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Winter garden design

by Timber Press on October 26, 2016

in Design, Gardening

Watercolor by Karla Beatty.

Watercolor by Karla Beatty.

Although winter is primarily the time of year to showcase structure in the garden, this does not mean it needs to be devoid of color. Evergreens, colorful woody stems, ornamental berries, and the remnants of dry grasses and seedheads all partner together to chase away the winter blues. Enjoy the detailed “Winter Wonderland” garden design from Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner’s The Nonstop Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide to Smart Plant Choices and Four-Season Designs.

Flowers are not totally out of the question, either. Some woody plants, late-winter bulbs, and cool-season annuals (for more temperate climates) also strut their floral stuff in sunny spots this time of year.

Plant List

Acer griseum × A. nikoense Gingerbread (zones 4 to 8) . . 1 plant
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Dainty Doll’ (zones 4 to 8) . . . . . . 1 plant
Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’ (zones 3 to 8) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 plants
Echinacea purpurea ‘Fragrant Angel’ (zones 4 to 9) . . . . . . 15 plants
Galanthus elwesii (zones 3 to 8) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 plants
Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Jelena’ (zones 5 to 8) . . . . . . . . . 1 plant
Helleborus Ivory Prince (zones 4 to 8) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 plants
Ilex verticillata ‘Jim Dandy’ (zones 3 to 9) . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 plants
Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ (zones 3 to 9) . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 plant
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ (zones 5 to 9) . . . . . . 1 plant
Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’ (zones 2 to 9) . . . . . . . . . . 3 plants
Picea pungens ‘Baby Blueeyes’ (zones 3 to 7) . . . . . . . . . 1 plant
Sedum ‘Matrona’ (zones 3 to 8) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 plants


A mixed border without shrubs is like dough without yeast—a flat, mushy blob that just sits there. Large and medium shrubs are a low-maintenance way to give plantings a lift. They set the stage for herbaceous plants. They can also be used to frame a view, directing focus exactly where you want it to go, like on a simple urn, bench, specimen plant, or vista that you would like to enjoy from your patio. Likewise, shrubs can block and muffle things that you would rather forget, such as the neighbor’s barking dog, your trash can area, or an unsightly fence. As with trees, many shrubs are available. Take a gander at these, which all offer native options and require very little extra care.



Cotinus coggygria and cultivars, zones 5 to 8,Spring (flowers), spring to fall (foliage)

Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained, moderately fertile soil

There is something dreamy about smokebush. Maybe it is the airy essence of the 6-inch-long flowers as they mature to a green, sometimes pink or purple, haze in late spring. Perhaps it is the fresh-looking, oval leaves that can reach to almost 4 inches long. Possibly it’s the billowy habit that can reach 8 to 15 feet tall and wide. Whatever it is, this shrub was made for the mixed border. Deep red-purple cultivars like ‘Royal Purple’ and ‘Grace’ offer a gorgeous color and texture that can be easily contrasted and echoed with any number of companion plants. Likewise, the golden selection Golden Spirit (syn. Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’) also plays quite nicely with others. The best leaf colors are produced in full sun.

Smokebushes can be troubled by verticillium wilt and a few foliar diseases, but not often. Insect and deer problems are rare. Cutting stems back to about a foot tall in spring every two or three years will deliver the richest leaf color from the purple and gold cultivars. This practice sounds scary, but it works. It does come with a price, however—no flowers and a slightly diminished size that season. Most gardeners could care less since it is the foliage they are after, and they do not want their plants to get too large anyway. Whether or not they are pruned back hard, smokebushes are really smoking when it comes to adding color and texture to the garden.

Do not be surprised if you get an impressive show in autumn. Many cultivars are known to end the gardening season with a bang, displaying brilliant yellow to orange to deep red leaves. Cotinus ‘Flame’ was chosen just for its spectacular fall extravaganza. American smoketree (C. obovatus, zones 4 to 8) also produces excellent fall color; it reaches 20 to 30 feet tall and almost as wide.


Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. Taken at the Cohen Garden.


