Trees and shrubs with winter interest

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I see winter as beginning with the first fallen leaf and ending with the first sign of new growth. It can be a very long stretch in the northern plains if our gardens do not provide anything of interest during these several months. Evergreen plants are an easy solution, but there are many other parts of plants that can make us happy too. Here are some of my favorite trees and shrubs to provide some drama and life during the winter.

Glauca globosa Blue Spruce
‘Glauca globosa’ has the distinctive blue spruce color that makes this species so popular, but it also has the added feature of a dense, rounded habit that gives it a bushy appearance. Photo: Marty Neely

‘Glauca globosa’ blue spruce features colorful, evergreen foliage.

You can’t deny the power of miniature evergreens in garden displays. As a designer, I think it’s important to incorporate textured plants into the design, or things get too boring and dark from October to March. Conifers and broadleaf evergreens can provide this structure because of their permanent shape. ‘Glauca globosa’ Blue Spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca globosa’, Zones 2–7) is wonderful in any landscape but must be planted thoughtfully, as it is not one that can be easily pruned to fit a small space. Growing slowly to 3 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide, it can be purchased as a low, mounding, bushy form or grafted into a tree form.

Panicle hydrangea in winter
Small panicle hydrangeas such as Little Lime® They look great in winter with their dense branches and large fuzzy flowers. Photo: Marty Neely

Panicle hydrangeas stun with sculptural blooms.

Texture is an important element in any garden. During the off-season it is possible to provide structure by leaving the plant’s large dried flower heads with showy flowers. Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea Panculata and cvs., Zones 3–9) have the most spectacular pale flowers. Farming like Little Lime® (‘Jane’), Pufferfish™ (‘NCHP1’), and Little Hottie® (‘Belpennon’), all of which are 3 to 5 feet tall and wide, are suitable for most gardens. Growing on sturdy stems, blooms proliferate during summer and fall, drying to a light tan tone. Leaving them undisturbed until spring rewards you with a large mound of bold texture.

Green velvet boxwood
‘Green Velvet’ boxwood is one of the most popular boxwoods because of its thick foliage and good habit (left). Boxwoods cut into topiaries show off their structural angles best in winter (right). Photos: Marty Neely

Boxwoods are beloved for their evergreen foliage and year-round texture.

One of my favorite plants, ‘Green Velvet’ Boxwood (Boxus ‘Green Velvet’, Zones 4-9) offers numerous opportunities for interesting forms that are particularly striking in winter. Additionally, boxwoods grouped into crisp hedges or topiaries are stunning in all seasons but really pack a punch during winter. In addition to ‘Green Velvet’, consider trying ‘Green Gem’ boxwood (Boxus ‘Green Gem’, Zones 4–9) or Northern Charm™ Boxwood (Boxus ‘Wilson’, zones 4–9). Both grow 3 to 4 feet tall and wide if left unpruned. For something larger, ‘Green Mountain’ boxwood (Boxus ‘Green Mountain’, zones 4-9) can grow up to 6 feet tall, providing more opportunities for sculpting.

Arctic Sun bloodtwig dogwood
Artic Sun® Bloodtwig dogwood appears colorful, with shades of orange, red, and yellow.

Bloodtwig and Yellowtwig dogwoods wow with their colorful bark.

Bright and vibrant bark is always appreciated during the winter months. Specific types of dogwood (Corns spp. and cvs., zones 3–9) are known for their vigorous stems and have long been important in many gardens. Some of the most spectacular winter colors can be found in new introductions, such as arctic sun® Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Keto’, zones 4-8). The plant grows 3 to 4 feet tall and has golden-red stems. It is most beautiful when backlight by the sun. ‘Bud’s Yellow’ Yellow Tig Dogwood (Corns Ceresia ‘Buds Yellow’, Zones 3–7) is another contender, growing 6 to 8 feet tall. In my opinion, it has the brightest yellow bark of all shrub-shaped dogwoods. Place it in front of a large or dark wall or fence. These shrubs create bold displays of color whether you have snow or not. Removing more than one-third of the old growth annually will keep your shrub-shaped dogwood full of vibrantly colored stems.

Blue Princess Holly
‘Blue Princess’ holly has very glossy leaves and large berries. Photo: Marty Neely

Blue holly’s vivid berries contrast with its colorful foliage.

blue holly (Ilex × meservaea, zones 4–7), also known as Meserve holly, is a spectacular shrub with glossy blue-green leaves. ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Prince’ are commonly used cultivars in my area. Both male and female plants are needed if one wants to see bright red berries in winter. If dark, glossy foliage is what you desire, either plant will do the trick. In the northern plains, holly 4 to 6 feet tall and wide does best if given some protection from strong winds and strong sun.

Protect your broadleaf evergreens from damage.

Winter burn can occur on broadleaf evergreens in harsh climates. A coating of anti-desiccant can help prevent this. You can also plant these evergreens in a location that is protected from more wind. Make sure they are well watered in winter, and provide extra moisture when temperatures are unseasonably warm. Remove any damage in the spring before new growth emerges.

When you look out your windows this winter, take note of where you wish there was something more interesting to see, and make your plan to improve the view.

For more information on winter fun, check out:

And for more regional reports from the Northern Plains, click here.

-Marty Neely, FAPLD, owns and operates Marty Neely Design & Associates in Omaha, Nebraska.

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