Friday, January 14, 2011

Winter Interest in the Absence of Snow

Carex, unknown name
Ah, the inevitable post on the "evergreen" topic, Winter Interest. I will admit, I have mixed feelings about it. I love the idea of it, and when I see other people do it, it seems so easy, effortless, logical. Then I look at my garden. Soggy, gray, blah. I don't understand, I have grasses, seedheads, some evergreen plants. Yet every day when I walk home, i see my sad little patch of dirt...more bare ground than anything right now. Enough of that! Time to focus on what is great about the garden now. All that's needed is a sunny day and I can venture out and appreciate the subtle details that ARE beautiful. Take the above...a little Carex I planted this spring and promptly lost the tag, so I can't for the life of me remember what kind it is. I love it's warm, muted colors, especially now. My favorite part about this sedge, however, is how the ends curl and corkscrew around themselves. So simple, so charming.

Eupatorium rugosum (Chocolate Joe Pye Weed)
Above, we see an old favorite, 'Chocolate' Joe Pye Weed, backlit by the morning sun. I love how ephemeral and delicate the seeds are now, and the wiry graceful and delicate. In five minutes, however, the light has changed and the effect is gone.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' and Verbena rigida
A perennial favorite, 'Autumn Joy' Sedum continues to look good all year. The stems and flower heads will remain standing until I cut them down. They offer so much wonderful color and structure to the winter garden. Their burnt umber seed heads and flat form are such a great contrast to everything else. The Verbena is particularly lovely when backlit, highlighting all the little hairs on the stems and seeds.

Rudbeckia triloba
One of my favorite perennials, this one is one of the anchors of my winter interest plants. It's bulk is gone, but the small black seed heads remain. From a distance, they almost appear to hover, and on sunny days, their warm orange-brown tones are especially welcome. As seen above, they also contrast well with the bleached white stems of the Russian Sage.

Miscanthus 'Malepartus'
The grasses are invaluable in the winter garden. Miscanthus 'Malepartus', shown above, really reminds me of corn stalks during winter, with it's bleached blonde leaves and stalk-like stems. Not only is it lovely to look at, particularly the frothy, wispy seed heads, but it makes wonderful rustling sounds in the wind.

Calamagrostis 'Overdam'
Although I though I was getting the taller 'Karl Foerster' when I bought this (reminder, don't just grab things at the nursery thinking you know what they are...check the label!). I actually think now that this shorter variety is more in scale with its location. It's one of my favorite grasses in the garden right now for its winter interest. It keeps its strictly upright habit all winter long, and it's lovely seed heads are stunning when backlit.

Muhlenbergia capillaris and Aster 'Purple Prince'
Even after the lovely pink color of the Muhly Grass has faded to a blondish-buff color, it remains lovely, due to it's light, effervescent quality. It catches even the slightest bit of here in the early morning (the only sun this part of the garden gets in winter). Seen here with the blackened stems of Aster 'Purple Prince'. I actually really love plants whose frames turn black in the winter, they look so striking and graphic against softer forms and colors. Muhly grass also has the distinction of being the only grass in my garden that is evergreen.

Eupatorium 'Gateway'
Here is the big brother to 'Chocolate' Joe Pye. Even in death, Joe Pye is an imposing specimen. It's strong, rigid stems will remain standing all winter. They are a dark, brown-black and stand out strongly and graphicly. Their seedheads are now light and skeletal, imparting such a different look compared to other times during the year.

Eupatorium 'Gateway'
Here are the stems and leaves, I think even the curving, drying leaves are beautiful. I love their sinuous, almost seductive, shape and the way light plays off all the ridges and folds.

Pennisetum grass in winter
Pennisetum 'Moudry'
This grass is somewhat differen from my other Pennisetum in that it's bottle-brush seed heads don't last through the winter. They shatter early in winter, yet their foliage remains. I love it's fountain-like form and how it's once broad blades are reduced to mere whiskers, a diaphenous curtain.

