Winter Bones

Weeping katsura, hemlock and grasses in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Weeping katsura, hemlock and grasses provide a variety of forms and colors (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For those of us enduring long periods of dormancy in our seasonal landscapes, winter bones help to keep our outdoor environments lively and inviting.  Structures popping out of the snow and forms drizzled in frost create artistic objects that we may gaze upon and enjoy during the coldest days.  For no matter the season, and even without the benefit of green adornments, our gardens can be incredibly beautiful and interesting with the simple addition of living framework.  Andrew Wyeth said it best: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape-something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” 

River Birch blends nicely in the winter landscape in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

River Birch brightens the winter landscape (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Indeed, the exposed trees and shrubs of the winter landscape appear as skeletons, yet they need not be scary; instead offering an aura of mystery, while alluding to the future promise of spring.  As gardeners and  caretakers of our plots, we can take advantage of the opportunity during these quiet months; to re-evaluate our designs and consider areas that may be enhanced with the addition of either a deciduous or evergreen planting.  It is when our landscape is in its most serene state that we may truly view the potential for improvement; the optimal blank palette so to speak.

Weeping larch with mixed evergreens in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Weeping larch with mixed evergreens (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

And creating a timeless landscape isn’t as daunting as it might seem; once you determine the sun exposure and zone hardiness for your garden, and then choose features you want to incorporate into your design (interesting bark, unusual trunk form, evergreen foliage color, to name a few). You will be pleasantly surprised to discover the many options available to you.  Here are a few of my favorite winter forms to help you on your way:


Dawn Redwood's mahogany bark stands out against the snowy background in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Dawn Redwood’s mahogany bark stands out against a snowy background (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides): Considered a living fossil, metasequoia was once one of the most widespread tree species in the Northern hemisphere.  What I love about Metasequoia glyptostroboides is its unusual, rippled mahogany trunk and peeling bark, especially attractive in winter.  Its upright form and unusual branching habit provides a comfortable perch for birds, and the soft deciduous needles turn gold in the fall before dropping.  As it matures, the roots come up from the ground like prehistoric serpents swimming around the base. It is hard to find a good specimen, so take the time to find one with a conical, well branched form and you will be amply rewarded for your efforts.  Dawn Redwood will easily grow 30 feet or more in your lifetime, eventually reaching over 100 feet tall by 20 feet wide in sunny zones 5-8.


River birch's ornate peeling bark in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

River birch’s ornate peeling bark (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

River Birch (Betula nigra): Is a recent introduction to my garden, one that I’ve quickly fallen in love with.  While other star struck lovers are dreaming of their beloved, (or perhaps a box of chocolates), I’m besotted with a tree!  But not just any tree can sweep me off my feet, enchanting me with its ravishing exterior . . .  Betula nigra, an Eastern U.S. native in zones 4-9,  subtly compliments any landscape from spring through fall with its delicate, fluttering foliage, while absolutely igniting the winter scene with captivating ornamental scrolls of bronze, gently peeling away from its ivory trunk (this display is particularly dramatic on trees with multiple trunks).  Preferring moist soil, but tolerant of dryer conditions (even drought-once established), river birch is another fast grower, tripling its size in three years, with the potential of reaching 70 feet tall by 40 feet wide.


Frosty buds of Magnolia Stellata in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Frosty buds of Magnolia Stellata (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata): One of the first trees introduced to our landscape, stellata was discovered in its dormant state while wedged between other trees at a local nursery.  I was immediately intrigued by the wrinkled grey trunk, reminiscent of an elephant’s skin, and limbs glowing with almost walnut sized frosty grey buds. It has a rounded, open form, but remains a bit more petite for smaller gardens, topping out around 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide.  Hardy to zones 4-8, it prefers some moisture in the soil and should be mulched or watered during long drought periods.  In addition to the smoky winter interest, this lady also produces one of the most dramatic (and fragrant) flower displays you could experience in a zone 5 April garden, followed by lush tropical green leaves through summer.


Red & yellow twig dogwood stems dazzle in the winter garden in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Red & yellow twig dogwood stems dazzle in the winter garden (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea): With stems of the brightest cardinal red to the boldest canary yellow, twig dogwoods have become one of the most popular shrubs for adding winter color to the landscape.  Twig dogwoods tolerate a variety of conditions, making them extremely versatile for garden plantings. Although they love moister soils and lots of sun, they will accept dry spells and partial shade, growing to 8 feet tall and wide (pruning recommended) in zones 3-8. During the spring and summer months these gems fill out with lush green or variegated leaves (cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’), in a dense shrub form that melds nicely with any landscape style.  In addition to the dazzling winter display, a majority of cornus cultivars also produce white flowers in summer, followed in fall by blue or white berries that are quickly gobbled up by our feathered friends.

So, start collecting pictures of shrubs and trees in the plant catalogs coming to you (*and check out some of the trees and shrubs I’ve written about in prior posts, too).  Now is the perfect time to reassess your surroundings and think about a tree or shrub that will amplify your existing view.  Choose one (or more!) whose form will not only re-ignite your appreciation for the landscape during all seasons, but will leave you feeling more and more thrilled as it matures with each passing year.


  1. I live in Portland, Oregon (zone 8b – although we may be rezoned to 8a with the colder winters we’ve been having!) and I made sure that the deciduous trees I included in my landscape plan in 2013 had interesting bark. In my residential backyard, I have a paperbark maple, stewartia (pseudocamellia), fernleaf maple (whose wonky new branches are a burgundy red), lion’s head maple (rich green bark), and a striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). My most colorful shrub is a red osier dogwood, but the ninebarks and mock orange add structure to the as well. I love many of the trees you mention in this article, but they’re too large for my space. But I am very content with my medium-sized trees!

    • Hi Colleen, Your garden sounds delightful! And I think we’re on the same page; collecting trees with interesting bark! I, too, have a gorgeous Stewartia pseudocamellia (see my blog post: Barking Up the Right Tree) that I adore for its 3 season interest: flowers, fall color and bark, and recently added an Acer griseum (paperbark) after I lost one of my magnolias to a fire. Reading about your wonderful maples reminds me of the two specimen dwarf cut leaf maples that were also lost in the fire. Some trees are so special and unique, they can never be replaced. Size does matter and shrubs and small trees work wonderfully in a smaller yard, including the mock orange with its intoxicating fragrance and the ninebark with its colorful foliage and bark. If you visit my homepage and go to the Blog category, scroll down to Shrubs, you’ll find dozens of other shrubs that might work in your garden as well. Thanks so much for writing, I always love to hear from my readers!

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