Many gardeners want a continuous bloom of color during the growing season, but tend to forget about another beautiful time for their gardens, winter. The colder months are kind in that they allow us to spend more time on ‘inspiration’ rather than ‘perspiration’, but now is the time to plan for winter interest if your gardens are currently looking a bit barren.
If you are looking to add a new tree, the native, Oxydendron arboretum, or the Lily of the Valley Tree is a nice choice. It is an all season ornamental specimen which has a slow growth rate reaching 30+ feet x 20′. This makes it a good choice for the suburban yard. The flowers are white along 4-10″ panicles during June and July. During the winter it has a soft drooping habit with bark that resembles alligator hide.
Another handsome native tree in the winter landscape is Styrax americanus, American Snowbell. This small tree, 20 to 30 feet tall and wide, is usually single stemmed and low branching. It produces elegant white bell-like clusters in late spring with bright green leaves that turn yellow in the fall. Winter reveals a smooth gray bark that fissures with age and a fine-textured branching habit. This pretty one is best used as a patio or specimen tree.
If you need something a bit smaller, you may want to choose some native shrubs that provide berries to attract hungry birds throughout winter. Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry is a slow grower that matures to 6-10′ high and wide. The females produce an abundance of bright red berries that are quite showy in the landscape. If you purchase this plant, be sure to also get a male for optimal berry production.
Ilex glabra, Inkberry, is a native evergreen that resembles the Buxus, English Boxwood, but doesn’t have its problems. This shrub with a small blue/ black berry is an excellent choice for a friendly hedge, mass planting in a wet area, or as a background plant near the foundation. There are also some nice dwarf cultivars (‘Shamrock’ and ‘Compacta’) that require no pruning and are deer resistant at maturity.
A multi-stemmed native shrub that offers lots of color and interest is the Cornus sericea, or red-twig Dogwood. You may have seen these along the highway as an excellent bank cover to hold soil and reduce erosion. In the winter they offer bright red stems reaching 6-9′ high. Grasses for movement and perennials with seed heads are also good choices for the winter garden. As tempting as it is to clear and cut back all flowering plants, try to remember they are a food source for the birds and a haven for beneficial insects as they over-winter. Some good native seed head choices would be: Rudbeckia fulgida and Echinacea purpurea as a food source and Eupatorium maculatum whose stems provide a safe haven for beneficial insects. Any plants from the Asclepias family (Milkweed) provide interesting winter pods and fibers from the stems provide spring nesting material for our Baltimore Orioles as well as being a host plant for the Monarch butterfly.
Enjoy your garden and the wildlife it attracts this winter!
Jane Slade, Baltimore County Master Gardener
Owner of Native Plant Designs, Landscape design and consultations
E-Mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org