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The Beauty of Decay: 10 Perennials to Add Structure to a Winter Garden

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The Beauty of Decay: 10 Perennials to Add Structure to a Winter Garden

December 10, 2019

As gardens fade and the days darken, it’s tempting to forget about what’s going on outdoors until early spring when everything jolts back into life. But this is a missed opportunity. Careful plant choices can reap major benefits in the winter.

It’s well known that certain trees and shrubs can play a leading role in the coldest season, but the right perennials and grasses also can look mesmerizing. By focusing on a plant’s structure and its ability to retain its shape, you can create schemes that look incredible in the fourth season. Read on to discover which plants will maximize this effect and learn to embrace the beauty of winter decay:

Thistles

Thistles in February. Photograph by Feathering the Nest via Flickr.
Above: Thistles in February. Photograph by Feathering the Nest via Flickr.

Spiky plants and thistles including teasel, echinops, and eryngiums tend to hold their structure brilliantly in the winter.

Echinops

Globe echinops. Photograph by Tobias Myrstrand Leander via Flickr.
Above: Globe echinops. Photograph by Tobias Myrstrand Leander via Flickr.

In winter, the stiff purple-blue heads of echinops turn brown and maintain their posture.

Grasses

Grasses and perennials in December at Torrey Pines Nature Reserve in La Jolla, California. Photograph by Anne Reeves via Flickr.
Above: Grasses and perennials in December at Torrey Pines Nature Reserve in La Jolla, California. Photograph by Anne Reeves via Flickr.

Play off these strong forms with billowing clumps of airy grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa or Molinia caerulea which will fade to blond and buff colors over late autumn and early winter.

Miscanthus in February. Photograph by alh\1 via Flickr.
Above: Miscanthus in February. Photograph by alh1 via Flickr.

Grasses provide some of the most dramatic moments in the winter garden. Some, including bronze-leaved Carex and Panicum virgatum Shenandoah, hold their sleek, sharp foliage well over winter. Many pennisetums with their fluffy tips also look wonderful, especially on frosty mornings. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ provides stark columns of pale buff foliage while the billowing influoresence of miscanthus cultivars looks stunning in the low, soft light of winter.

A final consideration is where to plant gasses to get the most from them. They need to be planted where the winter sun can reach them. Backlit against a rising or setting sun they look spectacular, so it’s worth spending some time to ensure you’ve placed them in the perfect spot.

Fennel

Fennel in the winter. Photograph by Anne Reeves via Flickr.
Above: Fennel in the winter. Photograph by Anne Reeves via Flickr.

Many umbellifers with their long stems and clusters of flowers, have curvaceous skeletons to provide fantastic winter structure whether they are planted in groups or as occasional accents.

Eupatorium

Eupatorium cannabinum in December. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.
Above: Eupatorium cannabinum in December. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.

Taller umbellifers including fennel and eupatorium add dramatic height and will normally stay standing even in the most adverse conditions.

Sedum

Sedum in December. Photograph by Alison Squiers via Flickr.
Above: Sedum in December. Photograph by Alison Squiers via Flickr.

Shorter umbellifers such as sedum also add dramatic silhouettes in the winter garden, especially when they are planted en masse.

Echinacea

Above: Frosted seed heads of Echinacea pallida at Oudolf Field at Hauser and Wirth, Somerset. Photograph by Heather Edwards. See more at Designer Visit: Piet Oudolf’s Otherworldly Garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.

Planted in drifts, echinacea is a stunning late summer perennial, but in winter its elegant seed heads look exquisitely beautiful dusted with frost; they also provide birds with welcome seeds.

Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia in January, against a boxwood backdrop. Photograph by Fred Ortlip via Flickr.
Above: Rudbeckia in January, against a boxwood backdrop. Photograph by Fred Ortlip via Flickr.

Beyond echinacea, other members of the daisy family – with similar forms – such as heleniums, asters and rudbeckia will also often look great through winter or until they are defeated by snow.

Alliums

An allium in December. Photograph by Anne Worner via Flickr.
Above: An allium in December. Photograph by Anne Worner via Flickr.

Although alliums are spring bulbs they retain their shape throughout the year and some of the more sculptural cultivars including A. cristophii and A. schubertii look amazing if left untouched.

‘Buttons’

Photograph by Andrew Booth via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Andrew Booth via Flickr.

‘Buttons’ such as the seed-heads of poppies, the tiered bobbles of phlomis, the blackened spheres of sanguisorba can all create eye-catching focal points in planting schemes and dramatic silhouettes in the low light of winter.

N.B.: For more frosted winter gardens, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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