Monarda 'Jacob Cline'Seed Head
The papery, rounded seed heads of Monarda are lovely in winter. Unfortunately, due to a large Powdery Mildew outbreak this summer, I cut most of my Monarda to the ground and disposed of all the cuttings. 'Jacob Cline', however, was one Monarda not affected, so he remains, lone sentinel along the foundation.

Monarda 'Jacob Cline' foliage
You have to love Monarda, if for nothing else, then for their sheer tenacity. Most of them maintain a small amount of basal foliage all winter long, just biding their time until spring. Here, one stem from last year still clings to life, refusing to give in. I love how the foliage turns all different shades of red, pink, purple.

Here are a few other interesting seed heads from the garden:

Helenium 'Mardi Gras'

Echinops bannaticus


  1. Mine is much like yours right now -- gray, wet, uncomforting patches of bare dirt. It's hard to see any beauty in it.

  2. These are really good pictures - the helenium is my favourite - and the colour behind the carex.

  3. All I can think of right now is leaving for Mexico, but when the sun is out, even if it's 0° F, the garden in snow is still beautiful. You have many beautiful seed heads and plants of interest.

  4. No picture could make my garden "winter interest" look good. Soggy and flat from the snow and rain. The grasses really do seem to hold their interest though.

  5. I have read design advice and see your beautiful examples, but it is therapeutic for me to get all the grasses and spent flowers cut back and to get the garden cleaned up for spring. My therapy started yesterday.

  6. I like the grasses through the winter. I was going to buy some Karl Forester in the fall, but none was available locally, I may look into the Overdam variety. I like that it isn't as tall.
    I had Moudry in Virginia and finally got rid of it (I hope) it reseeded all over and really escaped its own garden.

  7. It's all in perspective, isn't it? With the sun behind the dried seed heads and grasses they're absolutely stunning! We're so accustomed to associating color with beauty in the garden that we have to look at the browns and grays of winter with a different perspective, forgetting about color. They're beautiful to me in a physical way - shape and structure - but also because I can almost see that promise of the summer beauty that will return.

  8. Alison: I feel your pain…hey, at least we can all commiserate, right!

    A Year: Thanks! That coloring behind the Carex is actuality the neighbor's car!

    Violet Farm: I can't blame you…and yes, we will take beauty in whatever form we can find it!

    Catherine: Exactly…and that's why I didn't show ANY wide shots…I really should though, for full disclosure :-)

    Les: Hahahaha…I have a feeling my therapy is coming…probably in February ;-)

    Janet: I've heard that about 'Moudry', I will definitely have to keep an eye out for seedlings.

    Ginny: Definitely, I think we just have to work harder to see it during the winter and keep our minds open to a different kind of beauty. And yes, I think it's the memory of what the plants were and the anticipation of what they will become that really holds gardeners interest :-)

  9. Must leave everything for the wildlife. I have SO MANY BIRDS this winter in my garden. Incredible. Fewer rabbits though, might have something to do with a thousand feet of chicken wire I dug in. Plants must stay up for winter because they're beautiful. March is cutting time.

  10. Snow definitely makes the seedheads look more interesting, but the absence of snow allows for those neat plants that have colored foliage (including green) to show. I haven't seen my Monarda in a while, so it's good to see that yours is trying to put on a show still. No snow also means your grasses haven't gotten flattened.

  11. I was just thinking that my garden has no winter interest but I found your pictures very interesting and beautiful. (Looking out the window..) Yep, my garden looks the same. I guess I don't need different plants, just a different perspective! Thanks!

  12. J'aime beaucoup ces photos! Les jardins en hiver ont aussi leur charme...

  13. Benjamin: That is really, truly, the BEST reason to leave everything are so right. Sadly, all my plants remain unmolested by birds...thanks to the pack of ravenous housecats that roam our yard like an urban serengeti.

    Mr. McGregor's Dauther: Very true...and it is quite exciting to see all the new growth starting...I keep thinking January is way too early for everything to be emerging....we'll see ;-)

    TS: I think that's the crux of the matter, the beauty is there, sometimes we just have to look a little harder than we are used to :-)

    Le Jardin du Clos: Merci beaucoup!

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