Winter in the Gardens

DBG_LAH_3996-001Dead leaves, bare branches, brown grass. It’s hard to create a landscape that looks attractive when everything appears to be dead. Yet, we live in a place where winter can last six months, or more. I want my yard to be attractive all the time, not just during the growing season.

With that in mind, this week I paid a visit to the Denver Botanic Gardens. They’re open in every season, so surely they’ll have ideas for making a garden worth visiting, even in the winter. How do they do it?

They choose plants that look alive in winter.
Arctostaphylos patula_Greenleaf Manzanita_DBG_LAH_4029-001We’re all familiar with conifers, which keep their leaves in winter. That’s why we call them evergreens! But I was surprised at the number of broad-leafed plants that retained their leaves, at least until December. I would have assumed that Denver’s lower altitude just meant they hadn’t died yet, but we’ve all experienced some amazingly cold weather this fall.

Helictotrichon sempervirens_Blue Oat Grass_DBG_LAH_4080-001Some of these leaves were green—mahonias, manzanitas (above, left), and sunroses (Helianthemum), for example—but others took on different hues. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens, right) lives up to its Latin name—semperivrens means ever-living—and its persistence makes it a better choice for cold climates than look-alike Blue Fescue. I’ve written about Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ in previous posts, but I can’t say enough good things about this amazing ground cover. The flaming orange and yellow succulent leaves scream “Autumn” long after the trees have dropped their colorful leaves.

The leaves on the violas looked a bit peaked, but amazingly, the plants were in bloom. In December! For such a cute little flower, Violas are incredibly tough.

They choose plants that look great even when they look dead.
Amsonia tabernaemontana_Texas Star_DBG_LAH_4078-001
Attractive dried leaves, everlasting flowers, contorted or colorful branches all provide the much-desired “winter interest” in our gardens. Plants such as Rabbitbrush, Bluebeard “Spiraea,” , staghorn sumac, and even tall garden phlox continue to please after they go dormant. Other plants show off their twigs and trunks once those pesky leaves are out of the way, e.g., ninebark and red- or yellow-twig dogwood. Even mundane dried leaves look great when contrasted against a different-colored background. For example, Texas Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana, left) turns a warm tawny color when dormant. It really stood out, planted in front of the dark maroon of a Japanese barberry. How often do we consider a plant’s dormant colors when designing a garden?

They rely on hardscape and seasonal decorations.
Arches in winter_DBG_10200118_LAH_6930Let’s face it—no matter how hard we try, some plants just look crummy in winter. Yet, their summer foliage and/or flowers make them worth growing. What to do? Draw attention to other garden features. Statues, walls, interesting paving, etc., all add structure to a garden when flower beds are empty and limbs are bare.

Now, at Christmas time, we can add strings of lights to outline the forms of leafless trees. This is something the botanic gardens excel at. If you haven’t gone yet, don’t miss their Blossoms of Light, from now through the end of the year.

Lights on tree_DBG_LAH_4005-001Lights_DBG_LAH_5771

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