Adding Winter Interest to the Landscape Without Using Traditional Evergreens

When customers come to me, as a landscape designer, and are looking to add some color in the winter, they usually start with traditional evergreens. Pine trees, boxwood, holly shrubs, and rhododendrons are some of the more common suggestions I receive and all are great for adding some color during the winter months. Winter  is when the large evergreen trees and shrubs usually shine. This winter, however, we haven’t had much snow cover and on the dull gray winter days, without any pretty white snow, even large pine trees look unspectacular.

I think many people have just become accustomed to thinking that sometimes it’s just not pretty out. Sometimes the trees have no leaves and things look gray. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of ways to add color to the landscape without having to plant evergreens everywhere.

Below is a picture of a college courtyard we worked on this year. Look how the grass brightens up the place. The soft, graceful, yellow mounds of leaves from these Hakonechloa really change the look of the landscape.Hakonechloa in the winter.

Grasses are a favorite of mine for winter interest and their use has steadily grown over the years with many new varieties being introduced in recent years.  Some of the larger varieties such as Miscanthus Sinensis ‘Strictus’, or Porcupine Grass, can reach 8 feet tall and  will remain mostly upright throughout the winter and can be used to hide things or as a windbreak. Other varieties, such as the Carex family of grasses, are evergreen and can add a touch of green, yellow, blue, or cream. For a truly unique touch, Black Mondo Grass is a short grass that, as its name suggests, has black leaves that hold through the winter here in southern Michigan.

Ground cover and ivy can add a lot of winter interest if you choose the right ones. Liriope is a ground cover we use a lot at Miller Landscape.  Also referred to as Lily Turf, Liriope has grass-like evergreen leaves and is extremely hardy. Variegated versions are available and can provide a lighter touch and additional contrast. Here is some lily turf along a flagstone walkway.

Liriope along flagstone path.


Other ground cover species we use that can add a punch of color in the winter include myrtle (or Vinca), Euonymus, English Ivy, Pachysandra, and Ajuga.

Perennials, although thought of as plants that die back and regrow each year can offer something interesting to look at and some are actually evergreens. A few of my favorites include Heuchera varieties commonly known as coral bells and the similar foam flower. Just look at this Sweet Tea Foam Flower. Next to Coral Bell varieties, I would say that Lenten Rose is the most interesting perennial. It does not have the same foliage color variety but it will go into bloom as early as February and the sight of flowers in the dog days of winter can brighten even the cloudiest of days. A relative newcomer, and one of my favorite new perennials that will be added to my landscape this year, is Fragaria X ‘Lipstick’. Fragaria plants are strawberry plants. These little perennials have pink blossoms throughout the year, bear sweet edible fruit, and are evergreen. They just about do it all. There aren’t many landscape grade Fragaria species but the Lipstick variety is slowly gaining popularity along with other edibles. Another choice for winter interest is Dianthus. A great sun perennial that holds its foliage throughout the winter and can put on an impressive flower display during the summer. It’s a small perennial but the added green and silvery foliage can make a difference in an otherwise brown area.

Shrubs offer more options for winter interest than any other plant grouping. Many hydrangea varieties, for example, will hold onto there blooms that have faded to a light golden brown. The blooms can look really nice, especially with an evergreen, house, or other backdrop.

There are several species of Viburnum, such as Alleghany Viburnum, that hold onto most of there leaves in the winter. Getting as much as 15 feet tall, they can make an ideal winter screen when a larger tree or hedge row just won’t do.

Many of you may be familiar with Red Twig Dogwood, which has been used for many years to add a splash of red color during the winter. When planted in groups it can make quite a statement. There are some newer varieties available now, my favorite being the Arctic Sun Red Twig Dogwood which actually has yellow branches tipped in red. It provides a dramatic splash of color when planted in large groupings.

Berries from barberry or deciduous Holly shrubs can add a dash of color. New varieties of Holly, such as Berry Nice Winterberry Holly, have such a profusion of berries that they are used for holiday decor. The berries can last for months depending on the weather. Even the cuttings can last for over a month indoors.

Another favorite of mine for a woodland edge or in some shade gardens is Japanese Kerria. It can get out of control and sends out running shoots sometimes, but it looks really interesting when everything else has faded. Kerria is a 6-10 foot shrub that branches from the ground, like a grass would, and the leaves attach directly to these shoot branches. The interesting part is that the branches are green and, although the leaves fall of, they remain green throughout the year. They can grow quite thick, so much so that you can’t see through them. They yellow flowers are a nice touch in the summer time too.

When it comes to trees there are several unique ways to add some color and interest. Early blooming Eastern Redbud is always a favorite towards spring, multi-stemmed Amalanchier  and weeping Beech trees can offer smooth bark and interesting forms, and birch or paperbark maples show off their exfoliating bark.

One overlooked tree for winter interest is Linden, or Basswood. I drove by a row of Greenspire Linden trees recently and in the winter they will take on a subtle reddish-orange hue that gets more colorful as you move out to the tips of the branches. It’s more subtle than others on this list and I think that’s why I like it.

Well, I hope you found this article interesting and that you take the time to check out some of the plants I mentioned here. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions. Use the comments below or visit our website: and fill out the ‘Contact Us’ form. And, as always, please share this with others.

About the Author:

David McClure is a designer on staff at Miller Landscape Inc. He started very young and has been in the landscape industry for over 17 years. He specializes in aspects of softscape design including plantings and aggregates.


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