I have a confession to make. We are a very crop driven family. Our approach is “keep shade to a minimum so that the fruits can ripe”. This is why our garden is mostly composed of two categories of plants: perennials as they produce no shade and fruit bearing trees and shrubs. This arrangement worked well in summer but had a major drawback in winter. For the cold months of the year our garden was missing winter interest and appeal.
Luckily, many of the corp bearing shrubs planted in our garden turned out to have winter interest. Therefore, by adding only a few winter interest shrubs (read this post on how to choose them), we were able to create a garden that is interesting even during the winter.
In this post I will share with you 9 winter interest shrubs that grow in our garden. I have also included three shrubs that grow well in our climate, but that we don’t grow in our garden.
Plant these shrubs wisely. In a spot that you can see from the window, next to the front door, or close to a path you are regularly using in the cold months of the year.
I have excluded from this list the usual evergreens. I will write a separate article about which ones grow the best and survive the Nordic climate. Generally speaking, miniature evergreens are useless in the winter, as they are covered with snow, all other evergreens can be used to decorate your winter garden.
Do you want to show your artistic talents? Get a Sambucus racemosa. This tree grows very quickly during the summer and rapidly gives some height to your garden. In addition, it can be pruned very hardly, so you can cut it in a variety of shapes. We aim giving our S. racemosa the shape of a (large) bonzai.
Cotoneaster horizontalis is a great structural plant for the garden. It has a weeping shape that looks stunning if planted in the right spot. Ours is planted hanging down next to a staircase. It is interesting every season, winter included. In spring, it has very small white-pink flowers that bees love. In summer-autumn it develops shiny red berries that decorate the garden. Although the berries become black when it gets cold, swarms of migrating Bohemian waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) come to eat them in winter. We have noticed these birds only on our cotoneaster bush, although we have many other shrubs with berries in the winter. Cotoneaster is among the best winter interest shrubs we have seen.
An interesting plant for winter, and not only. L. caerulea, or haskap produces blue, edible berries in the middle of the summer and decorates your garden during the winter. Its branches are divided by many tiny perpendicular planes (just look at the picture below, it is easier seen than described). These branches catch the eye and make you want to go and look closer. In our garden, the haskap shrubs are still not ideal for winter attraction as they lack height. However, I trust that in a couple of years haskap will become one of the best winter interest shrubs in our garden.
Do you want to have a large lawn and few easy maintenance shrubs placed in key locations? If you choose the shrubs wisely, your garden can look very charming also in winter. For super easy maintenance try Spiraea japonica. Ours grows in the middle of the lawn, it is never fertilised, but it produces beautiful leaves and pink flowers. The shrub looks like a beautiful fountain through the winter.
Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle”, and many other large flowered hydrangeas look great in the winter (and not only!). To create a spectacular shrub, prune it hard in spring, leaving only the thick stems. In this way you will obtain huge flowers that will decorate your garden through late summer, autumn and winter.
I could not make this list without mentioning the most famous winter interest shrubs. I am talking about dogwood, or Cornus alba with its beautiful coloured branches. When I was choosing the dogwood variety to buy I was too greedy. I wanted to get winter interest and summer appeal. Therefore I chose a variegated variety, Cornus alba “Sibirica Variegata”. This was a mistake. Our dogwood shrubs look great in the summer, but do not have a striking red colour in the winter as the one of the Cornus alba “Sibirica” variety. Do not make the same mistake as I did and choose the green variety.
Although we did not buy them as decorative plants, the northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are very decorative the whole year. In spring they have flowers, in summer blue edible berries, in autumn their leaves turn bright red and in winter their red stems are very attractive. The blueberries are not as vigorous and fast growing as dogwood, therefore it will take a couple of years for their branches to become thick enough to be truly stunning. However, if you plant blueberries you will have a tasty crop, besides winter colour. I believe it is worth to wait!
For regions with low snow levels, I recommend planting cowberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). These are rather low growing evergreen shrubs. They look beautifully green and very fresh, even when surrounded by snow. In addition, you will get edible (especially good for jams) berries. If you do not pick the berries, they will keep on the shrub and add colour to the autumn and winter garden. I would recommend planting cowberries in a raised bed together with other acidic soil lovers, such as winter heathers, northern highbush blueberries and dwarf rhododendrons.
Many people believe that rhododendrons are winter interest shrubs. I don’t agree. Yes, it is true that they have evergreen leaves. But each time I walk by a winter rhododendron, I feel sorry seeing its leaves looking down, folded, due to the cold temperature. I believe this picture looks sad. The only rhododendron I like in the winter, is a dwarf variety (I believe it is a Rhododendron repens “Scarlet Wonder”). Its small leaves do not bow to the cold weather and keep horizontal and very plump. In addition, its large, purple-red flower buds are already visible during the winter, giving the plant some colour. The only drawback with R. repens is that it is not very tall, about 0.5 m high. Therefore, R. repens will only add winter interest in regions with little snow.
Corylus avellana “Contorta” is a shrub full of curves, that looks very striking in the winter months. If you want your Corylus to be more attractive also during the summer months, you could get the red-leaved variety Corylus avellana “Red Majestic”. However, be warned that this variety might have less curls than the “Contorta”. Choose yourself whether to go for the compromise, or have the original.
Salix caprea or Caragana arborescens
Salix caprea “Kilmarnock” or Caragana arborescens “Pendula” are two great weeping plants that will look very attractive in your winter garden. Their branches look very romantic covered in snow. For increased winter and summer interest, position a small sculpture under the branches. Everyone will stop and admire this composition!
Symphoricarpos albus “White Hedge” is a shrub found throughout my neighbourhood. It produces white berries that look rather nice against its black branches and lighten the Norwegian dark winters. This is a great choice if you need a super low maintenance shrub with winter interest.