How to add interest to your winter garden

Here we are, into the first week of February and already gardeners are thinking of spring despite the fact that we are only into winter by about 6 weeks. While spring may officially be only 7 weeks away, any veteran of the Northwest knows it is a hell of a lot farther away than that. In fact, in many years winter just lingers around until one day we wake up and it is summer. So my advice to you is to embrace winter and make the most of it and let spring come when it is good and gosh darn ready.

Winter can be a delightful time of the year in the garden. Deciduous trees and shrubs have lost their leaves and it is a good time to reflect on the forms they leave behind. Terms like “vase shaped” or “columnar” or “globe shaped” or “weeping” come to mind when I think of deciduous trees and shrubs and it is important to remember that these leafless forms can add winter interest to our gardens. One of the key focal points of my patio garden is a Purple Slender Weeping Beech. I consider this tree almost ghostly in the winter when I can see clearly it pendulous and somewhat contorted branches draping down from its erect central leader. It really is quite stunning.

There are many forms of trees that have distinct growth habits from what we might think of as the tradition round canopy of a tree. Lombardy Poplars for example are the classic upright columnar tree that has been planted in rows for centuries for windbreaks. And for anyone that might have a pond on their property, no water feature is complete without a weeping willow at the bank. The point here is that trees and shrubs as well come in all shapes and forms and winter is the ideal time to explore the infinite possibilities that exist in these wonderful plants. Yes, I realize that the weather sucks, but deal with it and check out some interesting winter accents while there is no interference from the clutter of leaves and/or flowers.

Speaking of flowers, believe it or not there are actually plants that flower in the dead of winter in the northwest. Why? I have no idea. It certainly seems like a dumb time to bloom in my book. But if you would like some floral color in your garden consider a witch hazel, which comes in shades of yellow, orange and red (trust me, the yellow is the best bet for our gray winters) or a Dawn Viburnum that starts blooming in November and continues through March in a pleasant shade of pink — with fragrance no less. Later this month we will be able to enjoy the traditional Forsythia, although nowadays there are lots of dwarf forms that won’t take over your garden. For a softer yellow, there is Winter Hazel, a delicate shrub that enjoys a bit of shade in the summer. If you are looking for a small tree, then try a Cornelian Cherry with its spidery yellow blooms that can last a full two months. I have a tree in my shade garden that has been there for almost 20 years and is still only 12 feel tall.

There are of course many perennials that bloom in the winter including Cyclamen coum and English primroses and early blooming bulbs like snow drops and winter aconite to name just a few. Again, the point here is that there is no month or day in the year that something isn’t in bloom in the Northwest. All it takes is a little effort to discover the options available to us gardeners. Maybe I will see you this week at the nursery to help you discover some of these surprises.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at info@sunnysidenursery.net

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