The garden does not have to be a drab, desolate place when cold weather arrives.There a number of ornamental winter plants that have brightening effects such as colored bark or an unusual form. Shrubs such as Cornus sanguinea grow vibrantly colored branches and look striking planted against coniferous trees. Choosing plants with features such as evergreen foliage and decorative berries will add color and interest to the gloomiest winter landscape.
Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'
Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku' (Coral Bark Maple) develops intense winter color. Pale green branches turn scarlet with the onset of cold weather. Growing up to 20 feet tall with an equal spread, this is a good tree for small yards. 'Sango Kaku' is easily pruned to a more modest height of 10 to 12 feet. Soil should be well drained for maximum health and disease resistance. Hardy to -10 F, there may be minor limb die-back with colder temperatures.
Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'
Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' (Blood Twig Dogwood) is luminous in the winter garden. Golden fall color leads to flaming red and orange branches after leaf drop. This is a medium-sized shrub growing 4 to 6 feet in height. It looks best planted in groups and in borders. Cornus sanguinea is hardy and tolerant of most soils. Color only occurs on new wood, so it must be pruned every year in early spring to within a foot of the ground. Despite the drastic annual cut-back, it will regrow rapidly and put on a colorful winter show.
Ilex aquifolium (English Holly) is a medium-sized evergreen shrub that bears large crops of red berries through most of the winter. The dark green, glossy foliage makes this an attractive plant all year. Ilex aquifolium 'Variegata' has dark green leaves streaked with white and pale yellow. This cultivar is eye-catching when the winter berry crop appears. Hollies are remarkably unfussy about soil types, and will even grow and thrive in clay. Regular summer water is needed the first few years. These shrubs will survive temperatures of -30 F, but may suffer some defoliation. Regular pruning will control the eventual size, which can vary depending on the variety. Hollies are either male or female; at least one male is required for every five females to ensure pollination and berry production.
Picea abies 'Pendula'
Picea abies 'Pendula' (Weeping Norway Spruce) is a conifer with cascading pendulous branches and an unusual form. 'Pendula' is atypical in that the height and spread are controlled by training the top of the tree. If it is allowed to weep naturally, this will become a low shrub or even a ground cover. Staking the central leader to grow straight up will produce an upright tree. When the desired height is reached, remove the stake and allow the tree to grow normally. Picea abies is one of the hardiest of ornamental trees, able to survive -50 F. They do prefer well-drained soil, and need regular summer watering when young to promote root development.
Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
Corylus avellana 'Contorta' (Contorted Filbert) has oddly beautiful twisted limbs. Growing to 10 feet tall, a yearly pruning will easily control size. Limbs should be periodically thinned out so the form can be seen clearly. The contorted filbert is a specimen for the garden, and should be planted on its own for best effect. It is hardy to temperatures of -25 F, and tolerant of most soils. Grafted plants may produce suckers from the rootstock, which should be removed. The rootstock is not a contorted variety, and the straight shoots can rapidly overwhelm the rest of the shrub.