Winter garden beauty

Plants you can use to add interest to a winter garden

By: Sandy Feather ©2010
Penn State Extension

Q. We built a new house and are just making decisions about the landscape. Can you suggest some plants for winter interest? I am interested in some different plants, not just the same old blue spruces and yews.

A. You are wise to consider your landscape’s winter appearance. You can always dress up the spring and summer landscape with flowering shrubs, bulbs, perennials and annuals, but winter is the true test of design. Winter interest comes from evergreen plants and those with colorful twigs, bark or fruits, as well as elements of hardscape such as walls, patios, or sidewalks and the house itself.

Creating balance with a mix of plants

Conifers are the backbone of a good landscape, but conifers alone would make for a less interesting landscape since they look the same 365 days of the year. The key is a pleasant balance of evergreens with deciduous plants that offer winter interest. Properly sited trees and shrubs can also improve energy efficiency by providing shade and blocking winter wind.

Evergreens in the Landscape

Conifers, or needled evergreens, include false cypress, fir, hemlock, juniper, pine, spruce, and yew. Many conifers grow into large, stately trees that are useful for framing your house for aesthetic and energy efficiency purposes. Conifers planted to the west and north of your house block the prevailing winds, especially if they remain limbed to the ground. Be sure to plant them far enough from the house so they can grow without damaging the structure or having to be pruned severely to stay within bounds. Most conifers prefer full sun and well-drained soil.

Swiss Stone Pine
Swiss Stone Pine

There are deciduous conifers – conifers that loose their needles in winter, including larch, dawn redwood, and bald cypress. These are large trees, growing 50 – 120 feet tall, valued for fall color or interesting winter bark. Grow them as specimens, in allées, or en-masse. Dawn redwood could work as well as a large maple, black gum or oak to provide shade from hot afternoon sun when planted on the south and southwest sides of the house.

Broadleaf Evergreens

Broad-leaved evergreens (BLEGs) include boxwood, holly, fetterbush, grape holly, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. In general, broadleaved evergreens require protection from strong winter winds. They are best grown where they are protected by buildings or mature conifers that take the brunt of the wind. Most tolerate partial shade and can be used for massing, specimens and as ground covers. Most also prefer slightly acidic, evenly moist, well drained soil that contains adequate organic matter.

Blue Holly

In very protected locations, especially in the City of Pittsburgh, gardeners can get away with more tender BLEGs than gardeners in suburban or rural areas. These include southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), red tip (Photinia spp.) and sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana). Excellent drainage is critical to successfully growing some of the fussier or more-tender broad-leaved evergreens.


Deciduous Plants

Many deciduous trees and shrubs are grown for their colorful, persistent fruits, bright-colored winter stems or peeling bark. These can be massed against an evergreen backdrop for good winter interest or planted as specimens. Weeping or contorted growth habits are another way deciduous trees and shrubs can add winter interest to your landscape.

Bright red crabapples

Here is a list of plants with winter interest, followed by a short bibliography to help you read more about their mature size and cultural preferences. Use it as a starting point, because there are too many species and cultivars to provide an exhaustive list in a newspaper column.

  • White Fir (Abies concolor)

  • Cork Fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica)

  • Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

  • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

  • Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum)

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

  • Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’)

  • Boxwood (Buxus sinica var. insularis x B. sempervirens hybrids ‘Green Gem,’

  • ‘Green Mound,’ and ‘Green Mountain’)

  • Hornbeam (Carpinus spp.)

  • ‘Oregon Blue’ Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Oregon Blue’)

  • Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)

  • Cinnamon Clethra (Clethra acuminata)

  • Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)

  • ‘Winter King’ Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’)

  • Alaska Falsecypress (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis, formerly Chamaecyparis nootkatensis)

  • Dwarf Hinoki Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’)

  • Tartarian Dogwood (Cornus alba)

  • Bloodtwig Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Arctic Sun™)

  • Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

  • American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

  • European Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

  • Witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)

  • Seven-Sons Flower (Heptacodium miconioides)

  • Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

  • Holly (Ilex spp.)

  • ‘Grey Owl’ Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’)

  • Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

  • Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica)

  • Larch (Larix spp.)

  • Fetterbush (Leucothoe spp.)

  • Grape Holly (Mahonia spp.)

  • Crabapple (Malus spp.)

  • Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

  • Persian Parrotia (Parrotia persica)

  • Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika)

  • Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis)

  • ‘Skylands’ Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’)

  • Pieris (Pieris japonica and Pieris floribunda)

  • Swiss Stone Pine (Pinus cembra)

  • Dragon’s-eye Pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Oculus-draconis)

  • Tanyosho Pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’)

  • Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis)

  • Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora)

  • Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata)

  • Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

  • Pussy Willow (Salix caprea)

  • Corkscrew Willow (Salix x ‘Golden Curls’ or ‘Scarlet Curls’)

  • Stewartia (Stewartia spp.)

  • Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens)

  • Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

  • Spreading English Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’)

  • Arborvitae (Thuja spp.)

  • Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)

  • Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata)

Massive branches of a White Oak covered with snow


Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, Michael A. Dirr, Timber Press, 1997. ISBN 0-88192-404-0

Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael A. Dirr, Stipes Publishing, 2009. ISBN 1-58874-870-7

Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs, Hillier and Sons, David and Charles, Inc., 1999. ISBN 0-71531-073-9.

Conifers: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, D.M.van Gelderen and J. R. P. van Hoey Smith, Timber Press, 1996.  ISBN 0-88192-354-0 


Overwintering seeds from your garden

Growing Prayer Plant

De-Icers and Snow Melters



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