All About Gardening and Gardening Q & A
by Pernell Gerver

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“Perennials, Grasses, and Shrubs for Winter Interest”

Winter in New England isn't usually thought of as a season for gardens and home landscapes. With all the snow, ice, wind, and cold temperatures how could there possibly be anything of interest or beauty in winter's home landscape?

However, it is possible to plan or enliven a garden with plants and plantings that, even with the fierce onset of winter, actually is attractive and is something to admire in wintertime. Garden designers call it "winter interest" and say it's possible to have a four-season landscape even here in blustery New England. Winter interest is when you look out of your window or you come to your home - what do you see? If it's just a flat plain of grass, how do you keep it from being monotonous and boring? Winter interest is adding a fabric that you find visually interesting in the wintertime.

Winter transforms the landscape to its simplest form and structure. It is this that is referred to as the "bones" of the garden, and it's more evident in winter than any other season.

A garden's bones are its underlying design, walls, hedges, fences, pathways, and other focal points. Part of the bones are the trees that stick up, part of the bones is the contour of the earth. You can place plants strategically so they become bones of the winter landscape.

Using space effectively makes a winter garden visually appealing. Space is either positive or negative. The positive space is the space that's filled up by plants. The negative space is the open space. The positive space is what's filled up by objects that stick up in space and the negative space is the flat space that you look across and it's this interaction between the positive space and the negative space that makes the landscape interesting. Gardening is not just putting plants in, it's creating spaces that are imaginative and interesting.

Certain perennials when left uncut at the end of the season will continue to provide beauty, albeit subtle, late in the season when bloom is but a memory. Certain perennials provide winter interest when snow and ice cling to their dried stems, flowers, and seed heads. One of the best is sedum. Sedum has interesting seed heads that catch snow and ice to create an interesting wintertime scene in the garden. There are many different autumn-blooming sedum. One of the showiest is Sedum 'Brilliant.' Large, flat-topped clusters of brilliant-pink flowers top attractive, chartreuse, fleshy leaves. It's very uniform, forming a nice vase shape about a foot and a half high and wide and it blooms in late summer and early autumn.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'Rudbeckia, normally in full bloom in summer, upon dropping its petals reveals small black cones that become little snow caps when a light snow falls. Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' is one of the most floriferous of the rudbeckias. Masses of bright, golden-yellow, daisy-like flowers with dark-brown cones are the hallmark of this rudbeckia. Blooming from midsummer to frost, it forms a handsome wide clump up to three feet high and nearly as wide.

Echinacea 'Green Jewel'Coneflowers also provide winter interest. They bloom profusely from midsummer to fall, then their interesting cones remain attractive through winter and, like rudbeckias, look like little snow caps. There are many different coneflowers, with a range of sizes and colors. Hybridizers have been hard at work developing new varieties in recent years. A stunning new variety is called 'Green Jewel.' This new coneflower features flowers with single, light-green rays surrounding a large, dark-green cone. It blooms abundantly from midsummer through late summer. Its flowers are three to five inches wide and hold their green color with age. It has a nice compact, upright habit, requiring no staking.

Perhaps the best attribute of ornamental grasses is their subtle beauty throughout winter as snow and ice cling to them. The rustling of their dried stems and leaves is almost musical on winter days. Most grasses turn shades of tan and beige after frost, and these muted colors contrast nicely with evergreens and snow. Of the many different ornamental grasses, one of my favorites is Miscanthus 'Adagio.' It produces an abundance of flower plumes that appear in mid August. I leave the dried plumes through winter to provide winter interest. I consider it one of the best ornamental grasses. "Adagio" is a musical term which in Italian means "slowly and gracefully" and that's a fitting description of this plant. It forms a clump just four feet high and wide, with the flowers.

Close up of purple beautyberry berriesCertain shrubs have berries or fruits that persist through autumn, into winter, and, in some cases, hold on until spring. Shrubs bloom in spring or summer providing color then, and as an added bonus, some hold onto their berries into winter with snow-covered ground being the perfect backdrop to the brightly colored berries. One of my favorite shrubs for winter interest is purple beautyberry. Purple beautyberry is aptly named. It has beautiful purple berries. The uniquely colored light purple fruit are formed in small clusters up and down each stem. Purple beautyberry is low-growing, under four feet tall, and prefers full sun and fertile soil. This shrub for winter berries forms fruit on new growth, so each spring you can cut it back to six inches above the ground to keep its height in check.

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