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Winter Interest in the Garden: Why it matters and who does it serve?

For so many of us, we have been long conditioned to cleaning up the gardens in the fall to within an inch of life, quite literally. No leaves left behind, cut back all of the drying perennials. Check. Chop down dying trees and grind the stumps into dust. Check. While this method of landscape hygiene is desirable to some (not all of us!), it is absolutely devastating to our local and migrating wildlife. All of this cleanup and cleanout removes valuable habitat for nesting bees, overwintering butterflies and moths, birds and other fauna, and reduces healthy and natural food sources for migratory and winter birds. Our desire for a neat and tidy appearance is detrimental to the wildlife that depends on this habitat to survive. Beyond that, many of us do care deeply about this wildlife and often put out suet and birdseed through the winter to support these creatures. This perplexes me, to be honest, as to why we go through the trouble of removing all of the natural habitat and food sources (seeds from spent plants) only to add to our expenses by feeding them store bought seeds?

“Food” for thought…

A big theme this time of year on garden blogs is talking about “winter interest”. You might also see it in seed catalogs as “four season interest”. What they are describing are plants that tend to have physical qualities that are attractive even through the winter months. Attractive to whom, you might think? Well, that’s the real beauty of it. Winter Interest can cover a myriad of qualities, from strong, upright stems, attractive seed heads, brightly colored berries or stems, evergreen leaves, or, my personal favorite, really cool branch structure, only to be seen when all the leaves have fallen. I’ll admit, it can be a bit of a challenge to look at a garden full of brown grasses, dried plant stems, and stumpy trees and see beauty. It is much easier to do once you look past the decay and see the life that is all around. Tell me, what is prettier after a snowfall, a blank, flat landscape? Or one that is supporting life?

Birds will be coming to your garden not to hang around the hanging seed dispensers, but to balance on the spikey seed heads of Echinacea and pick at the seeds encased. The brown tufts of Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) or Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) provide cover from predators, as well as perfect nesting material. The gorgeous berries of Ilex verticillata

(Winter berry) may not last very long into the winter months, but the ones from Aronia spp do! These berries also contain high quality fats that are required by migratory birds to help on their long journeys, while other non-native berries tend to be higher in sugars and less nutritious.

If you have trees that need attention, by all means, contract a reputable arborist and have the dangerous part of the trees removed. If you are able to safely leave a standing snag, you will be providing an amazing source of habitat for so many creatures, from insects to owls. By providing this habitat, you will also be helping yourself, by the way! Increased predators mean balanced numbers of rodents and other “pests.” Besides, who doesn’t want to see an owl hanging around?

Winter Interest doesn’t necessarily mean everything is brown either. We have quite a few evergreen and semi-evergreen plants that can help break up the monotone winter landscape. Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar) makes for a gorgeous wind break when planted in groupings, and it is a standout when the silver-blue berries form on females. These berries will encourage the beautify Cedar-Wax Wing to dine in your backyard. Several of our native groundcovers are evergreen/semi-evergreen, such as Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry) and Sibbaldiopsis tridentata (Three-toothed cinquefoil). Sprinkle in some boldly colored-stem plants like Cornus sericea (Red/yellow twigged dogwood) and you have a vibrant, thriving landscape for the entire year.

What are some of your favorite winter interest plants?



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