Fair weather or foul, nature finds a way to create variety and interest in the garden, and winter is no exception. Whether they're blooming through a crust of snow, or showing off their vivid colors while dropping temperatures force us indoors, hardy winter plants are doing more than just surviving when the winter rolls in; they're thriving. These garden inhabitants create interest, texture and a touch of the unexpected in the landscape when our springtime favorites are taking a long winter's nap -- and they do it with style.
Let's take a look at 10 plants, trees and shrubs that can transform a barren, chilly landscape into a winter wonderland. For each plant, we'll discuss what it will look like in your garden, what type of soil and water it needs, where it should be planted, and some tips and tricks to give it a chance to excel. We'll also look at what zones the plants do best in, according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. This map splits North America into 11 sections, numbered 1 to 11, with each section being 10 degrees Fahrenheit (12.22 degrees Celsius) warmer or colder than the next section. This map is used to illustrate which plants can survive in which regions [source: United States National Arboretum].
With a little imagination, and some well-deserved admiration for these special plants, even gardeners who don't like to get cold feet will start to see gardening potential in the cooler months of the year. Exercising a green thumb when you have to bury it in the snow takes dedication, but there are some plants that deserve the effort. Give winter gardening a try; you might just discover that the cold is cooler than you thought.
First up, the camellia.
Camellias (Camellia Japonica)
With glossy evergreen leaves and showy flowers in shades from pale pink to brilliant red, camellias can be showstoppers in the garden. If you're lucky enough to live in zones 7 to 9, camellias can add color and interest to your garden all year long. Even in colder zones, you can probably cultivate some of the new cold climate hybrids.
The most well-known camellia is probably the tea plant (Camellia sinesis), but with so many species to choose from -- up to 280 -- there's probably a variety to fit that perfect spot in your flowerbed [source: Parks].
Height: Camellias average about 10 feet in height (3.05 meters), but there are some types that can grow as high as 25 feet (7.62 meters).
Soil: Provide them with rich, acidic soil (pH 6.0 to 6.5), and mulch them well in winter.
Water: Keep camellias uniformly moist. They don't tolerate drought conditions, so keep the watering can handy.
Planting: Camellias prefer partial shade. If you plant them in too much sun, the leaves will start to burn, and if you don't offer them enough light, you won't get as many luscious flowers. Start new plants in spring after the last frost.
Tips and Tricks:
- Camellias are slow growers, so make sure that you're in it for the long haul.
- If you want to give some cold weather varieties a try, Ashton's Pride, Frost Prince, Snow Flurry, Elaine Lee or Ashton's Snow should get you started. Depending on the specific variety, they can be hardy to zone 5.
- Make sure that you give your camellia a good start in life by keeping it safe from damaging winds. If you're concerned about the weather in your area being marginal, try positioning your plant in a sheltered spot that's out of the wind and warms up in the afternoon.
In the next section, we'll explore the dramatic Japanese maple.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
The Japanese maple is a deciduous tree native to Asia. Some varieties can grow to a height of 25 feet (7.5 meters), with a spread of 15 feet (4.57 meters) in some cases, although most varieties are smaller. They're prized for their fall foliage, which is often red and sometimes golden. There are also a number of dwarf varieties available that are easy to grow and make interesting focal points in the landscape.
The overall silhouette of the Japanese maple can vary from vase-shaped to cascading, depending on which type you select, and the leaf shapes are variable too. One thing you can be sure of: The fall display of the Japanese maple will make your garden a standout in the neighborhood. Memories of the vivid red, golden or ruby leaves will stay with you long after the last leaf has fallen. It's a great first act for the winter season to come.
Soil: Japanese maples will tolerate poor soil but do best in loamy soil (a combination of clay, silt and sand) with a pH from 3.7 to 6.5. They don't like wet roots, so make sure the surrounding soil drains well.
Water: Although somewhat drought tolerant, young plants may suffer from stress in summer if not watered regularly. Japanese maples are shallow-rooted, so keep that in mind when the temperatures soar, and don't rely on the rain to do all the watering work.
Zones: 5 to 8
Planting: Start new plants in spring after the last frost. They do best in dappled light with some protection from the wind.
