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Don Kinzler, Published December 27 2013

Growing Together: Tips for creating a beautiful winter landscape

Landscape talk in late December in North Dakota might seem a bit odd, but we have a seasonal golden opportunity. Rather than viewing six months of landscape dormancy as a season half-empty, let’s relish it as half-full.

I realized the beauty of winter landscapes when we sold Christmas trees years ago. In mid-December, sales wound down, and I would look out our windows to the large display plantings that Mary and I had developed. I was struck by the quiet beauty of the shrubs and trees, their twigs and bark, shapes and colors against the snow. Evergreens contrasted with redtwig dogwood. The shaggy bark of river birch was exotic. Snow-covered benches and fences completed the scene, which would have been a photographer’s dream snapshot. It was serene and amazingly intriguing.

The simple beauty reminded me that we can embrace the winter landscape and enjoy its offerings. Best of all, it can be experienced looking out a window from the comfort of our home. Plus we don’t need to mow the lawn yet, and the first weeds are still months away.

Let’s accomplish two winter landscape tasks.

First, we can spend time looking out the window to appreciate existing nature while reawakening our sense of horticultural awe.

Second, we have the opportunity to do some “thought gardening” to plan improvements to our winter wonderland. When spring arrives, the last thing on my mind is our yard’s appearance in the dead of winter. So I should make notes now for spring implementation. Otherwise, I won’t remember and it won’t happen.

There are six principles for developing or improving a winter landscape:

1. It’s all about view from inside looking out.

It’s usually too brutal to stand outdoors admiring the landscape, but we can create a design enjoyed from our most-used windows.

Whether it’s looking out the kitchen window while doing dishes or enjoying a cup of coffee on Saturday morning by the patio door, focus on the yard areas that you view. These visible locations are the spots to develop for winter landscaping.

2. Winter reveals the patterns and shapes of trees and shrubs.

The mask of foliage is stripped away so we can appreciate twigs, branch habits and the fascinating structures of nature. Use combinations of upright columnar specimens and rounded shapes to create diversity and interest.

3. Pure snow is the perfect backdrop for colorful bark and twigs.

Combine evergreen trees and shrubs with deciduous types. Shrubs and ornamental trees that retain their fruit during winter are attractive.

Some plants are especially remarkable in winter. Evergreens are an obvious natural. Combine columnar arborvitae and pyramidal junipers with globe-shaped arborvitae and spreading junipers in shades of deep green and silver-blue.

At the top of the list of colorful winter shrubs is redtwig dogwood with twig colors from coral to burgundy, depending on named cultivar. Twigs of winged euonymus have showy corky ridges. The bright red fruits of American viburnum (highbush cranberry) can persist all winter.

Exquisite bark of hardy tree species is most visible now. Notable are Scotch pine (orange copper), bur oak (corky gray), and the following collection of North Dakota State University introductions: copper curls tree lilac (coppery orange peeling), prairie dream paper birch (white exfoliating), prairie vision Asian white Birch (white and black), northern tribute river birch (ivory and shaggy bronze), and northern advance sycamore (flaky gray).

4. Even the North Dakota wind can be an asset if harnessed to play wind chimes.

If the tops of ornamental grass and other perennials are allowed to remain, their winter dryness makes interesting motion and rustling when activated by wind. Further activity can be added by locating bird feeders within the landscape.

5. Garden structures, trellises, fences, and gates take a more prominent role now, as we view them without the obstruction of foliage. Vines, although bare, look great twining along supporting structures.

6. As you look out a favorite window, analyze the view and mentally create a winter picture as an artist might do when planning a painting.

Create focal points. Garden artwork, statues, benches, even patio furniture can become a winter postcard. Write down your thoughts.

Unless you really feel like rearranging materials outdoors now, these written plans will help next summer and fall as you implement your design to enjoy next winter.

Let’s consider our winter landscape from a new perspective. When driving along, or viewing our own backyard we can appreciate graceful branches, fascinating bark, subtle colors, and combinations of shapes while summer foliage isn’t obstructing the view.

Plants truly are amazing. They can even make a North Dakota winter seem bright.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.