By Marty Ross
Plants have to be resilient to survive snow, ice, and bitter-cold temperatures through a long Midwestern winter. Good choices of hardy plants and smart design keep your garden beautiful, even when the weather outside is frightful.
Every garden should include evergreen plants. Evergreens are the stalwarts of the winter garden, enlivening the landscape and giving flowerbeds definition long after you rake up the glowing autumn leaves. Evergreens cast elegant shadows — even by moonlight — when the first snow falls. But the garden show is not over. Evergreens also are important habitat plants for birds, providing shelter when cold winter winds blow.
Pines, firs, and cedars have majestic presence in Midwestern gardens, especially with a bit of snow on them. Boxwoods planted along a front walk mark the way to the door for visitors and keep the garden looking lively during winter. Snow may seem like a tough pill for plants to swallow, but it insulates their roots from hard freezes. When the snow melts, plants can take up the extra moisture in the soil, and this is particularly important for evergreens.
Summer flowers have a place in the winter garden too. Leave sturdy seed heads standing instead of cutting them off as the flowers fade. Coneflowers’ bristling seed heads, on stems more than 2 feet tall, cast wonderful shadows in the winter garden and look terrific with little caps of snow. Goldfinches and chickadees always find these seed heads, and pick out every little piece of food.
Tall ornamental grasses also invigorate the winter landscape. The blades of grasses catch the low light, and their inflorescences are showy. Leave grasses standing until early spring, when you can cut them back almost to the ground.
Don’t forget plants with berries: Bright-red holly berries seem to glow in the winter light, especially against their shiny, deep-green foliage. The bare twigs of deciduous hollies bear berries, and the display is striking. Many viburnums also produce showy berries (American cranberry bush viburnum is a good choice) that stand out through the depth of winter. Plant them near a window so you can enjoy looking at the colorful berries — and the birds that feast on them.
Despite snow and cold, most witch hazels bloom in midwinter. Their ribbonlike flowers unfurl on bright days, and curl up again when the temperature drops at night. Although the individual flowers are tiny, the plants put on quite a show when blooms cover the branches, which last for weeks. Plant witch hazels where you can appreciate their flowers up close, as you come and go.
Winter gardens can also be filled with whimsy. After a snowstorm, round up the kids and make a big snow-person in the garden, dressed with a jaunty hat and scarf. Or make ice sculptures by filling plastic tubs and bowls with water tinted with food coloring. Leave the vessels out to freeze overnight; in the morning remove the ice shapes by dipping the plastic containers briefly in a sink of hot water. Then let the shapes freeze together into totem poles in the front yard.