Garden Design

Planting for Winter Interest

Witchhazel

The possibilities are endless when it comes to designing and planting a landscape abundant with winter interest. Here in the southeast, we have so many gorgeous plants to choose from. Winter really is a time for the bones of your garden to shine.

As a former propagator and grower of trees and shrubs, woody ornamentals are my first love. Having grown up in Michigan, where winters were white and frozen, seeing things come to life in the “off-season” will never cease to amaze me. Boasting fragrant, colorful blooms, berries, and interesting bark, these recommendations will make your winter extra special.

Winter Interest Flowers

Consider planting a collection of Camellias for dynamic winter blooms. Camellias are a classic plant of the south, having been brought to the U.S. by early European explorers from their native Asia. Camellias are very well suited for the climate and soil of the southeast. They thrive in acidic conditions and need to be planted high to ensure proper drainage. Invest in both fall and winter-blooming varieties to extend your flowering season from August to April.

Camellia

Camellia / Brie Arthur

The ‘October Magic’ Camellia sasanqua series offers a wide selection of colors and growth habits. These generally start blooming in mid-autumn and can flower through the holidays in mild climates. As for the winter-blooming camellias, you have over 25,000 registered varieties to choose from. To make that decision a little easier, here are my top five “can’t live a happy life without” selections: ‘Crimson Candles’, ‘Jacks’, ‘Nuccio’s Cameo’, ‘Royal Velvet’, and ‘Seafoam’

Winter is also a time for incredible fragrance both outside and in. One of my favorite winter habits is walking through the garden collecting small flowering branches for indoor arrangements. Bush honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, is a sweet addition to a property border that will fill the air with a sweet perfume.

Other winter show stoppers include flowering apricots, Prunus mume. These small trees add a pop of color when you least expect it and range in colors from white to dark red. Look for varieties such as ‘Peggy Clarke’ or ‘Kobai’ for beautiful fragrant pink blossoms in the middle of winter.

Of course, no one should be without the unstoppable Edgeworthia chrysantha also known as a paper bush. This deciduous shrub is a perfect landscape specimen, complete with bright yellow, super fragrant blossoms in the midst of winter. Related to Daphne odora, the paper bush is more tolerant of wet soil making it a better, long-lived option for the southern landscape.

I will never tire of fragrant tea olives, Osmanthus fragrans, whose tiny white flowers mark the start of the cool season. The orange-flowered selection ‘Aurantiacus’ bloomed for weeks and provided nectar for diverse pollinators.

Winter Interest Bark

I have also have grown to depend on trees and shrubs that provide interest from their bark. Take for example the one and only coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku’). The bright red new growth of the branches look incredible against an evergreen backdrop or a clear blue winter sky. They are equally impressive when used in cut flower arrangements, wreaths, and other indoor holiday displays.

Coral bark maple

Coral bark maple / Brie Arthur

Another favorite shrub with an interesting branching habit is “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.” This Hazelnut relative (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) makes an impressive specimen in the landscape and offers dynamic curly branches for table settings.

Exfoliating bark is another way to create seasonal interest. ‘Natchez’ Crapemyrtle is a great example of a tree that offers year-round beauty from its smooth mahogany-colored trunks. Stewartia species, Chinese elms and the winter flowering Cornus mas all have bark that peels to show color variation. My all-time favorite bark specimen is Acer triflorum, a small-statured tree with butter-yellow fall color and the greatest trunk texture of all time.

Winter Interest Berries

As a holiday tradition, many people harvest berries from their Holly trees to decorate for the season. Winterberry hollies, Ilex verticillata, is an ideal specimen for southern gardens boasting an upright habit with leaf-free branches covered in red, yellow, or orange berries.

Holly berries

Holly berries / Brie Arthur

Other specimens with colorful berries include Nandina, which many home landscapes already have planted. These Asian native berries are best harvested for the holidays, preventing any potential invasive seeding or harm to passing birds in late winter.

Winter Interest Foliage

Conifers are the most reliable source for winter interest foliage. From dark green bows of traditional holiday firs to bright yellow branches of Chamacepyparis obtusa ‘Kerdalo’, southern tolerant conifers such as Cryptomeria, Junipers, and Arborvitea are an easy way to create screening, habitat and easy-to-access holiday decorations. Stuff containers and window boxes with cut conifer branches to add long-lasting color and texture with no water needed. The addition of bulbs and lights will show your holiday spirit.

Magnolia

‘Forrests Pink’ magnolia / JC Raulston Arboretum

Broadleaf evergreens such as the native southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) are fabulous additions to property borders. Look for interesting varieties like ‘Teddy Bear’ with round leaves or ‘Little Gem’ that offers a long blooming season. Nothing says Christmas in the south quite like cut magnolia branches.

A final unexpected pop of tropical texture is Trachycarpus fortunei also known as the hardy windmill palm. This is an excellent winter interest specimen both in the landscape and as a cut foliage addition to containers. The fronds look great year-round, especially with a dusting of snow.

This winter, I hope you are inspired to create a woody winter wonderland in your landscape. Indulge in these plants, and more, and impress everyone who passes by your home.

Featured image – Witchhazel / Brie Arthur

Brie Arthur is an author, horticulturist, and international speaker living in Fuquay-Varina, NC. She has been dubbed a revolutionary for her leadership in the suburban foodscape movement. For more information, visit BrieGrows.com or email [email protected]