On cloudy, gloomy days the brown and plain foliage of dead flowers, grasses, and shrubs can be quite dreary. I'll grant you that. The same can be said of new, plain growth during dark, rainy days in spring. But just as the returning sun creates a vibrant display of color and excitement when it glistens on the dew and raindrops nestling on the young plants, the remnants of a winter storm can transform the garden into a brilliant, magical wonderland.
When the wonderful combination of frigid temperatures and moist air combine appropriately, a cold night meets a sunny morning with ice crystals covering the landscape. The dreary brown plants are transformed into shimmering, diamond-encrusted works of natural art. This is when the garden offers beauty that competes dramatically with the highlights of summer.
In my garden, sunflowers, coneflowers, Yarrow, Heliopsis, and Kniphofia offer great scaffolds for the natural ice and snow sculptures of winter. Ornamental grasses and shrubs and bushes anchor the garden when snow falls.
Of course plant selection for winter interest does include life; you can think beyond the death of plants and how they look in that state. Ornamental Kale can survive harsh conditions in many regions and displays beautiful greens and purples and reds even when covered in ice. Witch Hazel is a large shrub that flowers in winter. Holly with its evergreen leaves and berries welcomes Christmas with green and red. The parasitic evergreen plant Mistletoe achieved its mythical powers because of its colorful winter state. Mountain Laurels and Yews are evergreens many gardeners overlook in their landscape. There are many colorful winter plants available for your garden.
The second step in gardening for winter interest is to leave your plants in place through the cold months. Many gardeners are anxious to clean up their beds as soon as the first freeze fades the foliage. They hack at and pull up the dead, dying, and dormant plants and cart them away. They rake fallen leaves into bags and leave the garden barren, ready for spring planting. There is nothing wrong with gardening this way, but when old man winter arrives with his brush and palette there is no canvas to receive the artwork.
Delaying pruning is easy to do. Leave excess branches on trees in early winter. Don't cut the stalks of perennial flowers. The erratic and ungainly growth of flower and shrubs pose nicely in frigid weather.
Simply selecting plants based on how they will look in winter and then leaving them to compose their own beauty is all that is needed to create a garden with winter interest.
To begin next year's winter garden look at your landscape and those of your friends and neighbors. Do you have a spot that is glaringly bare and lifeless in winter? Do you see something that stands out as brilliant in another's landscape? Tour a local botanical garden for ideas. Take the time to observe plants in winter. Think beyond the color and life of summer.