Art in the garden: Woody plants take the winter garden from bland to beautiful
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Some gardeners dread the thought of winter. The first frosts mark the end to summer garden chores like deadheading and weeding to fall garden tasks like raking and mulching. All too soon the glowing colors of autumn will fade, and the first cool nights we enjoy turn to the cold that makes us wish for spring.
If your winter garden brings to mind adjectives like 'stark' and 'barren', a few woody plants may be just what you need. While filling the landscape with evergreens is a quick fix, these plants remain the same throughout the year. Massive plantings of yews and dense cone-shaped spruces are weighty elements in the landscape. They are beautiful but should be tempered with the graceful forms of deciduous woody plants.
Since deciduous trees and shrubs are leafless for nearly five months, it is important to select varieties blessed with ornamental qualities beyond their lush foliage. Evaluate the specimens in your yard, and assess their multi-season appeal. Any winter landscape can make the move from bland to beautiful through the addition of a few new woody plants.
These trees and shrubs, featuring dramatic branching structure, striking bark, or retentive fruit, may be just what is needed to improve your winter landscape.
Winter color: Fruit
Modern crabapples are disease-resistant and bear a profusion of beautiful retentive fruit. There are no longer messy crabapples to clean up, and dazzling shots of color dot the tree's branches all winter long.
Prairiefire is considered one of the best disease-resistant varieties. It grows to 20 feet tall. Red buds open to dark purplish-red flowers in spring; new foliage unfurls maroon and matures to dark green; and the maroon fruit persists well into winter. Hungry birds add more color to the winter garden as they feast on the abundant fruit.
Plant crabapples in well-drained soil in full sun.
Winter color: Bark
Dogwoods are available in both tree and shrub forms, and both shine in the snowy landscape. The Pagoda dogwood is a small tree suitable for use in sun or light shade. Its deep plum-colored twigs add color, and its graceful, layered branching structure offers a lovely winter silhouette. A pagoda dogwood is an excellent choice to anchor a bed at the corner of a house of deck. Red and yellow-twigged dogwoods are the most recognizable members of the Cornus family. Their striking red or yellow branches glow in the winter garden. They are quite lovely planted nearby the tawny frames of ornamental grasses.
Dogwoods thrive in difficult situations including soggy sites and exposed hillsides.
If you garden in the shade, consider Japanese kerria. After it drops its leaves late in fall, emerald green branches are exposed that dazzle the winter shade garden.
Golden Guinea is a lovely variety that grows 4 to 5' tall and boasts bright yellow flowers in April and May. Once established, it is drought tolerant — another benefit for the shade gardener.
Winter interest: Branching
Planting large shrubs with horizontal branching is a great way to add interest to the winter landscape.
Koreanspice viburnum has an elegant, open habit. Rose-colored buds open to incredibly fragrant white flowers in May; green leaves turn wine red in fall; and that beautiful branching structure will be exposed after the leaves have fallen.
Koreanspice viburnum grows at least 5 feet tall and wide and grows best in slightly acidic soil in full sun to light shade.
Members of the miscanthus and pennisetum families are among the most beautiful choices. They hold up to repeated snowfalls and winter winds with impressive resiliency. Their burnished golden and tawny tones are guaranteed to warm a snowy scene.
Plant a few, carefully chosen woody plants now and take your winter landscape from bland and barren to beautiful.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.
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