Winterberry holly

I love to visit gardens in winter, even my own. While it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the spring rush, when often it seems that everything from azaleas to roses bloom all at once, the winter garden offers a subtle beauty, one that’s quieter and requires that we take a closer look to appreciate its charms. 

Artful combinations of plants and structures of various shapes, textures and colors all add up to beautiful pictures. Bright berries against richly colored evergreens become prominent players in the winter landscape. Deciduous trees and shrubs offer fascinating forms or interesting shapes and some display striking colorful bark.  

Keep in mind that although the first day of winter was Dec. 21, plants don’t go by the calendar year. Some touted for winter interest begin blooming in late fall and continue through winter, while others wait until February before they put on a show.  Still others, have foliage that not only holds up but shines all winter. It’s the combination of flower, foliage and bark that creates the most interesting gardens, no matter what the season. 

Winter is also the ideal time to appreciate the “bones” of the garden.  A well designed garden uses architecture and plants to define spaces and provide structure. By incorporating paths, fences, walls, hedges and a variety of plants, both evergreen and deciduous, with interesting forms, textures and blooms, both colorful and sweetly scented, your garden is bound to please year around.  As a garden designer friend of mine put it once, “if your garden looks good in winter, than it probably looks great in July too.” 

Japanese flowering apricot

Blooms

There’s something special about plants that brave the cold and reward us with flowers when we least expect them. Some are not only colorful but fragrant too. In Atlanta there are a few “nose pleasers “ to consider. What wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, lacks in grace, it more than makes up for with its sweetly scented (somewhat spicy) translucent yellow flowers, stained purple in the center. The blooms appear as early as December and often continue into February or March.  Site this easy-to-grow shrub at the back of a border in full sun or part shade and enjoy!  Another fragrant favorite for southern climes is Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume. I grow this scented beauty for its flowers (the fruits are not tasty) and new bark that is a rich green color.  

Selections like ‘Bonita’ put on a show in February with striking pink flowers against brilliant blue skies. There are also selections with white or dark pink flowers.  A fast growing small tree, give it plenty of space.  There are single and double flowered forms too; all are delightful.  

One whiff of the intoxicating scent of winter daphne, Daphne odora, and you’ll be hooked.  This evergreen shrub (3-5’) is a favorite of southern gardeners and the good news is you can grow it in a container (outside) or plant it in the ground.  They appreciate good drainage but can be finicky regardless. Even if they die for no apparent reason, this is one plant worth replacing.  

Bark

I love trees and especially those that offer not only beautiful blooms and colorful foliage but interesting forms and structure. And, once they shed their leaves, bark that takes center stage.  Some like Japanese Stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamellia, have bark that adds excitement to the winter garden with its peeling patchwork of colors.  Another favorite that also offers patchy and exfoliating (peeling) bark is the Persian parrotia, Parrotia persica.  Its small but showy maroon-red flowers are a welcome sight on a late winter day. 

With shiny peeling cinnamon bark the paperbark maple, Acer griseum is a guaranteed showstopper.  Other gardenworthy candidates for their winter bark include, American beech, crapemyrtles, and Japanese maples like the coralbark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku.’  The native river birch, Betula nigra is a spectacular beauty with its papery, peeling bark in shades of salmon, cinnamon and white. Look for selections like ‘Heritage’ and ‘Dura-Heat.’ Give this tree ample space, (except for dwarf cultivars) as it quickly becomes a large tree, not a good choice for a foundation plant. Another native tree that is easy to grow and adaptable to a number of different growing sites is the Winter King hawthorne, Crataegus ‘Winter King.’ It’s red fruits and gray bark put on a show early in the winter landscape. 

Daphne odora

Berries

While many are familiar with the evergreen hollies and their colorful fruits in winter,

there are also deciduous hollies, that drop their leaves and display brilliant berries (depending on the selection) in shades of  red, orange or yellow. The native winterberry, Ilex verticillata is also an adaptable shrubs that grows in both average and damp soils. Be sure to purchase one male to pollinate the females which produce the colorful fruits. 

Whether ordinary like lambs ears with its soft gray leaves, or extraordinary like Callaway ginger, Asarum shuttleworhtii ‘Callaway,’ with its shiny mottled foliage,  herbaceous plants offer welcome color in the winter especially as a carpet under deciduous trees and shrubs. 

Whether your garden is large or small make sure you include at least a few plants that shine in winter. 

Erica Glasener

Erica Glasener is the Community Involvement and Events Manager for the Piedmont Park Conservancy and serves on the advisory board for Trees Atlanta.