In Connecticut, deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out in late April and lose their foliage in October, which means that for half of the year we’ve got naked gardens. We could turn a blind eye to our landscape for six months, but what a waste of potential! Why not incorporate a little of what the nursery catalogs call “winter interest”? Now is a good time to observe where our gardens are weak in both structure and variety. Usually when we imagine gardens in winter, the picture is nearly monochromatic: black branches set against a gloomy gray sky and more dark branches jutting from a uniform layer of snow. This year, the lack of snow offers us bland, broad expanses of straw-colored lawn to greet us at every turn. If we look a little closer we will find color; not the rich palette of summer, but the muted tones of the season, with occasional bright spots.
The spruces and firs are exquisite in the winter, pure Currier & Ives when their boughs are weighed down with snow. Most evergreen foliage tends to darken at this time of year, with tints of yellow or rust. Siberian Cypress (Microbiota decussata), fresh and ferny in the warm months, goes a dull root-beer brown with the cold weather, often with a purplish cast to it. Blue junipers, such as Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ also acquire rich purple tones. Look for wine coloration in the foliage of broadleaf evergreens and in the flower buds of winter-blooming Pieris. On the other hand, there’s the sore thumb of the landscape: Gold Thread False Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera ‘Aurea’), garish enough in the warm months, the color intensifies to a lurid yellow in the winter. Set against the ubiquitous dyed-red mulch of commercial plantings it can make your eyes water.
Many deciduous shrubs and trees, such as the aptly-named native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have red fruits that persist into winter, a bonus to birds. Malus ‘Molten Lava’, a crabapple with spectacular white flowers in spring, can hold its startling yellow-orange fruit into the early winter. The bark of some trees is shown off to its best advantage this time of the year, without the distraction of foliage. The mottled creams, greens and grays of a fat Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) really pop, especially when the bark is wet. White birch (Betula papyrifera) is dramatic against a dark background; Heritage Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) has interesting pinkish-buff peeling bark and better disease resistance than its cousin. The Red- or Yellow-twig dogwoods (Cornus) are superb choices for a bright punch of color, blended into a naturalistic setting. Coral-bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) is simply a show-stopper.
Seize the opportunity to enjoy your garden for the other half of the year by including elements of color in the design, along with form and texture. Including a variety of evergreens will soften the starkness of winter, while accents of subtle color that would be overwhelmed by a summer landscape will now have more impact. Pour yourself a mug of hot cocoa, look out over the interplay of tones and think about all the garden maintenance that you’re not doing.