As a former Vancouver Island resident, gardening in Southern Ontario has been full of adjustments, beginning with the shocking revelation that the ground in this part of the country actually freezes as hard as a stone for at least four months of the year. I will not bore you with the full list of differences, other than to mention my difficulty in accepting grey and gloom in my garden six months of the year, and my consequential devotion to finding ways to banish it.
There are a number of ways to bring life and beauty into your winter garden. To sum them up, they include using evergreens (trees, shrubs and perenials), variety in size, shape, texture and colour, extending the bloom season by incorporating very early and late flowering plants, and the use of plants with winter berries.
In addition, variety added by permanent features like berms, large rocks, changes in elevation and rock features enhances the effects of the plants. Finally, knowing which plants to cut back and which ones to leave to catch the snowfall will frame what you have to best advantage.
Favourite Winter Plants
- Bergenia Cordifolia This is one of the few flowering perennial plants that keeps its dark, rich green all winter. Used as an edging for beds and often covered with snow, its green nonetheless provides a rare sign of life when grass and almost everything else is brown or raked up. I have three varieties in my garden, one of which has useful large leaves. Most flower a deep pink and enliven the spring beds, but white is also an option, and it loves shade or an eastern exposure.
- Birch True, it loses its leaves, but its white, randomly-marked bark gets more attention in winter as a smooth contrast to low evergreen shrubs and bushes with berries. Both colour and texture are benefits. Click on any photo for a much better view.
- Boxwood The special thing about this plant in winter is that it may be shaped into hedges, whether in straight lines or curves, or conical or other shapes, which catch the snow and provide special form and structure. However, north of Zone 6 it is prone to slight damage in winter if not protected.
- Burning Bush Famous for its exuberant red from late August through fall, its red berries attract birds and brighten the winter landscape.
- Euonymous This is a low grower but comes in a variety of colours–Emerald Gold with yellow leaves, Emerald Gaiety, green leaves with yellow edges, other varieties featuring green leaves with white edges. It can climb a little on rocks and walls, as well as be pruned into more structured forms. A big benefit is its shade tolerance, which means it will provide its winter sunshine in places few other evergreens will.
- Forsythia This heart-lifting bolt of gold in the winter landscape signals the change of
seasons, extending the bloom season of the garden and, if you learn the cutting technique, providing indoor sunshine even earlier.
- Golden Threadleaf False Cypress Few plants can provide a lift of sunny gold through the entire winter, but this evergreen can. With a gentle, drooping habit reminiscent of a pony’s mane, and unique texture, it keeps the garden bright in the deadest months.
- Grasses This February photo says it all:
- Hellebores Otherwise known as the Christmas Rose, Helleborus Niger not only blooms in late winter to early spring; it also has sprawling evergreen leaves throughout winter, even north of Toronto.
- Hydrangea Pee Gee, Annabelle and Pink Diamond Hydrangeas may not bloom in winter, but their big, gorgeous bunches of flowers can be left on all winter like outdoor dried flower bouquets. This will not work with certain varieties of hydrangea that must be cut back in winter.
- Junipers Evergreen, and not too tall, so that they warm up a large block of area under the taller trees. They come in golden to bluish greens, and are also superb for clipping into winter planters or indoor decorations. Some have pretty bluish-grey berries.
- Rhododendron Although evergreens with needles are not uncommon, plants with evergreen leaves are rare. In a semi-shaded garden, they are one of the few things that remain to provide form and greenery when perennials have died back. Some, however, will require winter protection to thrive.Sedum, Autumn Joy This plant works incredibly hard in the garden, each and every day of the entire year. Its fresh, mounding leaves are among the earliest to appear in the dark, sopping soil of early spring, and it is at this stage that I cut back last year’s growth to just above the height of the new leaves. Through spring and summer it adds its unique texture as a calm contrast to the riot of brilliance characteristic of June and July–and then, when the garden threatens to fade and becomes short of colour, the frothy burgundy heads burst forth with shape, colour and texture unlike anything else, in harmony with the soft pinky-browns of the late hydrangeas, Japanese Anemone, Purple Coneflower and ornamental grasses. At last, when its colour fades and all the other flowers are dormant, it keeps its lovely shape through the ice and snow until winter ends and growth begins again in the garden.
- Shrub Roses Yes! I mean this. In a milder autumn, a frequent occurrence in Southern Ontario, I have been entertained well into November or later by my roses and those of other people. If you have enough sun, they can bloom until a very hard frost. After that, the reddish accent of rose hips provides continuing winter interest.
- Silverleaf Dogwood The red twigs are what makes this one a winter favourite for me. I
especially love these as foundation plantings outside a bay window or other low window, with their perfect partner, Euonymous, planted under them. I recommend pruning them when you are ready to create your winter planters each year.
- Snowberry This is the common name of a shrub which I have never grown but always wanted. In winter, it has the most exquisite, large, very white berries. If you love white in your garden, this is the only way I know of to add some in winter.
- Snowdrops This plant may represent the most exciting moment of the year for me; call me crazy but I announce the first blossom to everyone who will listen. Just a few days in a row above 4-6C and their delicate, determined heads emerge nodding as the snow melts off them, sometimes as early as February, depending on their location. What could ever be lovelier?
- Weeping Nootka False Cypress There is something alive, or human-like, in the way this tree holds itself in a drooping lilt in the icy winter landscape, and no other tree has boughs that look quite like its boughs when they are covered in fresh snow. Its eccentric character is amplified by winter.
- Yucca Of all things, this desert plant is one of the best for providing interest in the dead of winter. Not only is it evergreen, but its spiky blue-grey leaves are tall enough to convey their dramatic character through all but the deepest snowfall.
Add early-blooming bulbs whose green tips poke out of the thawing soil first thing in spring, and the winter garden has character and evolving vignettes that are all its own. It doesn’t stop one’s longing for spring, but it definitely brings beauty into those icy winter months.