winterinterest.jpg“Winter Interest” has become something of a cliche in the gardening world. Whenever I mention it to my husband, he makes a funny face and says something like “well….that certainly is….umm….interesting!” And I see what he’s getting at. We often use the word “interesting” to avoid delivering our true opinion (“My! What an…interesting scent you are wearing”). But on the other hand, my standards for what is attractive in my garden definitely relax a bit in the winter. Sometimes “interesting” (no matter how it’s meant) is good enough.

Many gardeners go on the big fall cleanup binge in October, leaving nothing behind but an empty, smooth brown and tan landscape. I’ve seen some homeowners treat their outdoor landscape like a big carpet, vacuuming and removing every trace of anything beyond the layer of dormant grass or mulch. For me, there is nothing bleaker than to look out a window on a winter day and see nothing in my garden. Here are some ways I’ve tried to bring something to look at (okay, “interest”) to my winter garden.

I had thought these were getting to be a bit overrated in the winter interest category until recently. Compare these two photos that I took at the Colorado Springs Utilities’ Xeriscape Demonstration Garden in August and October of this year. At first, I thought I’d messed up and not taken the second photo in the right place because there was only one tree. Then I realized that the Turkish filbert tree in the August photo had lost its leaves and virtually disappeared in the landscape! The bristlecone pine still had a definite presence.
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In my own small landscape, I have two very tall, narrow spruces. But the best evergreen I have is borrowed visually from my neighbors, a trio of Rocky Mountain junipers that must be at least ninety years old. Their soft green foliage acts almost as a sponge-painted background to my backyard the whole year. Smaller scale needled evergreens can really look great in the garden too.

Broad-leaved evergreens probably add more interest in other parts of the country. Even though marketed as “evergreen,” my ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne and little Oregon grape holly look pretty miserable in the winter (I suppose barely green leaves edged with crispy brown might qualify as “interesting” though).

Ornamental Grasses
I may rant a bit about my invasive Mexican feather grass in the spring and summer, but I sure do love the way it looks in my southern perennial bed in the winter. When there is a layer of snow on the ground and some sun to provide backlighting, they truly are lovely. In Colorado, most ornamental grasses go on looking beautiful until spring, when our heavier snows finally arrive to crush the clumps. So I encourage you to resist the urge to “clean them up” in the fall and instead leave them up until late March or early April.

Structures or Sculpture
Don’t worry about spending big money in this category. I have some brightly colored tomato spirals that definitely add interest to my garden in the winter. In fact, they arrived last winter and I immediately stuck them in places where the ground wasn’t frozen (not wanting to have to find a storage space inside). I liked them so much that they stayed right where they were through the summer, never supporting so much as one tomato! Pieces of large driftwood, interesting pieces of scrap metal, even shepherd’s crooks and birdfeeders can all be inexpensive pieces that break up the monotony of the winter landscape.

As a bonus, if you actually keep your birdfeeder filled, you may even attract birds – one of my favorite items of winter interest in my garden. (Oh I am so jealous of you midwestern and eastern gardeners who can have bright red cardinals decorating your landscapes.) If a birdfeeder seems like too much work, don’t worry. Often, birds will land on the plant stalks I’ve left up and look for seedheads that still have food for them. Believe it or not, I even find the beautiful reddish brown fur of the fox squirrels who scour through my garden for seeds and clean up under my birdfeeders to be an essential part of my winter scenery. And (sort of continuing the food chain here), if you’ve never seen a gorgeous little red fox slipping through your garden, perhaps hunting the above-mentioned squirrels, you’ve really missed one of the best winter interest scenes there are.