January 5

The Maine Gardener: You can turn winter’s frightful into delightful

With planning, you can feast your eyes on colorful berries, bark, and even flowers through the freezing season.

By Tom Atwell

The snowstorms, ice storm and frigid weather that hit Maine in December brought to mind how important winter interest is to local gardens.

click image to enlarge

Winterberry keeps its fruit, at least partly into winter.

Shutterstock.com photos

Hellebores offer roses in the snow.

When you are stuck at home because the driving is somewhere between difficult and impossible, you end up going from room to room, staring outside to see the snow piling up or ice forming on branches. On frigid and clear days, you see the sun reflecting off these icy accumulations.

Winter interest in Maine gardens consists of evergreens, bark, berries, flower buds, limbs and dried flower heads and foliage. I’m not going to mention those burlapped somethings in some yards. They don’t count.

Evergreens will garner most of the attention, especially when the ground is covered in snow. Evergreens, despite the name, are more than green (think blue spruce or gold thread chamaecyparis), and you want different tints and shades of green, as well as varied shapes, in your evergreens.

Outside my home-office window the two evergreens that stand out are a white-tipped hemlock, probably “Gentsch White,” which is dwarf globe form with an ultimate height of 15 feet, and a dwarf golden chamaecyparus.

The hemlock has a graceful shape, with a deep green color in the center and delicate white tips, while the gold-thread cypress almost glows during the gray winter days.

In the same garden border, there are a few Hinoki chamaecyparis of different sizes in a darker green, more architectural and asymmetrical so they provide a different look.

Pines, firs, yews, junipers and spruce provide other colors and shapes, but they are fairly common plants and don’t attract they eye as much as those that feature unusual shapes and colors.

We use the large-leaf rhododendron growing right outside a living-room window as a winter thermometer. If all of the leaves are curled up tightly, it is cold and/or windy, because the plant is drawing in to preserve warmth and water. If the leaves are full and flush, the temperature is close to freezing or above, and the plant feels free to stretch out.

The rhododendron also has fat blossoms at the ends of its branches, providing assurance that winter will end and we will have lots of June blooms.

We also have a lot of mountain laurel (kalmia) in our yard, which has finer broad leaves than the rhododendrons, and some andromeda, which has a dense growth of evergreen leaves all winter long.

Bark is the prime source of color in winter gardens. We have a red-twig dogwood right outside our family-room window. Some of the newer varieties have stems that are a brighter red than ours, but ours still looks good. You want to prune these shrubs heavily – actually cut some of the branches right to the ground – because first-year twigs have brighter bark than older branches. Nurseries also sell several varieties of yellow-twig dogwood, which would give you some variety.

Birch has striking foliage, but for the Maine landscape you would do better to plant river birch and yellow birch, both of which are native to Maine, rather than the standard white birch. The bark of these trees naturally peels off by itself, giving it some added interest.

We started planting physocarpus (ninebark) about five years ago, and they have a nice bark, as well as some dried blossoms for winter interest. Other plants with interesting bark includes some willows, some clethra and bayberry.

Fruit also adds color to the garden. We have holly, which in addition to being an evergreen has bright, red berries.

Our highbush cranberry viburnum still had fruit the first week of winter, but by spring birds will have eaten it. Other plants that will hold fruit throughout the winter include winterberry, rugosa roses, many types of crabapples, “Winter King” hawthorn, aronia, bayberry and cotoneaster – although cotoneaster has enough negatives as a leaf-catcher that you might want to skip planting it.

I mentioned the flower buds on the rhododendron, but I also love our magnolia’s flower buds. Even when covered with ice, the fuzzy gray flower buds stand out in our landscape.

Grasses with seed heads look great over the winter, as do the cones on echinaceas, the dried blooms on hydrangea and spent blooms on spireas.

Limbs look great with sticky snow or the remnants of freezing rain on them, but for a real treat you should have something like curly willow or Harry Lauder’s walking stick.

If you really need flowers, you should plant a witch hazel (Hamamelis) such as “Arnold’s Promise,” “Pallida” or “Sandra” along with some Lenten Roses (Hellebore) which will bloom in late February or March (though you may need to shovel snow off the hellebores in order to see their blooms).

So, spend some time looking out your window during the next few weeks, think about what you’re missing and you may decide to put in some new plants for winter interest.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at (207) 767-2297 or at:


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