Look outside and gaze at the landscape — what do you see? Does it look sad, gray, boring? Well, with a little planning and ingenuity, a year from now things could look a whole lot better.
Let’s face it, the winters here in southeastern Wisconsin can seem endless — especially for gardeners. Since January is typically the time we start planning for gardening season in earnest, why not plan for next year’s winter interest? Instead of drab and lifeless, consider creating something beautiful that will also be a sanctuary that will serve to attract, provide sustenance and shelter for the neighborhood wildlife.
Most of a garden’s winter interest comes from the underlying structure or architecture, including both plants and hardscapes. Structure is what gives a landscape year-round interest. Trees and shrubs provide dimension so that the garden is not a single plane. Trellises, benches, fences, pergolas and walls as well as bird feeders, art and repurposed items will add interest and places for the snow to cling and the birds to rest. The very best time of year to evaluate the landscape is when it is covered in a blanket of snow; it seems we’ll still have time for such things this winter.
There are so many wonderful plants, shrubs and trees to choose from that will add texture and provide food for the long winter months; here are just a few ideas to get you started.
Conifers are almost always a good idea; most species of conifers are evergreens, so they’ll hold their color as well as the snow. Arborvitaes, spruces and pines come in a variety of green shades and some even are yellow, blue or have a hint of red. From the steel blue needles of the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) and white fir (Abies concolor) to the bright gold of the Japanese false cypress (Camaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’) among so many other options; there is no need to settle for drab, colorless winter landscapes. Don’t forget the shiny green and very distinct leaf structure of the hollies, too; when the red berries show off against the backdrop of green, it is quite striking.
Deciduous trees and shrubs with interesting features like exfoliating bark or with highly structured branches will stand out and draw the eye. The peeling and curling bark of the river birch (Betula nigra), three-flowered maple (Acer triflorum), paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and the deep furrows of the oak or walnut are quite interesting, especially against a white background of snow.
Many ornamental grasses add a vertical element to the landscape that also serve as a food source and shelter for birds and small mammals. Consider natives and avoid the invasive species for best results.
When perennials like seed bearing bee balms (Monarda), cone flowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) are left standing during the autumn cleanup, they provide texture as well as food for our feathered friends. Sedums, alliums and yarrows are also good choices.
Whether you already have a good start on your winter landscape or you are just beginning, when you look out the windows this time next year, things will be a lot more interesting.
Rae Punzel is a Kenosha writer and horticulturalist. She owns Bennu Organics, a horticulture services and consulting business. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.