Importance of Winter Accents In The Landscape


Little blue stem at Iowa State Capital grounds January 2015

Winter. It’s not a season that many people think of as being important in the horticulture realm. When people think of winter they think of cold, snowcover and gray skies. Not a lot of which we had lately. Anyway, I feel winter is just a season of missed opportunity and it is actually in fact a very important season! Winter in the garden can be equally as beautiful if the garden is designed in a certain way and I’m going to tell you just how you can do that by using winter interest plants.

Boxwoods at the Robert. D. Ray gardens near Downtown Des Moines

Creating a garden for winter interest starts with choosing anchors. Anchors can be anything from garden art, rocks, fountains and even the house its self, but in this post I’m going to focus on anchor plants. What are anchor plants? Anchor plants are plants that your going to be able to see in all seasons. It is basically something that is always there and will always be showing. These make up the “structure” of any landscaping. The most traditional anchors are evergreen shrubs like the ones above, however there are multiple plants that have winter interest. In my opinion there are 4 main groups which includes deciduous shrubs with interesting bark or berries,  evergreens, grasses and perennials that produce interesting seedpods. Depending on the size of the landscaping there can be one anchor such as a large evergreen shrub or there can be many and include all four groups. The most fantastic winter interest landscapes include all four and it all parts of the garden.


Grasses on State Capitol grounds January 2015

First up is Grasses. Grasses provide winter interest from its leaves and seed heads that remain through fall and winter. They add movement to a landscaping as well and can look beautiful with snowfall, especially Little Blue Stem featured above with its red stems. There are also grasses that have beautiful feathery seed heads that provide the same interests. Check to see what you like best there are multiple native and non native grasses that are great choices. Include groupings and multiples of the same plants for the best effects. These look great and complement evergreens shrubs. Perennials that add winter interest act much like grasses in that their seed pods last into fall and winter. Seedum, Iris, Goldenrods and Beebalms are a few.


Winter interest grasses for Iowa: Non native: Karl Forester Feathery seed heads: Flame Grass, Zebera Grass. Native:  Big Blue Stem, Little Blue Stem, Indian Grass, Prairie Dropseed.

Winter interest perennials for Iowa, Goldenrod, Beebalm, Seedum, Iris, Coneflower, Rudbeckia, Bearded Tongue among others.

Arborvitae "Holmstrup"

Evergreens are the most traditional ways of adding winter interest to landscapes. Although modern gardening seems to have gone away from these somewhat lately smaller evergreens are still popular and is still one of the nicest anchor plants. They also come in new blueish and golden colors. There are two types of evergreens. Evergreens that most would refer to as “pines” like Junipers, Arborvitae, Mugo Pines ect and there is evergreens that look like normal deciduous shrubs, but hold onto their leaves. Boxwoods and Rhododendrons are a couple. Both are great additions. I’ve included both types in my landscaping.


Boxwoods for Iowa: Green Velvet, Chicagoland, Winter Gem


Evergreens for Iowa, Arborvitae, Mugo Pine, Globe Blue Spruce, Birds Nest Spruce, Juniper, False cypresses, Rhododendron ect.

The final group is Deciduous shrubs. Most people picture these as just looking like “sticks” in winter, but there are actually shrubs that lose their leaves but still have winter values. This Red Dogwood is one prime example. These look ever more intensely red with snowcover. They also come in yellow! In deciduous shrubs there are also ones that have interesting bark or branch structure, have beautiful seedheads like Hydrangea or ones that produce berries like Chokeberry, crabapples and Holly. Note for holly you need male and female plants for berries. There are also shrubs that have beautiful flower buds like Magnolias. So next time you take a walk take a look at how these plants add beauty to our winter landscape and remind us how even winters in Iowa can be magnificent. Especially when they lead to our wonderful springs!


Winter Interest shrubs/small trees. Crabapple, Magnolia, Holly, Red Twig Dogwood, Yellow Twig Dogwood, Korean Lilac, among others.


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