So often I hear similar questions during various times of the year. During the fall it is often, “How much do you leave in the garden?”, “What should I cut back?”, “Should I remove everything or let it be?” These are very valid questions for many people, but the reality of it is a personal choice and nothing more. I personally love to leave everything through the winter so I have something to do outside in the month of April when I am antsy and need to be doing something once the temperatures warm up. Others like to clear everything as soon as the first frost comes through so everything has a neat and clean appearance. Nobody is really wrong when it comes down to it. It also depends on your area also … do you live in a dry location or a wet one, does the snow pile up or blow away, and what are your soil conditions like and how much moisture do they hold. All is good information to have on hand when deciding if you want snowcover or not.
Above anything else, I like to make people aware of what happens in the garden during the winter months. The plants lie dormant under a blanket of snow in typical years awaiting warmer temperatures to arrive and start the cycle all over again. In our part of the world, the winter season can be pretty stark and not always the most enjoyable. Once again, the scene becomes beautiful only from the eye of the beholder. I often talk about the misery of winter, but usually what I am referring to is the long season, the harsh winds and the very cold temperatures. On the other side, I do enjoy the beauty of the snow and I enjoy a good storm where I can stay indoors and watch the events from my warm location. The landscape changes with each additional snowfall.
From the beginning, a light snowfall will dust the scene and give everything a frosted appearance, but once the heavy snows arrive … much of the low plant vegetation becomes covered and only the taller items remain. These items become various focal points within the winter garden. Sometimes it is statuary or garden art, others times it is the dried remains of plant life, sometimes shrubs and trees have a unique accent and many various grasses seem to come alive like no other season.
This is the time when evergreens really pop out in the yard and they make us feel things are still alive, even if they are not currently growing. You don’t have to have a large evergreen to make a difference in the garden, sometime small arborvitaes and junipers are just enough to add those accents without taking up a great deal of space.
Dead plant tops such as purple coneflowers, goldenrod, liatris and stonecrop sedum always look stately with their snow-capped seed heads. These simple displays all add to the dynamic scene of the garden.
My favorite plants for the winter landscape are that of the many ornamental grasses. The shorter blue-green spikes of the blue oat or Elijah blue grasses to the tall and narrow Karl Forester grass. These stand up well in the snows until they become very heavy, then they may succumb to the weight. Prairie dropseed and Indian grass are other fine specimens, but my favorite of them all is the purple flame grass. This grass can reach up to 6 feet tall and has fluffy white seed heads that flow in the wind like the pampass grass of the south. This perennial grass can withstand the weight of most snows and rustles in the wind on a quiet winter day. Its golden brown leaves hold tight all season well into spring. I always suggest this one to my fellow gardeners as it is beautiful during each of the growing seasons.
Many different trees and shrubs have beautiful bark coloring that tends to stand out in the white season of winter. The orange stems of the flame willow to the red and gold of the dogwoods. The copper bark of the amur chokecherry is a standout also along with the heavily shedding bark of the river birch. To me, all of these accents make the winter garden that much more enjoyable.
Before we get into the winter season, go through the garden and see what items you want to keep for an interesting effect in the coming months. It may just make the winter experience a little more enjoyable. It won’t be long and soon we will be looking at a white snowy scene once again.