ‘Delaware Valley
White’ have green and bright yellow leaves in the
wintertime. Off-color leaves do not indicate a sick
plant (an unwarranted concern that I am often asked
about). It is just another season of color from this
great group of plants.
flowers are not all that common, but some will provide
colorful relief from the cloudy days. Of course,
pansies, snapdragons and stock are some common annuals
we can plant and enjoy well into next spring. But there
are other sources of flowers besides annuals.
Starting in December, paperwhite narcissus begin the
winter parade of sweet-smelling flowers that faithfully
return every year to chase away the winter blahs,
followed quickly by other narcissus, including Narcissus
x italicus, ‘Grand Primo,’ and many other cultivars in
the coming months.
Hellebores, also called Lenten
rose, are wonderful evergreen perennials that laugh at
the cold and begin blooming in the winter. They are an
easy plant to grow under the right conditions, and they
are perfect for shady spots in the yard such as under
Camellias are favorite evergreen shrubs in
parts of Texas with acidic soils, and Camellia sasanqua
begin their floral show in the fall. Camellia japonica
continue with large flowers in mid-winter, and depending
on the cultivar, blooms on into the spring season.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp. and many hybrids) is an
underutilized large native shrub or small tree. It is
mainly grown for its interesting yellow-to-orange lacy
flowers that bloom, depending on variety, in late fall
on into early spring. Many varieties are fragrant. It is
related to the more popular Loropetalum or Chinese
fringe shrub that also blooms starting in late winter
with white or raspberry-colored fringy flowers. Both
Hamamelis and Loropetalum prefer acidic-to-neutral soil
pH. Other plants with early floral displays that cheer
us up on dreary days include forsythia, flowering quince
and deciduous magnolias.
One of the more popular
winter blooming trees in other parts of the country is
Prunus mume, or the Japanese flowering apricot. This
small tree, related to apricots and peaches, is a
revered plant in Japan, where it is native, with scores
of named varieties that bloom in January or February. It
is not a common tree, but it is definitely worth a trial
in any Texas garden with part sun and well-drained soil
(same conditions for growing peaches or plums). Taiwan
flowering cherry (Prunus campanulata) is a related
species that flowers in February in Northeast Texas with
flowers ranging from pale to rosy pink.
garden would not be complete without a birdbath and
feeders. The activity of birds bathing and flocking to
eat brings life to an otherwise still scene in winter.
I’m always amazed to see birds bathing in chilly
weather. A well-placed bath can serve both as a
decorative component and an important source of water
for our feathered friends that winter in Texas.
time on a dreary winter day to look at your landscape
again with fresh eyes and a renewed vision. Whether you
have a large property or a tiny backyard, make it a
space you can enjoy all year round.
EVERGREEN IN WINTER
When the deciduous trees,
shrubs and perennials go dormant in winter, plants
with evergreen foliage stand out. Different leaf
textures should be used to weave an interesting
tapestry that is pleasing to behold.
evergreen ferns can serve as a groundcover to knit
together shady garden beds. Bold foliage plants such
as the large-leaf fatsia, spiky yuccas or palms such
as the hardy windmill (Trachycarpus fortunei) will
catch the eye quickly, so use them wisely, placing
them where they will fit into the visual picture you
are “painting” with plants.
Evergreen trees and
shrubs stand out in winter providing bones and
background to the garden scene. An example of a
favorite native small tree is Texas mountain laurel
(Dermatophyllum secundiflorum — yes, I know it
should be and indeed used to be Sophora
secundiflora, but recently taxonomists meddled once
again with one of our beloved plants). Appreciated
for its purple flowers that smell like grape
bubblegum, it also provides a beautiful
architectural form in a sunny spot in the yard.
Needled evergreen trees and shrubs provide a
different texture compared to the more abundant
broadleaf shrubs. Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus
harringtonia) has narrow evergreen foliage that
looks like the common yews grown up North, but they
are much better suited to the South. ‘Prostrata’ is
a low-growing variety that can be used as a massed
groundcover, and there are other more upright
varieties available. All tolerate shade and only ask
for well-drained, moist soils.
SEASONAL ORNAMENTAL GRASSES
Ornamental grasses also
stand out in the winter, with their dried foliage
overtopped with attractive flower plumes. When
planted where they can be viewed backlit by the sun,
they can create a memorable view. Some hold up
better than others through the winter, but all
should be cut to the ground at least by late
February before the new foliage begins to rise up in
response to warmer weather.
ornamental grasses to consider for winter interest
include broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus),
which is a native grass best suited for meadows and
naturalistic plantings, being very tolerant of poor
soil. Bushy beardgrass (A. glomeratus) is
another native. Unlike broom sedge, it is best
suited for naturalizing in damp, low-lying areas.
Inland, river or wild sea oats (Chasmanthium
latifolium) is a native with unique seedheads,
tolerating both dry shade and full sun. It reseeds
readily, so use in appropriate areas where it can
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium
scoparium) is another Texas native that looks
great planted in masses in a naturalistic landscape
with other perennials. Its attractive silver-blue
stems in summer through early fall turn to a reddish
or coppery color throughout the winter.s.