Although most plants go dormant at the end of the gardening season, many of them leave behind gifts that can be enjoyed throughout the winter months. Not only are remaining seed heads and berries a food source for wildlife, but they’re also a source for winter interest in the garden. Perennial natives such as purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan produce attractive seed heads that are a welcome feast for hungry birds and provide a striking profile in the winter landscape. Pair them with other plants with architectural staying power like little bluestem grass and red-osier dogwood to create dramatic vignettes, especially when cloaked in a blanket of snow.
The key to successful winter gardening is to choose plants that offer appealing characteristics for most of the year and during the cold months. Don’t look at just flowers, think about a plant’s leaves, bark, form, seeds, and fruit. Select native shrubs like red cedars (for their evergreen forms), birches (for their attractive exfoliating bark) or winterberries (for their red fruit).
Also consider changing your maintenance routine. Old habits may die hard, but resist the temptation to deadhead, cut back, and rake out beds. Deadheading and cutting back may make things neat and tidy, but it also robs you (and animals) of those coveted seed heads and structural winter forms. Raking beds also eliminates Mother Nature’s homemade mulch, which provides plants with organic matter, moisture, and a layer of winter protection. Unless the spent leaves are likely to encourage the spread of disease or attract unwanted insects or rodents, it’s okay to leave clean up until we’re hungry for sunshine and eager to get dirt under our nails again in spring.
Download the EarthTones Fall 2007 Newsletter