Winter Gardening: Tips to Add Color

Who says winter gardening has to be dull and boring? Take a look at some easy ways to add interest to your backyard this season.

We all look beautiful when we’re decked out in our best outfits. So do plants.

But strip off the fancy duds—or the flowers and leaves—and it’s a different story. So when it comes to planning for winter beauty, we want plants that look good naked.

Now’s the time when color really counts, too. Each winter bright spot is worth its weight in gold. And it’s not only plants that can add color—garden ornaments and structures play a big role, too.

So let’s get going before we’re knee deep in snow, and meet some of the plants and projects that can add a little wow to any winter garden.

Winter Gardening: Black-capped chickadee in redtwig dogwoodSteve and Dave Maslowski
Steve and Dave Maslowski Black-capped chickadee in redtwig dogwood

Artful Architecture

We wouldn’t be without the lilac bush that delights our noses in May, but its winter shape is nothing special. And in winter, architecture is what we’re after—plants with a shape that stands out, lending grace or drama.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a classic. With its signature domed crown, it’s handsome even when young, and it only gets better with age.

While Japanese maples are elegant, another good option (though for different reasons) is Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana‘Contorta’). This shrub is attractively strange, with its twisted, spiraled branches. It’s named for a superstar of Scottish music halls whose records were a hit during World War I. The jaunty Harry wore a kilt and tam-o’-shanter—and carried a twisted, gnarled walking stick.

For a faster-growing, taller plant, try corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’), which reaches 10 feet in just two to three years and tops out at 30 feet. Japanese fantail willow (S. sachalinensis ‘Sekka’) is another oddball, with flattened branch tips that look like the fans for which it is named.

Here’s one last tip when it comes to interesting architecture in your yard. Think about your perennials before you snip off the seed heads of the flowers. Siberian iris, poppy, milkweed pods, yarrow, yucca stalks, bee balm, echinacea, black-eyed Susans: They’re all interesting enough dead and brown. But wait till you see them wearing a charming cap of snow.

Precious Color

For wow power, go for winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which is often so thickly studded with berries that they shine like little beacons across the yard. Be sure to plant a male pollinator so you get fruit. You’ll find great cultivars like Berry Heavy Gold and Winter Gold, as well as red-berried Berry Nice, Winter Red, and shorter Little Goblin or Red Sprite.

For a show that lasts all winter, the bright bark of redtwig and yellowtwig dogwoods (Cornus sericea and C. sericea ‘Flavireamea’) are longtime favorites. Kerria (Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’) is another shrubby possibility, not for its golden yellow spring flowers, but for its surprising bright green winter bark.

How about a pop of purple in your winter garden? The arching stems of beautyberry (Callicarpa) are jam-packed with berries in an unearthly lavender-purple. The display is stunning while it lasts.

Speaking of purple, ornamental cabbage and kale have quickly become staples of the winter garden. A word to the wise: If your area is susceptible to repeated freeze-thaw cycles, your yard may soon smell like a sauerkraut factory as the plants ferment.

Smaller Trees to Please

The bark of mature sycamores and Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) is gorgeous, but if you don’t have decades to wait until they come into their own, try smaller trees.

Imagine the gleaming mahogany-red bark of Himalayan birch (Betula utilis jaquemontii) or birchbark cherry (Prunus serrula) in snow. White paperbark birch (B. papyrifera), green-and-white striped maple (Acerpensylvanicum), or a spectacular coral-barked maple (A. palmatum ‘Arakawa’) will light up the yard on a gray winter day.

Silver and Gold

Winter Gardening: Chinese witch hazelSteffen Hauser/botanikfoto/Alamy
Steffen Hauser/botanikfoto/Alamy Chinese witch hazel

And the silver medal goes to—artemisia! Look for cultivars like Powis Castle, Silver Queen and their relatives as they stay ghostly all year. Other silvery perennials, such as lambs’ ears, perovskia, and lavenders, usually keep their color for months, too.

Nearly all ornamental grasses bleach to blond in winter, with the beautiful exception of little bluestem, which turns soft, glowing red. Non-invasive miscanthus varieties, Karl Foerster feather reed grass and little bluestem are all good grass options that will stand up to winter weather without collapsing.

Winter Bouquet in Pots

If your containers can take harsh weather, give them a starring role. But skip planting—fake it instead with a beautiful bouquet of branches and berries. They’ll keep their color and look natural for months in the cold. Don’t forget to add winter color to your window boxes, too, instead of leaving them empty till spring.

The Personal Touch

Whether it’s a garden gnome, a grand urn or an adorable birdhouse, outdoor ornaments have more visual impact in winter. The same is true of bird feeders, benches, and the trellises and arches that held summer vines.

Take a look around your yard with a critical eye. Does your gaze land on a few focal points, or do your eyes jerk back and forth because there’s too much clutter?

Consolidating the collection can work wonders. Round up your resin animals in a herd. Group containers instead of dotting the place with them. Park the gnome beside your garden bench instead of out in left field. This is one case where more is less: Grouped companion ornaments have a neater visual effect than widely separated objects, which can look downright junky in the restful winter garden.

If your garden needs more look-at-me, not less, winter is a fine time to nail up a cheerful painted birdhouse that will catch the eye like a cardinal on a snowy day. Or spruce up a trellis or bench with a touch of vivid paint. We all love decorating, and winter is no reason to stop.

Now’s the time when color really counts. Each winter bright spot is worth its weight in gold.

Winter Gardening


Add these super-early bloomers, and “spring” could start in January.

1. Christmas rose (Hellebore niger) (Pictured at left)

2. Pussy willow

3. Winter aconite

4. Chinese witch hazel

5. Snowdrop

6. Heather (Erica)

7. Winter jasmine

8. Daphne

9. Winter hazel (Corylopsis)

Photo: Elena Moiseeva

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Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.