‘Winter Interest’ is a common term in the gardening world that we feel merits some explaining. When plant sellers and garden designers use this term, they mean that some or all of the plant in question keeps making you want to admire it throughout the coldest season of the year.
Even though the plant’s flowers may be gone or dried and it may look completely unrecognizable from its former summer self, there’s still something appealing about this new version.
The parallels to the human experience here are pretty obvious. We ourselves may look utterly changed at 30, 50, and 80 years of age – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not beautiful to behold at every stage, albeit in new and different ways.
If you’ve ever seen someone walking down the street that makes you say: “When I’m that age, I hope I look like them,” then you’ve hit on the heart and soul of how garden experts develop Winter Interest plant lists. They simply take note of plants that seem exceptional during the winter months.
Here are some of our favorite ways that plants can earn their place in the world of Winter Interest:
The term ‘Evergreen’ is most often applied to needled trees like Pines and Firs, but it can be used on any plant to describe the fact that it won’t lose its leaves in cold weather. Evergreens and Semi-Evergreens (which only drop their leaves in frigid temps) keep a garden looking green all year round.
Sometimes the most interesting thing about a plant is the visitors that it attracts. Imagine looking out your window, snuggled up with your favorite hot drink, as bright red Cardinals and yellow finches visit the plants in your garden in search of seeds and places to perch and rest. If you'd like to attract birds to your winter garden, there are a few things to keep in mind:
The Black Capped Chickadee survives the winter on a diet of seeds, berries and insects.
Cover: Birds need quick cover to feel relaxed, so consider planting shrubs or providing a structure like a trellis to create an observation area. This will allow them a chance to take in the scene and plot out each move they'll make, including their exit stategy in case predators approach.
Water: Birds also like access to fresh drinking water. While this might require too much effort in cold areas, if you're able to provide them clean, unfrozen water, yours will certainly be one of the most-visited gardens in the neighborhood.
Food: While sunflower seeds and suet balls are fine treats for birds, they're most often put out at feeding stations near the house. If your garden is too out of the way to continually refill feeders, you can always opt to plant flower varieties that provide food via seedheads and/or those that attaract overwintering insects for hungry birds to snack on. One of the best garden treats you can offer are berries that can be eaten either fresh or dried, such as Elderberries.
Winter Garden: Snow-Covered Plumes & Seed Heads
One of our favorite tricks is to skip the fall garden clean-up and leave our perennial plants in place. Not only do they provide important habitat for overwintering insects, but they also charm us with their dried seed heads, flower cones, and spiky plumes swaying in the breeze, frosted in snow.
Although mostly invisible to the human eye, many important, tiny insects are spending the winter in the dried seed heads of the winter garden.
No matter what zone you're growing in, it's important to enjoy your landscape throughout the year and sometimes we need beauty in the winter garden the most. Simply add a handful of these plants for winter interest and you'll be admiring your garden year-round.
'Shenandoah' Red Switchgrass is a favorite selection of native prairie grass with gorgeous, colorful leaves. New growth emerges green with red tips. Gradually the entire plant turns to a rich burgundy color that appears to be aflame when backlit by the sun. Airy blooms appear in midsummer, hazy clouds floating above the leaves. Its a real showstopper year-round, with seed heads providing an important food source for native wildlife during the winter. (Panicum virgatum)
'Pumila' Dwarf Pampas Grass makes a bold statement with massive ivory plumes towering over handsome arching foliage. Attractive feathery flowers emerge in late-summer and last for months. Like their larger counterpoints, the silky plumes are an excellent attraction in the landscape, and are beautiful for cutting or drying. Pampas Grass tolerates wind and moves gracefully in a breeze. A tough, fast-growing and drought-tolerant specimen, this variety is sterile and will not reseed. (Cortaderia selloana)
Pennsylvania Sedge provides lush texture for dry shade gardens. Fine low-growing foliage arches gently, giving the appearance of soft, rolling waves. Makes a lovely groundcover or lawn alternative that requires little to no mowing. Mass planting will create a cool, glossy green carpet that is tough and versatile. Semi-evergreen foliage is deer resistant and low maintenance. (Carex pennsylvanica)
'Foxtrot' Fountain Grass lives up to its namesake, dancing upon the gentlest of breezes to invigorate the garden. Everything about this plant moves, from the flowing foliage to the arching pink plumes. An early bloomer among grasses, 'Foxtrot' sends four-inch plumes skyward mid-summer through fall. The soft bottlebrush blooms are tinged pink to maroon and glisten in the sun. A long-time industry favorite for exceptional dependability, this is among the largest and strongest of fountain grasses. Fast growing, low maintenance, and will not reseed. (Pennisetum alopecuroides)