Gardening Central Mass.: Appreciating the Winter Backyard

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Gardening Central Mass.: Appreciating the Winter Garden

i love winter Sure, snow is a pain to clean up, 4pm sunsets are sickening and snowshoeing sounds better in theory than in practice, but there’s something intriguing about the quiet simplicity of a New England winter landscape. As the leaves fall, the sunlight appears brighter and the shadows are longer and more pronounced, showing the subtle beauty of the winter bark and evergreen foliage.

Some people say you should design your garden “backwards” and think of winter first, then fall, summer and spring. While it may seem counterintuitive, designing for the least colorful season first helps create a strong foundation that has something to offer year-round. This guide also makes sense if we think of winter in New England as all those long months from November through April when there are no leaves on deciduous trees. Of course, we should first make our gardens winter-proof – we have to live with the winter landscape for half the year.

Designing a beautiful conservatory is all about choosing the right plants—trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide what gardeners call “winter interest.” That can be difficult. Some of my favorite garden plants either look awful or disappear altogether in the winter. The umbrella-leaf magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) is a great example – huge blooms in midsummer, huge leaves that look almost tropical, beautiful fruit in fall but a terrible winter form. Umbrella leaf magnolia in winter looks like a drawing of a 3 year old tree coming to life. It’s irregular and weird and just looks awful. However, many of this plant’s cousins ​​make great additions to the conservatory. The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), for example, has flower buds reminiscent of pussy willows that hang around all winter. And when this little tree loses its leaves, the beautiful smooth gray bark becomes even more visible. Many other deciduous trees still look good after their leaves have fallen. They can have variegated stems or a distinctive growth pattern that offers something attractive even in winter.

Some evergreen elements are crucial in the conservatory. But not all evergreens are the same. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a fine shrub native to all of New England. However, to say that it remains evergreen is a bit of a stretch. Many mountain laurels shed all but a few leaves toward the tops of their stems each fall. If you’re looking for a dense evergreen umbrella, mountain laurel is not the shrub for you. Another native shrub alternative, Great Rosebay (Rhododendron Maximum), is a better option. Great Rosebay grows quickly to a height of 12 feet or more, is reliably hardy, boasts beautiful spring flowers, and forms a dense thicket of evergreen foliage, making it a wonderful choice for the conservatory.

Winter is also the time to appreciate the beauty of the bark. So many woody ornamental plants feature a showy bark with unique colors and textures that you’ll appreciate all winter long. Red oak (Quercus rubra) owes its name in part to the way the cracks in its bark turn red when wet. I once heard someone describe the smooth gray bark of an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) as an elephant’s leg. Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) also has prominent bark in winter, with large chunks of reddish-brown to bronze bark peeling off to reveal olive-colored or white bark underneath. Japanese Stewartia is an ideal plant for a four-season garden, with plenty of winter interest, beautiful summer flowers, and outstanding fall color.

Now that winter is upon us, pay attention to the plants around you that are attractive for the cold season. Some might surprise you. Subtle features, like the hardened fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) poking through a fresh carpet of snow, add a tranquil detail to a garden. The leaves of many evergreen shrubs, such as bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) or PJM rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘PJM’), turn subtle shades of purple or red in the fall and retain the color throughout winter. Many of us long for warmer temperatures when it’s cold and blustery outside. Creating gardens that shine during the coldest months can remind you that spring is just around the corner. Additionally, the right combination of beautiful winter plants can help you enjoy the longest season, rather than wishing it away.

Gardening Central Mass. was written by the team at the New England Botanic Garden in Tower Hill. Located on 171 acres in Boylston, the New England Botanic Garden is one of the region’s finest horticultural resources. Throughout the year, garden visitors experience the wonders of plants, learn about the natural world, and make joyful connections. There is so much growing in the garden. Discover it today at www.nebg.org. The column appears on the third Sunday of the month.