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.
The 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.
Does the 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 appreciation meter.
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.
It’s 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.
Bare 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.
Dogwoods (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.
Winter 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 trees.
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.
The winter 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.
Take 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.
Graceful 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.
Some native 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 freely spread.
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.