Winter Gardens in The Gateway Region

An image of seedheads in snow

In St Louis we can be outside enjoying our gardens and landscapes at any month in the year. If you add some of these plants to your list there will be a whole new season of interest in your own backyard.

By Steffie Littlefield

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener Nov/Dec 2017.]

Everyone has a different answer when asked what the winter will be like, but one thing all meteorologists agree on is that our winter weather can be warm one day and bitter cold the next. This is hard on plants and hard for those who want to create a four-season landscape. In St Louis we can be outside enjoying our gardens and landscapes at any month in the year. But what is there to see or enjoy in the garden during January or February? If you add some of these plants to your list there will be a whole new season of interest in your own backyard.

A picture of hellebores in the snow.

Hellebores hunkering down under a later winter snow.

First on this list is one of my favorites, Helleborus, hellebores or Lenten roses. Not only are these hardy perennials evergreen with large dark rich foliage but the flowers will start to emerge on any sunny winter day. Remember not to mulch this little darling too heavily since that will smother your new seedlings that will expand your planting quickly.

Next on my list is Epimedium, bishop’s hat or barrenwort. This small shade lover has delicate orchid like flowers in very early spring, charming heart-shaped leaves on wiry stems. This great plant is wonderful in a dry shade location and as the temperature drops, its leaves will turn a light tan and hang on adding to the winter landscape.

Another part-shade perennial that really looks great all winter is the groundcover Hypericum, St. John’s wort. It is low and lime green in summer and stays green most of the winter. Heuchera or coral bells also keep their leaves all winter in part shade, and many varieties have leaves that are amber, chartreuse or even purple adding a soft fluffy mounding plant shape and texture to the winter landscape and also some great color.

an image of sedges and ornamental grasses in snow.

Sedges, like this Carex ‘Blue Zinger’ and ornamental grasses like Panicum ‘Dust Devil’ give winter interest and shelter to wildlife. Photo by Robert Weaver

One of the best families of plants for looking great all winter is Carex, or sedge. These short to mid-height grasslike plants are wonderful even in the winter, with green, bluish green, gold or even white striped foliage, spiky or curly and mounding. There are so many choices. Some like it dry and others like shade. It’s amazing how great these plants look in the winter.

There are several true ornamental grasses that add interest to the landscape all winter. Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ has been used extensively even in northern climates with great success in snow and ice. Another grass that has been found to be a winter showstopper is ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue gama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’), a native ornamental grass with a completely new look. The horizontal eyelash-like flowers age to blonde seed heads by fall. They are held on the plant right through the winter to provide many months of interest. Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is s lovely fountain-like grass with upright wheat-like seed heads to produce a vertical element in the garden border.

I am a big fan of the arborescens hydrangeas like ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Invincibelle’ and the dozens of newer cultivars. The flowers in winter are charming fluffy tan balls on sturdy stems. The big flowers of the paniculata hydrangeas like ‘Lime Light’ and ‘Little Lime’ have a similar dried flower all winter. Other shrubs have interesting seed heads in the winter like crape myrtles, vitex and ‘Tiger Eye’ sumac. Then there are the shrubs with colorful and interesting stems all winter, the red and yellow twig dogwoods, itea, curly willow, ninebark and buckthorn.

Combining the above plants with the evergreen and “evercolor” plants from last month’s article will really make a spectacular winter show!

Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer and part-owner of Edg-Clif Farms & Vineyard. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College Meramec and Southeast Missouri State, and is a member of Gateway Professional Horticultural Association and past president of the Horticulture Co-op of Metropolitan St. Louis.