Tips and Tricks:
- Japanese maples are slow growers.
- They make excellent potted trees or shrubs and are a perennial favorite in the art of bonsai.
- They're prone to aphid infestations, so watch for telltale honeydew, and try companion plantings of nasturtiums or petunias to keep aphid populations down.
In the next section, we'll look at a holiday favorite: holly.
Evergreen Holly (Ilex)
The red berries and distinctive leaves of holly put most of us in the holiday spirit, and why not? That splash of red color and those reliably green, shiny leaves are a bright spot in any winter garden. Holly can grow successfully across the United States, and there are many more varieties than even most gardeners would expect (more than 400 species) with berries that can range from dark crimson to yellow [source: Taylor's Guides]. There are also variegated leaf varieties that can add a bit of the unexpected to your flowerbeds. Holly seems to be a natural for adornment and decoration, too. The Native Americans, Europeans and Chinese have all used holly sprays and berries in religious and cultural celebrations. Need a nice privacy hedge? Holly is hardy, can make an imposing barrier and is easy to prune. What could be better?
Soil: Soil needs can vary, so check with your grower for instructions on the type of holly you're interested in. The one soil requirement most hollies have in common is that they like acidic soil (pH 5.0 - 6.0).
Water: Hollies are drought tolerant.
Location: Hardy and adaptable, there's probably a holly that can thrive in your garden no matter where you live. Be careful if you want it to sprout berries, though. You'll need both male and female plants for that.
Zones: 2 to 12
Planting: Start new plants in spring after the last frost.
In the next section, we'll explore the delicious world of winter vegetables.
Planting a fall vegetable crop is just the thing to get you in the mood for a big pot of soup, and there's nothing nicer than being able to dash out to the garden to grab some cabbage or spinach to toss in the pot. Without a cold frame or greenhouse, you can grow winter vegetables until the first hard frost, and that's often long enough to bring in a sizeable harvest.
A good strategy is to identify the approximate date when you can expect the first killing frost in your area, and count backward the number of days needed for your vegetables to fully mature. Use that date as your planting date. Most plant seed packets will give dates to maturity that will help you put together a schedule.
The following vegetables make good autumn and winter crops:
- Leaf Lettuce
- Swiss Chard
You'll probably have fewer problems with pests in your fall vegetable patch, and if you have a long fall season, you may be able to plant successive autumn crops. Each winter vegetable is different in shape, size, color and zone to grow. Check your region on the USDA Hardiness Zone map to see if these vegetable will thrive in your backyard.
Tips and Tricks:
Need to buy a little more time to get the best yield from your vegetable patch? Plant near a south-facing wall or other windbreak and take advantage of the protection and higher temperatures to extend the growing season by a couple of weeks.
Lets move on to snowdrops, early bloomers that can ignore freezing temperatures.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Often popping up through a layer of snow long before the crocuses are out, snowdrops are welcome guests in the garden. One wonderful thing about this unassuming little plant is that it will survive even an extended snow event, waiting dormant for conditions to improve.
The small, white, bell-shaped flowers of the snowdrop are suspended from short, delicate stems, and although traditional varieties grow only to six inches or so (15 cm), newer hybrids can reach to up to 10 inches (25 cm).
Soil: Provide well-drained soil.
Water: Keep snowdrops uniformly moist. Don't make the mistake of letting them go dry in hot weather.
Location: With the exception of the giant snowdrop, these little beauties don't fare very well in warm weather areas. They need a cold winter in order to really shine.
Zones: 2 to 7
Planting: Snowdrops do best in a sheltered spots. Start bulbs or divide offsets in spring after the last frost.
Tips and Tricks:
- Snowdrops are a nice choice for bare areas around the bases of trees or under shrubs.
- If you've had some luck with them before, don't forget to dig them up and divide them every three or four years to keep them strong and healthy.
In the next section, we'll take a look at berry bushes in the winter garden.
