With a limited growing season in our northern climate, there can be a sense of loss with the coming of winter. But that doesn't have to be the case! By planting with winter interest in mind, we can extend the natural beauty of your yard and garden to be year round!
What is Winter Interest?
Winter interest is any sort of plant material that remains standing above the snowline all winter. By breaking up the field of white created by a thick layer of snow, winter interest plants provide ornamental as well as nutritional content to the garden in what is considered the “off season”.
Obvious sources of winter interest include evergreen shrubs and trees, as well as any ornamental shrub. Some shrubs lend themselves to being more “interesting” by carrying fruit or seed heads through the winter. Hydrangea that hold onto their flowers through autumns storms have an ethereal beauty when dusted with snow. And examples like Red Twig Dogwood and Curly Willow have obvious standout characteristics, given in their very names!
Other popular sources of winter interest include grasses like Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens' that provide graceful height and movement all season long with their beautiful feathered seed heads. Varieties of Astilbe, with their fine textured foliage and shade-tolerance, make a statement in winter when their flower heads dry to a rust red and flutter in the winter breeze.
Why plant with Winter Interest in mind?
Winter interest is more than just visual interest: it can also serve as food for birds and other foragers in the deep winter. Perennial staples like Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea and Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta both have densely packed seed heads that can stand tall above the snowline into winter, providing a snack for finches and other birds.
Even famously short lived annuals can have winter interest potential, with such favorites as sunflowers providing architectural stems rising from the snow and very popular food in their dinner-plate centers.
When is it wise to lose interest?
While there are great reasons to leave stems standing for winter interest, there are also considerations to take for instances when it isn't the ideal choice. If plantings are near walkways or driveways that will need to have snow removed in the winter, it is often better to cut down those stems and grasses at fall cleanup rather than leaving them. Clearing snow should take precedence in those areas, and large scale snow removal can accidentally damage plants that are close to pavement by tearing them up.
Next time you are looking out the window or walking in your yard, consider what winter interest you have already present in your space. By planting with more than just summer beauty in mind, we can all have gardens that provide joy all year long!