Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 8, Issue 12 - December 2013  
Ten Ways to Survive Winter
Colorful container
A colorful container on the front porch can brighten the darkest winter day.
With no weeds to pull, no grass to mow and no edgings to trim, from the inside looking out, the northern gardener can find some comfort in a little respite from the usual chores. Here are 10 other ways for gardeners to not only survive but also enjoy winter.

1. Build a Garden with Good Bones
Always plan for four seasons when you design your garden. This includes the addition of walls, fences, structures and plants that add three-dimensional appeal. Shaped shrubs and stately conifers add color, texture and shape. Man-made elements also can be dramatic. A garden bench nestled in evergreens or an obelisk, a twig trellis or concrete birdbath covered in snow is lovely to behold during winter's solitude.

Even if your garden lacks these elements, stay positive. As any gardener knows, winter weather hides a multitude of mistakes. With a fresh covering of snow, the best and the worst lawns can become equals overnight.
A garden with good bones
A garden built with good bones will be appealing to the eye all year long.
  Paper-birch bark
  The white peeling bark of the paper birch
2. The Beauty of Bark
White on white is stunning, and no tree is lovelier than a white-barked birch. The paper birch (Betula papyrifera) derives its name from its chalky white bark that peels off in sheets like paper. River birch (B. nigra) is ideal for the winter garden because of its cinnamon flaking bark.

The red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is another winter favorite because of its brilliant blood-red colored stems in late autumn and winter. The color is most vibrant on younger stems, so ongoing pruning will help them to keep their ruby-red tones.

Other trees with good winter color include the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and the paperbark maple (A. griseum). For interest, add an Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense), which has unusual fissured bark.

3. Berries and Dry Fruit
Frozen fruits displaying beautiful ice crystal patterns are winter-garden treasures. Although crabapple trees are known for their white and pink spring flowers, they can be beautiful in winter with their dark-brown textured bark and dried fruit that tends to stay on the trees until birds pick it bare. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) develops red, glossy fruit that birds avoid because of its sour taste.

For groundcover, consider the creeping cotoneaster (Cotoneaster adpressus) with its low-growing spread and cranberry-red fruit that will remain after its leaves have fallen. Evergreen and deciduous hollies are another option. One important feature of deciduous holly is that it is dioecious, meaning that a nearby male plant must pollinate the female holly plants in order for them to bear fruit.
Berries add a pop of color
Berries add a pop of color to the garden against a snowy white background.
4. Evergreens and Conifers for Greenery
Stately evergreens add hues of green, blue and yellow to a winter garden. The key is to plant one that fits its designated space. Fortunately nowadays there are many shapes and sizes available. Tall firs, pines, spruces, cedars and yews all add winter interest. One large, weeping evergreen that stands out is the weeping nootka false cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula'), with its blue-green foliage and delicate drooping habit.

Dwarf conifers are better for smaller gardens and mix well in a perennial bed. Shapes may be upright, mounding or pyramidal. Possibilities include dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica'), 'Fat Albert' blue spruce (Picea pungens 'Fat Albert'), 'Golden Mop' sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop') and dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo subsp. mugo).

5. Birds and Wildlife
The winter garden comes alive with the addition of backyard feeders filled with tempting bird treats. Woodpeckers and blue jays enjoy black sunflower seeds and suet. Niger seeds attract smaller birds such as finches. Cardinals, chickadees, sparrows and cedar waxwings seem to prefer my shell-free mixture. It's important to keep the feeders clean and well stocked, as birds will come to rely on them as a food source. Dried corn for visiting squirrels and chipmunks is guaranteed to disappear quickly.

Tall trees and dense shrubs provide shelter for birds and wildlife and protect them from predators. Some gardeners like to add an outdoor fountain with a built-in pump to provide a water source in winter. Underneath a woodpile provides hibernating spaces for local wildlife. It's best not to get too industrious in autumn; leave the garden slightly messy and save deadheading for spring to help out Mother Nature.
  Christmas-themed container
  A Christmas-themed winter container
6. Containers, Wreaths and Garden Art
The same container that held summer annuals can easily be replaced with an assortment of evergreen boughs, berries and twigs. Ornamental vegetables such as flowering kale, berries, dried flowers and grasses also can be incorporated. A big urn packed with soil and filled with boughs of blue spruce, juniper, pinecones and variegated holly covered in fresh snow, for instance, can be a cheery welcome at the front door. Winter urns and planters are best arranged after a hard frost but before the soil freezes.

Wreaths can be made using local supplies including cuttings and clippings from your own yard. Bring the outside in and use these same materials to decorate a table or mantel during the Christmas holidays. As for garden art, it can be fun and whimsical or stately and majestic. Just check to ensure materials are winter proof and that ice will not cause them to crack.
  Karl Foerster grass
  Karl Foerster grass adds dimension to the garden.
7. Grow Grasses
Grasses add a mysterious dimension to a winter garden. Many ornamental grasses just topple over with the weight of ice and snow. Others with more rigid stalks continue to stand straight, their seed heads blowing softly in the wind. One such popular grass is 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'), with tall stalks that can be trimmed short come spring. It's not invasive and holds its shape well.

Other Canadian zone 4 favorites include 'Heavy Metal' blue switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal'), with delicate, bluish-green foliage; giant silver grass (Miscanthus 'Giganteus'), a huge grass with corn-like stalks in winter; and flame grass (M. 'Purpurascens'), which turns from red to gold in winter.

8. Light up the Night
There is something magical about mini twinkling lights. A few strings of these lights wrapped around an evergreen tree can make a dark winter's night come alive. Spotlights can transform a gloomy garden corner. Create a living Christmas tree outside, either in a pot or in the ground, and decorate it with lights, cranberry strings and peanut-butter balls for the birds.

9. Early Flowering Bulbs
Just when winter seems endless and patience is short, early flowering bulbs pop out from the snow to delight us. In fall, plant lots of tiny bulbs that are the first to show in spring, including snowdrops, crocuses, scilla and glory-of-the-snow. Mass groupings can be planted under a tree, between perennials or within the lawn. Their leaves will wither soon after the petals drop, so mowing will not be delayed.

10. Tea and Good Gardening Books
On a chilly, slushy winter's day, there is comfort in a hot cup of tea and a pile of good gardening books. Seed catalogues will undoubtedly arrive to tempt even the frugal gardener. Typically, winter months are the time for dreaming, with bold plans for garden makeovers and an even better gardening season ahead.

Julianne Labreche

Julianne Labreche is a northern freelance writer and gardening enthusiast who volunteers with Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton.
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