By Lila Stiff
While there is little yard work to do between November and February, I love gearing up for the coming growing season. Tucked inside, I burrow into gardening books, peruse seed catalogs, and plot and plan for spring. Winter is a time to rest and prepare, for garden and gardener alike. And it’s also a time for paying attention, to take it all in, and to continue drawing pleasure from the outdoors.
You don’t need to be a gardener to revel in the appeal of nature in winter’s austere grace, “the beauty of the bone,” as John Updike described it. The next time you’re out on a walk around your neighborhood, at Lake Artemesia, or further afield in a nature preserve or forest, take note of the plants that catch your eye. The large, showy grasses can be breathtaking when a strong wind catches them. Berries on shrubs offer stunning, yearned-for color. Long after the holidays, evergreens still exude cheer. Deciduous trees are like fine art sculptures in the sparseness of their winter structure. Even in cold, inhospitable weather, even in the austerity of their dead or dormant forms, plants offer us so much.
Winter interest, as it’s called, is one of the most overlooked aspects of gardening. To be sure, gardeners understand delayed gratification: We plant bulbs in fall to enjoy in spring, start seeds in early spring to enjoy in summer, and prepare through summer for fall blooms and foliage. When we give winter the same attention and advanced planning as other seasons, our yards and gardens can provide great beauty and comfort. And winter’s beauties of the bone can be the most satisfying of all.
Native perennials with real winter appeal include grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), while the more ornamental switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and the nonnative miscanthus carry stunning seedheads on dramatic heights. When it comes to plants with glorious berries, we have American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), staggerbush (Lyonia mariana) and the aptly named winterberry (Ilex verticillate). Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) brandishes upright, flame-like seedheads long after its blazing red foliage drops in the fall. The round, translucent parcels of money plant (Lunaria annua) are novel and catch light beautifully, and rosehips offer nostalgic allure on the bush in winter. Trees like birches and shagbark hickories boast intriguing bark, while the colored branches of red twig dogwood burn bright. Hollies and confers offer familiar winter comfort, and many other plants (though not all of them native) have interesting evergreen leaves, including many viburnums, skimmia and sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica). And there are plants that bloom in winter, even earlier than the earliest spring bulbs — think shade-loving camellia, the reclusive hellebore (Lenten rose) and shrubby witch hazel, with its uniquely spidery blooms.
And there’s a pattern here. Aesthetically, the plants that hold the most winter interest also tend to offer the most value, ecologically. Evergreens and woody shrubs serve as low cover for birds, giving them protection from predators as well as the elements. The brightness of berries, catching your eye? They may be a life-or-death matter for birds, one of their few sources of winter food — and many berries become edible for them only when temperatures drop. And the tall, upright seedheads of grasses and perennials are, quite literally, nature’s bird feeder. The seedheads of summer favorites like coneflower and black-eyed Susan, sunflower, and other asters, nourish birds and other wildlife when other food is scarce, and they add textural interest to a winter garden, too.
Another item that can be left in place all winter: leaves. While raking may seem like a civic duty, cleaning up every last leaf interrupts nature’s cycles in untold ways. Decaying leaves shelter huge numbers of critical pollinators and other insects, the larva of which also serve as food for birds during this lean season. Fungi in the soil need that leaf litter as food, and the health of trees, shrubs, and other perennials — not to mention the soil itself — rely on the nutrients that those fungi digest and then share. Fallen leaves are also the simplest, most essential form of mulch there is. Consider how you could leave at least some of the leaves on your property to decompose in place, and you are likely to be rewarded with a rich web of wildlife through the winter, not to mention soil and ecosystem health across all the seasons.