Winter Garden Transformations

While many might think the frosts of cold season are a death knell for the garden, think again - winter is a wonderful time of change and beauty

Credit: Maxine Adcock/GAP

The garden produces shockingly beautiful visuals during the winter season

With colder weather the garden transforms – so don’t miss the magic!

Winter’s little wonders are worth seeking out – or planning for. When the days are short and sunlight is at a premium, the horticultural splendours of the cold season can easily grab the spotlight.

Autumn traditions include planting ruffled ornamental cabbages and kales, happy-face pansies, fragrant wallflowers and winter-blooming heaths as seasonal bedding. Here, a kale has been upgraded to first class and finds itself in a handsome terra-cotta pot with a deeply scalloped rim.

Winter pansies (Viola x wittrockiana cultivars) are perfect tucked into containers or front-and-centre in garden beds. Generally undaunted by chilly weather (to zone 4), they’ll prefer a cool location come summer. If cut back and fertilized, they’ll bloom again next winter.

Fragrant wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri, zone 3) blossom in early spring. Plant them over drifts of bulbs for delayed gratification. Use winter heathers (Erica carnea cultivars, zone 5, and E. x darleyensis cultivars, zone 7) to jazz up containers, then transplant them into the garden to glow for years to come.

Winter plants

Left to right: Deep-purple flowers of Lenten hellebore (Helleborus) brighten dark days; frost etches berries of shrubs like Cotoneaster and early bulbs like snow drops (galanthus nivalis) (Image: iStock)

Winter Berry Shrubs

Adding berried shrubs for winter show takes a bit more planning, but it’s worthwhile as they not only adorn the garden but can contribute foliage to indoor holiday decoration.

Cotoneaster species (zones vary from 5 to 7) are polka-dotted with red fruits. Ranging from groundcovers to extravagant shrubs, some are deciduous, others evergreen. Pyracantha, also known as firethorn, blazes with the red, orange or yellow treasure. Ultimately reaching 4 m (12 ft.) high, these evergreens (hardy to zone 6 or 7) are dramatic trained against a sunny wall. Beautyberry (Callicarpa, zone 6) is well named for the metallic-purple cargo that ornaments its bare branches. (Note that often-invasive evergreen hollies have fallen out of favour for environmental reasons.)

Unsurpassed for winter splendour are the witchhazels (Hamamelis, zone 5). Large and wide-spreading, they have delicate, spidery flowers of yellow, orange or bronze that dance on zigzag-shaped branches.

On a sunny afternoon their fragrance perfumes the air for quite a distance. Added to that are handsome, deeply veined leaves that turn to rich fall hues before fluttering downward. Flourishing in humus-rich soil with regular summer irrigation, these woodlanders are truly four-season additions to the garden.

Hellebores star on winter’s stage, and easiest among them to grow are the varied cultivars of Helleborus x hybridus. Visit your local garden centre in February or March and be prepared to fall in love. Choose among flowers of cream, pink, yellow or purple.

Watch out for pretty speckles or doubles that resemble a ballerina’s skirt. Set hellebores in morning sun and afternoon shade. Add handfuls of dolomite lime. These evergreen perennials (zone 6) are remarkably drought tolerant.

Winter plants

From left: The spidery yellow flowers of fragrant witchhazel (hamamelis) are a winter standout; winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are often dusted with snow when they emerge; silvery-blue fruits of the cold-hardy common juniper (Juniperus communis) jazz up wreaths (Image: iStock)

Winter Bulbs

The earliest spring bulbs pop up at the end of winter. Classics include snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, zone 3) and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis, zone 4), both of which bloom so early that they are often dusted by a late snowfall.

Available as dormant bulbs in fall, you may also find them potted and in bloom come spring. Planting potted bulbs affords the opportunity to visualize what plants they will look best planted beside. Both species thrive under deciduous trees where they may form carpets. Fertile, moisture-retentive, well-drained soil is imperative.

Coniferous evergreens offer abundant foliage for winter wreaths and swags. Some, such as the common juniper (Juniperus communis, zone 2), also have attractive berry-like fruits. Most conifers ask only for full sun. They require little water and take all that winter throws at them. Typically garden centres stock a wide range of dwarf conifers, so even the smallest yard might have room for some of these richly textured stalwarts.

Although outshone by flowering plants in summer, conifers contribute substance, texture and structure to overall landscape design. Because they are hardy – and many are slow-growing – they are perfect candidates for the sunny container garden.

My dwarf pine (Pinus wallichiana ‘Nana’, zone 6), has been in its large container for almost a decade and is festooned with white lights year-round. It is a steadfast companion in all seasons.

With so many prospects for winter delight, bundle up and enjoy this special season.

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.