Like a regrettable one night stand, the relationship we have with our gardens can go from good to bad unexpectedly. You looked SO good last summer (night) and now, by the harsh light of winter (day) oh, the horror! What did I do? How could this all turn out to be so…unimpressive?
You toiled all spring, your garden was boomin’ all summer long and now where is the winter affirmation of all the hard work? To be brutally honest, anyone can make a garden look fab in July. Every perennial and annual wants to strut its flowery, colorful stuff in the middle of summer. Side note: whether or not it feels easy is for another blog post. Here in Chicago, or any place your snot turns into a frost-sicle on your upper lip, gardens need to be designed to look soul-nourishingly beautiful even on the most miserable winter day.
When your lilies, coleus and poppies have all left you in the cold (presumably planning your big move to Hawaii) take heart in knowing there are other options. Evergreen shrubs come to mind – boxwoods, junipers, hollies- but that’s too easy. Not to say they aren’t great. I do think, for the most part, landscapes should have some kind of evergreen shrub structure supporting its design. But let’s talk about some of the less obvious plants which can help carry you through, visually and mentally, to spring.
Evergreen / Semi-Evergreen Perennials Liriope spicata, Carex ‘Ice Dance’, Epimedium (pictured bottom left), Pachysandra terminalis, Hedera helix (pictured top right) are some of my personal favorites for providing winter color. Hedera helix is notable since it can be a groundcover providing a carpet of green, or a vine- creating a green wall year round.
Seed heads / Pods / Structure Some plants can be stunning in winter simply because of their dried structure. The dark spiked seed heads on Echinacea (pictured top left) stay on all winter providing food for hungry creatures and visual texture for us. Grasses (bottom right) are another great structural plant. When the snow and ice piles on top of these plants they turn into mini Gaudi-esque masterpieces. Some of my favorite grasses for cold climates are Panicum virgatum ‘heavy metal’ and Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass) and Sporobolus heterolepsis ‘tara’. Baptisia and Asclepis tuberosa are excellent choices for seed pods that persist through the cold.