Every good designer knows the importance of including some winter interest in your landscape. In our temperate zone 7 climate, deciduous trees are bare and gardens are dormant for almost half the year. Having something interesting to look at in the garden from November through March is a great way to get you outdoors, regardless of the weather.
I have my own list of trees and shrubs that look particularly good during the colder months. Some are evergreen, some have great bark, and still others have bright berries or cheerful early blossoms.
But I’ve made a pleasant discovery as I’ve played around in my garden beds. Unless we have a truly brutal winter, there are a number of perennials and grasses that don’t go completely dormant. And while they might not look as fresh as they do during the warmer months, they can definitely enhance the winter landscape.
Take, for example, the unplanned winter interest of the planting combination in the featured photo (taken a few months ago in mid-January). I knew that both the Yucca filamentosa and the variegated Euonymus would be evergreen. But I wasn’t expecting the cold to give the Euonymus an attractive purplish cast. That purple is picked up nicely (if unintentionally) by the dark-leaved Euphorbia — which in turn contrasts well with the silvery evergreen foliage of the Dianthus into which it self-seeded. Mother Nature obviously had more to do with the success of this particular combination than I did, but I’ve been more than happy to enjoy it.
I’ve had similar luck with the swath of Heuchera villosa ‘Palace Purple’ I planted in a shady spot in our yard. With its dusky purple leaves and dense mounding habit, this native perennial has reliably shrugged off the high heat and humidity of summer. But it also hangs in there in winter, needing only a quick tidy-up in spring. The same can be said of the dark-leaved Ajuga reptans that I like to plant at the base of shrubs as a form of living mulch. You barely notice the dark foliage during the growing season, but it’s a welcome sight when the shrubs are bare.
For a completely different look – big, bold and shiny – I like the spring-flowering Bergenias. I have a clump of Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ right outside my front door. Not only does it keep its large polished leaves even if the weather turns bitter, but those leaves turn a wonderful deep maroon as the temperature plummets.
Nearby, I’ve planted two types of ornamental grasses that still look surprisingly good. The silvery blue foliage of the clumping cultivar Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ remains quite pristine. And the long arching light blond strands of Nassella tenuissima are going strong as well. I’ve found that this is one grass that really likes to wander around, and it has self-seeded quite prolifically in the gravel in our front path. But since the seedlings are easy to remove, I’m just happy that it’s happy – even in the depths of winter.
Last but not least is one of my favorite groundcovers for full sun, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina.’ I knew when I planted it that ‘Angelina’ would spread readily and withstand the punishment that comes from living just beyond the reach of the summer hose. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that it, too, is a great evergreen – with the added bonus of foliage that turns from chartreuse to a rich coppery color in the cold. Some miniature daffodils are just starting to peek through, and I find the combination totally charming.
Daffodils, of course, are true harbingers of spring, a season all gardeners anticipate. But with everything else going on in the garden this winter, I haven’t really minded the wait.