Plan Your Winter Garden

Tips for creating a haven in your garden this winter

By Kate Bryant December 3, 2012 Published in the December 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

If you look out your windows in winter and see somber brown and gray and not enough green - much less floral color - consider some tweaking of your winter landscape. As it happens, winter is the best time to evaluate what you need and consider your planting options, when the spring and summer leaves and flowers are gone and you can see what the garden looks like during the long stretch of four to six months when the deciduous trees are bare. And selection at the nurseries is at its peak right now for most winter-interest plants.

Hiring a creative garden designer to take the whole picture into account can be a smart route. But if you're more DIY in nature and wish to just make a few improvements, try these tips for siting winter-interest plants:

Add a framework of evergreen shrubs, trees and perennials to create a sense of snugness and warmth in winter. Plants that retain their foliage in winter help hold the frame of the garden in place year-round. In addition, evergreen plants create a haven for winter songbirds seeking shelter from weather and predators.

Plant flowering winter-interest plants where you'll actually see them in wintertime. Plant them outside windows you commonly gaze out of, so you'll see them while doing the dishes or having breakfast. Or near the front door stoop, the compost or recycling bins, or where you get in and out of your vehicle every day.

Position fragrant, winter-blooming plants where you'll smell them while they're in flower. Many of the winter-blooming flowers are fairly small and not wildly showy so unless you're on a connoisseur of that plant, you mostly want to be able to smell the flowers, not see them. Place them near doors that you use most in winter, near where you park your car or bike, or close to the sidewalk where passers-by can enjoy them. If they're shade tolerant, like Sarcococca species or Pachysandra axillaris 'Windcliff', tuck them behind or underneath other plants. Winter-fragrant plants are especially effective in courtyards or anywhere the air collects on a windless day.

It's a great time to peruse nurseries, while plants are in bud and evergreen plants have changed from their summer green (usually) to their more burnished winter tones.

Head to your favorite local nursery soon and look for beautiful, winter-interest plants while they are fresh and the selection's best:

- Evergreens including broadleaf evergreens like Magnolia laevifolia (large shrub/small tree) or cold-hardy hebes (ranging from 2" to 5' tall) or coniferous evergreens like monkey puzzle trees or pine trees. Broadleaf and coniferous evergreens can come in sizes ranging from a couple inches high (little evergreen shrublets or dwarf conifers) to full sized trees.

- Colorful or shapely berries or fruit like snow berry, winter berry, or coral berry (Ardisia)

-  Brightly-colored stems or twigs such as red-, yellow-, or orange-twigged dogwood or willow

- Interesting, exfoliating bark such as is found on madrones, paperbark maples and Himalayan birch

- Architectural seedheads like certain ornamental grasses like maiden grasses and plants with puffy, spiky or spire-like seedheads including thistles such as Echinops and Eryngium.

- Spikiness like Yucca and Agave

- Fragrance in plants that flower in winter, including winter box (Sarcococca sp.), winter sweet (Chimonanthus) and witch hazel (Hamamelis)

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