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:
Spiky plants and thistles including teasel, echinops, and eryngiums tend to hold their structure brilliantly in the winter.
In winter, the stiff purple-blue heads of echinops turn brown and maintain their posture.
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.
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.
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.
Taller umbellifers including fennel and eupatorium add dramatic height and will normally stay standing even in the most adverse conditions.
Shorter umbellifers such as sedum also add dramatic silhouettes in the winter garden, especially when they are planted en masse.
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.
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.
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’ 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:
- Designer Visit: Piet Oudolf’s Otherworldly Garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.
- Garden Visit: Great Dixter’s Warmth in Winter.
- Expert Advice: 9 Tips for a Colorful Winter Garden.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.