Fothergilla species and cultivars, zones 4 to 9 Spring (flowers), fall (foliage)

Full sun to partial shade; moist to wet, welldrained, moderately fertile, acidic soil

Fothergilla is a lot like an awesome rock band just before it goes mainstream: it has a small groupie following that secretly hopes the rest of the world will not catch on. This underused genus is made up of only two species, dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenii, zones 5 to 9) and large fothergilla (F. major, zones 4 to 8). Both are excellent native plants that basically only differ in appearance by size, as their common names suggest. Dwarf fothergilla, can grow to be 2 to 6 feet tall and wide with 2-inch-long, oval leaves. Large fothergilla can reach 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, and features roundish leaves, up to 4 inches long, with slightly scalloped edges. In spring both shrubs produce fragrant, creamy white flowers that resemble 1- to 2-inch-long bottlebrushes. In autumn their leaves put on a similar display of color that is a mix of yellow, orange, and red. The effect and consistencymcan vary from plant to plant.

The two species are known to hybridize. One such encounter produced them popular selection Fothergilla ×intermedia ‘Mount Airy’ (zones 5 to 8), a vigorous shrub that grows up to 5 feet tall, with reliable fall color and lots of spring blooms. Other notable cultivars include F. gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ and F. ×intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ (zones 4 to 8), both of which feature lovely blue-green foliage. There really is no bad fothergilla. This genus has no pest or disease issues to speak of. The shrubs are at home in naturalized areas as well as highly cultivated beds. Choose dwarf fothergilla for areas with consistent moisture; it can even take somewhat wet conditions. Large fothergilla appreciates regular moisture as well but can tolerate periodic dry spells. Fothergillas rarely need pruning. If you find that your plant needs to be thinned or shaped, do it after flowering to be sure there will be blooms the following year.


Fothergilla ×intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’.


Fothergilla ×intermedia ‘Mount Airy’. Courtesy of Fine Gardening.

Witch hazel

Hamamelis species and cultivars, zones 3 to 8 Fall (foliage), winter (flowers)

Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained, moderately fertile, slightly acidic soil

This is without a doubt one of the best large shrub (or small tree) choices for winter interest. Just when you think the days could not get much bleaker, out comes witch hazel with an unbelievable flower display. It truly is astonishing to see a plant in bloom during the coldest months of the year. Autumn, instead of spring, is when this genus starts to rev up its engines. That is when the somewhat thick, fuzzy leaves turn from an average green to a vivid yellow, sometimes orange. The leaf shape looks very similar to large fothergilla because both genera are in the same family, Hamamelidaceae. The roundish, roughly scalloped leaves are 4 to 6 inches long—slightly larger than the fothergilla’s. Sometimes witch hazels hold on to their foliage for a few months after it browns in the fall. The fragrant, wispy, yellow, orange, or red flowers are so spectacular, however, that you hardly notice this trait, although some gardeners go through the trouble of removing the crispy leaves.

Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana and cultivars, zones 3 to 8), a North American native, is one of the first to step into the flowering spotlight, producing golden flowers on its 12- to 20-foot-tall-and-wide habit in late autumn. Next come the witch hazel hybrids (H. ×intermedia cultivars, zones 5 to 8), which can reach anywhere from 8 to 20 feet tall and wide, depending on the cultivar. The flowers open right in the dead of winter and can last up to eight to twelve weeks (no joke) when temperatures remain cold. Yellow-flowering H. ×intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is among prized favorites, as are orange-flowering H. ×intermedia ‘Jelena’ and red-flowering H. ×intermedia ‘Diane’. Not long after the hybrids start doing their thing, vernal (H. vernalis and cultivars, zones 4 to 8), Chinese (H. mollis and cultivars, zones 5 to 8), and Japanese (H. japonica and cultivars, zones 5 to 8) witch hazels also get in on the act. They specialize in yellow flowers on their 10- to 20-foot-tall-andwide forms. After flowering, witch hazels rest a wee bit before sending out fresh, new green leaves in spring.

Witch hazels have no serious insect or disease afflictions. While they can certainly be included in mixed plantings, they also look their best flying solo in a spot where you can enjoy them from a roasty-toasty view out a window. Otherwise you will be making tracks through snowdrifts if you want to catch a glimpse of the unique blossoms. Besides maybe occasional thinning and shaping, witch hazels require very little pruning. If you are going to make any cuts, do it in spring before the next year’s flower buds form during summer. For abundant blooms, place plants where they will receive a good amount of sun. Witch hazels do not respond well to drought. Some gardeners have had success with growing them in zone 9.


Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Diane’. Courtesy of Fine Gardening.


Hydrangea species and cultivars, zones 3 to 9 Summer to fall (flowers, foliage)

Partial shade to full sun; moist, well-drained, fertile soil

The big, billowy blooms of hydrangea make most gardeners (and nongardeners) drool. They are highly prized beacons of the summer garden and a welcome addition to mixed borders. There are lots to choose from, but the hit list includes bigleaf (Hydrangea macrophylla and cultivars, zones 4 to 9), panicle (H. paniculata and cultivars, zones 3 to 8), and oakleaf (H. quercifolia and cultivars, zones 5 to 9) hydrangeas. Each brings something different to the garden.

Oakleaf hydrangea has lobed leaves that resemble that of, you guessed it, an oak. Each leaf grows up to 8 inches long and has a great leathery texture. In autumn you can expect the foliage to turn gorgeous scarlet to deep wine. From summer into autumn, large (up to 12 inches long) cone-shaped flowers appear. The long-lasting blooms start out white and age to shades of pink. Pay attention to which cultivar you choose of this North American species; larger varieties will need a little space. Oakleaf hydrangeas can range in size from 3 to 10 feet tall and often slightly wider. Hydrangea quercifolia Snowflake (syn. H. quercifolia ‘Brido’) and H. quercifolia Snow Queen (syn. H. quercifolia ‘Flemygea’) are among the most popular selections for their especially large blooms. Panicle hydrangea has flowers that are very similar to oakleaf ’s, only the white cones usually average around 8 inches long. The biggest differences between the two species, however, are in their leaves and forms.

Panicle hydrangea has elliptic leaves that can reach up to 6 inches long. The fall color is variable with the possibility of some striking reds, but usually nothing to write home about. This hydrangea has a significant upright stature and can grow to 10 to 20 feet tall and wide, making it more like a multistemmed tree than a shrub. It makes a lovely specimen plant. Smaller options are also available, such as the late-flowering Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’, which only grows 8 to 12 feet tall, and H. paniculata ‘Limelight’, which tops out around 6 to 8 feet.

Bigleaf hydrangea is probably one of the most sought-after species for its blue, pink, or sometimes white blooms. Some selections produce flat, 6- to 8-inch-wide flowers called lacecaps, but it is the huge, puffy, 6- to 10-inch-round mopheads that really steal the show. This species usually grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide (on occasion even taller and to almost twice as wide), with some dwarf, 2-foot-tall varieties also available. It has attractive, elliptic leaves up to 8 inches long, but no significant fall color. If you are more concerned about interesting foliage, whiteand-green variegated options like Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Maculata’ (zones 6 to 9) are available. While many cultivars are selected for their great blue or pink flower colors, the hues you get are largely dependent on your soil. Acidic soil with a fair amount of aluminum yields blue flowers, while alkaline soil with no available aluminum results in pink blooms. Many gardeners in zone 5 and colder struggle to get most cultivars to bloom.


Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’. Taken at The New York Botanical Garden.

cohen_sStephanie Cohen taught herbaceous plants and perennial design at Temple University for more than twenty years and is the former director of the Landscape Arboretum at Temple University in Ambler, Pennsylvania. She is a columnist for Fine Gardening, serves on the advisory boards for Green Profit and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Green Scene, and writes for the Blooms of Bressingham Plant Program and American Nurseryman.

benner_jAfter graduating with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from The Ohio State University, Jennifer Benner spent a good amount of time in nursery production as well as garden design, installation, and maintenance. Jennifer eventually landed in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked as a horticulture manager, specializing in perennial and container gardens. In 2001 she joined the staff of Fine Gardening magazine. She now spends much of her time working as a freelance writer, photographer, and horticulture consultant.


Click the image below for a look inside this book.


“Any book of gardening advice written by people more accustomed to working with soil instead of ink is worth a look. . . . Add in a bunch of handy planting plans and some smart maintenance advice, and you’ve got everything you need to create a four-season garden.” —Fine Gardening

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