Art in the garden: Plant shrubs to brighten the fall and winter landscape

By Diana Stoll
The Planter’s Palette
Updated 10/23/2011 9:58 AM

With summer behind us, many colors supplied by blooming annuals and perennials are just a memory. Now we appreciate autumn's colors and take stock of our landscapes. Do we have something to look forward to after the first frost has nipped the last of our annual flowers? And once the leaves have fallen from the trees, what will our landscapes look like?

Shrubs are an excellent solution to uninteresting and unattractive fall and winter landscapes. They offer foliage, stems and berries that liven up perennial or shrub borders. Consider improving your late-season garden by adding some of these shrubs.


Fothergilla gardenii is a small shrub that easily fits into any size garden. It is a member of the witchhazel family and native to the United States. Dwarf fothergilla boasts honey-scented white flowers in spring, dark blue-green scalloped leaves in summer, and gorgeous fall foliage in colors from orange to yellow with hints of red.

Growing in a neat mound up to 3 feet tall, it is a nice addition to your perennial border. It is relatively pest and disease free, although rabbits may do a bit a winter pruning for you.

The oakleaf hydrangea is another North American native shrub with lovely fall foliage. Its deeply lobed dark green leaves in summer turn a smoldering crimson purple as temperatures drop. Dried flowers and peeling bark offer interest in winter. After the leaves have fallen, exfoliating bark and cinnamon-colored leaf scars are visible.

Oakleaf hydrangeas prefer a site protected from winter sun and wind. Consider a spot close to your house or in a courtyard for this shrub.

Chokeberries also have fine fall color in addition to persistent fruit to brighten the fall and winter garden. Aronia arbutifolia Brilliantissima, or red chokeberry, is an upright shrub with green glossy leaves throughout the summer that turn red in fall. Its berries persist longer than other shrubs because they are not palatable to birds.

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Brilliantisima grows up to 10 feet tall and makes an attractive hedge or addition to a shrub border. Because their leaves tend to be concentrated on the upper half of the plant, add lower shrubs at their base to hide their sparsely foliaged stems.

The black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, is another good choice for multi-season interest. Its red fall foliage is the perfect backdrop for its purplish-black fruit. Both chokeberries are easy to grow, pest and disease free and tolerant of moist conditions. Suckering may occur in moist, organic soils as they are native to boggy areas.

While there are a number of cotoneasters to choose from for our gardens, one excels in terms of its autumn show. Cotoneaster divaricatus, or spreading cotoneaster, features long slender branches with a pleasing cascading habit. Its brilliant fall color is reliably red but can also show tones of purple and yellow.

Red fruits ripen in September and continue through late fall. A mid-size shrub 5 to 6 feet tall, cotoneaster adds fine texture to the landscape contrasting nicely with broad-leaved plants. Cotoneaster performs best when planted in full sun.


The purple beautyberry, Callicarpa dichotoma, is a very graceful shrub featuring unique lilac-colored fruit. Growing up to 5 feet tall and slightly wider, beautyberry's arching habit is useful in mass plantings or in a mixed shrub border. Small lavender flowers appear in summer, but the real show occurs in fall when the fruit ripens to a lovely lilac purple and persists until frost.

Stems may be cut just after the fruit opens and brought indoors for dried arrangements. In severe winters, stems may die back to the ground. If this happens, simply cut back remaining stems and branches close to the ground.

Perhaps the best known for its fruit display is winterberry. Ilex verticillata offers many varieties that perform in our area. Also known as deciduous holly due to their leaf drop each fall, winterberry produces an abundance of shiny red fruit. Our native songbirds love them!

Fruits are even showier when backed by the dark green foliage of evergreens and the presence of snowfall. This is another shrub native to swamps so it's an excellent choice for naturally wet areas. As fruit is only borne on female plants, be sure to include at least one male plant when planting these shrubs. The male will not produce fruit so tuck it in the back of the planting area.

Stems are another important highlight of the fall and winter landscape. Red twig dogwoods are unrivaled in their brilliant stem color. They are stunning against a snowy background. The orange red stems of Cardinal form dense thickets 5 to 8 feet tall. Isanti features brilliant red stems with a more compact habit.

Keep their stems colorful by spring pruning. Remove about a third of the oldest stems every year. This will make room for newer, more colorful growth. Plant a few red twig dogwoods and you'll always have plenty of branches for holiday greens arrangements.

No other shrub adds interest to the landscape in the winter like Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. Corylus avellana 'Contorta' is a non-fruiting variety of the European filbert. Showy, bright yellow catkins are visible in early spring before the plant leafs out.

After the foliage drops in fall, the interesting sculptural quality of this shrub is revealed. Exquisite twisted and curled stems grow up to 10 feet tall. Mine is planted near the front door where we can appreciate its dormant winter beauty.

Look around your landscape. If the color is waning and you find yourself wanting more, consider adding some of these shrubs. Your fall and winter landscape can be beautiful, too.

•Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the retail manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040 or visit