Even shrubs that don't have showy flowers can make a contribution to the winter garden. Holly isn't the only plant that can brighten the landscape with some unexpected dots of color. And a dab of color here and there isn't the only advantage winter fruiting plants have in the landscape. Berries feed the birds, too, and in urban areas, winter can be hard on our feathered friends. For berry interest, try growing: firethorne (Pyracantha), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and chinaberry (Melia azedarach). You'll be doing something good for your garden and the local wildlife.
If you're not a bird-watcher yet, consider this: Flowers aren't the only potentially colorful additions to your backyard. If you include winter plants that attract birds to your landscape, the birds themselves can be decorative, either perched on your fence, or providing some ornamental interest to your bare trees.
Berry bushes can be short or tall, round or skinny, depending on the variety. Each will come with its own set of rules on soil, watering guidelines, planting parameters and zones. Do your research to make sure your berry bush blossoms.
Next up, the crape myrtle.
Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
A native of Southeast Asia, crape myrtle is a beauty that's destined for greatness in any garden. Depending on the variety, this deciduous tree can reach 25 feet in height (7.5 meters) with 6 to 12 inch (15-30 cm) clusters of delicately ruffled flowers in shades from white to purple. A favorite in the South, crape myrtle has distinctive gray-brown bark that peels in patches along the branches and trunk, giving it an interesting multi-hued appearance in winter.
Soil: Provide rich soil with good drainage that has a pH of 5.0 to 6.5.
Water: Keep crape myrtle uniformly moist.
Zones: 7 to 10
Planting: Crape myrtle likes full sun in a protected location. Plant away from irrigation, as it's sensitive to dissolved salts in the soil.
In the next section, we'll take a look at the bergenia.
Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia)
Another Asian import, bergenias are evergreen perennials that can grow up to two feet (0.6 meters) in height and produce large masses of brightly colored, leathery flowers in shades from white to deep purple. In fall, the bright green, heart-shaped leaves begin to change color, turning shades of bronze, mauve and purple.
Soil: Provide moist, rich soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0.
Sun: Bergenias like good light with some shade protection during the hottest part of the afternoon.
Water: Be careful not to let this plant dry out.
Zones: 4 to 10
Planting: Plant in spring or fall. Bergenias also profit from mulching twice a year. They will tolerate quite a bit of abuse as long as they are kept moist. Divide plants every three or four years to keep them vigorous.
On the next page, we'll learn a little about witch hazel.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Common witch hazel is a deciduous shrub with a long herbal and folk pedigree. Used both as an astringent and as one of the preferred woods for making dousing rods, witch hazel has useful applications in the garden and out. It's a popular understory shrub, or small tree, that can reach 20 feet in height (6.10 meters). It makes a good screening or border plant, and it produces bunches of fragrant, yellow, narrow-petalled flowers in late fall or early winter.
Soil: Provide moist, rich soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 and plenty of mulch.
Water: Younger specimens are not drought tolerant, so keep them well-watered during the summer months.
Zones: 3 to 9
Plant: Witch hazel likes partial shade and can be planted in spring or fall.
On the next page, we'll learn about our last top winter plant, the hellebore.
Hellebores are very early bloomers that don't need much work or special attention to thrive. Growing to 15 inches (38.10 cm), these evergreen perennials are European natives that can sprout flowers as early as January, ushering in the New Year with vivid patches of color, even when the flowerbeds are dotted with snow. Translated, the German name for the 'Christmas rose' hellebore (Helleborus niger) is 'snow rose'. The cupped blossoms of this attractive plant range from white and pale pink to maroon.
Soil: For the best results, offer hellebores plenty of rich, well-drained soil and a nice layer of spring mulch.
Water: Keep plants uniformly moist.
Zones: 4 to 8
Planting: Hellebores do best in sheltered spots under trees and make great groundcovers for shady areas. In winter, full sun won't hurt them, but during the summer months, make sure they get some afternoon shade or dappled light.
Tips and Tricks:
Provide some variety in the shady areas of your garden by planting hellebores with snowdrops and later blooming hostas. Finding interesting shade plants is always a challenge, and these three will dress up a shadowy corner in style.
Using less water on gardening doesn't have to mean less of a garden. Learn how to save 30 percent of your gardening water just by watering at the right time of day in this article.
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