Saturday, February 09, 2013

Branch out for next winter

Plan now to add color, texture and interest to your landscape.

Trees with distinctive bark, such as birch trees, can add interest to your yard in winter.

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Trees with distinctive bark, such as birch trees, can add interest to your yard in winter.

Holly berries

Holly berries

Pussy willow

Pussy willow

Karen Hager is The Roanoke Times' gardening columnist. Her column appears twice monthly in Extra.

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About Karen

Karen Hager lives in Blacksburg with her garden-loving family: a husband and son. She learned her skills by trial and error, and encourages all gardeners to do the same. You can reach her at

This time of year, landscapes often suffer from a case of the blahs. Winter can be the most difficult time of the year to make your yard look attractive.

This is a good time of year to assess your landscape for its winter appeal. Plan now to add color, texture and interest to next year's winter landscape.


Showy displays of colorful fruit allow many trees to play an important role in the winter landscape. After the flowers and leaves have gone, the fruit that remains in winter will brighten up your yard.

Some fruit also serves as an important source of winter food for birds, and their antics as they flit back and forth in search of food will further animate your landscape.

On some trees, fruit may appear much earlier than it is actually edible. The fruit of hawthorn trees and American holly, for example, appears in early winter and provides color to your landscape throughout the season, but the fruit is not palatable until late winter, for spring birds.

Trees with showy fruit displays include kousa dogwood and flowering dogwood, hawthorn, American holly, golden rain tree, magnolia, flowering crabapple, sourwood and black gum.

Trees with distinctive bark are also useful in adding interest to your yard. Although it's an often overlooked characteristic, bark texture can be an important asset to winter landscapes.

For example, most would agree that the peeling bark is the most interesting feature of a paper birch tree. Although the bark is attractive year round, it becomes more visible when the tree has no leaves.

Trees with interesting bark include paperbark maple, paper birch and river birch, kousa dogwood, crape myrtle, sargent cherry and Chinese elm.

Structure should also be considered when choosing a tree for winter appeal. When the leaves fall, the structure of the tree is now on stage. For some trees, this is its best feature.

Sculptural trees can dominate a winter landscape, and give a completely different look to your yard from season to season. When leaves no longer hide the branches, the weeping habit of a Japanese maple becomes more apparent, and the twisted branches of a corkscrew willow will appear particularly unusual.

Other trees that provide strong sculptural interest in winter include American beech and amur cork tree.


Deciduous shrubs can still look good after the leaves have fallen. For some shrubs, winter provides the best opportunity to show off bright color in their stems and bark.

The redtwig dogwood is a good example of a shrub that shines in winter, with its bright red stems. Although the shrub has pretty leaves spring through fall, it's in winter that it truly attracts attention.

Some deciduous shrubs produce berries after leaves are shed, providing color for your landscape and food for birds. Although the American holly is often grown for winter color, its deciduous cousin is often overlooked. Yet, a deciduous holly provides wonderful winter color, with a huge display of bright red berries in winter.

Shrubs that produce large clusters of fruit in winter include barberry, cotoneaster, winterberry, nandina, pyracantha, possumhaw, beautyberry, and several varieties of viburnum. Some shrubs, like nandina, also keep their colorful foliage through winter, further adding to winter interest.

Pussy willow and witch hazel actually begin blooming in the winter, giving a preview of spring flowering to come.


In the middle of winter, when most colors have faded, bare vines can provide texture and movement.

The papery layers of climbing hydrangea become more visible and more beautiful as the plant ages. Old wisteria vines look particularly pretty when outlined in snow.

Trumpet honeysuckle provides colorful fruit in the winter that is a favorite of birds. Virginia creeper bears fruit that looks like miniature Concord grapes on red stalks.

Clematis produces seed heads that look like feathered headdresses, while climbing hydrangea will keep its old flowers and fruits through winter, adding the look of a dried floral arrangement to your landscape.

Evergreen vines can add interest and color, too. One of the hardiest of the evergreen vines is wintercreeper euonymous, but some English ivy varieties work well, too.

Evergreen vines will be a favored shelter for birds in winter. Any tree covered with English ivy will be alive with bird activity.

Dried foliage

Ornamental grasses add winter interest through dried foliage. Don't cut these grasses down in fall. Wait until spring and enjoy their texture and subtle color all winter long.

Consider the structural appeal of perennials, too, before you cut these back in fall. Dried sedum heads, for example, appear as small sculptures when covered with snow. These, too, can provide interest to your landscape before they bloom anew in spring.

Come join the gardening conversation on my blog at for more tips on gardening in winter.

Karen Hager's column runs every other Saturday in Extra.

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