Richie Steffen, executive director of the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden in Seattle and a leading expert on plants, discusses the often-undervalued appeal of winter gardens:
“What many see as a dark and inhospitable season of dull dormancy, however, I view as a chillier continuation of my gardening season. There are many reliable plants that will tolerate, even look their best, during the frosty days of winter. While winter gardens may run short of blooms, especially in cold climates, there is a wonderful selection of evergreen foliage, interesting bark, and richly colored twigs that can make anyone’s winter brighter.”
To give winter even more of the love it deserves, we asked some regional experts to pick their favorite plants that peak in winter. Find fantastic plants for winter interest in the Southwest below, and discover even more plants that peak in winter in Richie’s article, Winter Interest From the Ground Up.
1. Toumey’s agave
Name: Agave toumeyana subsp. bella
Size: 4 to 6 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
Native range: Central Arizona
This is a fascinatingly beautiful dwarf agave that grows in a matlike cluster of small rosettes. The leaves are striped with prominent white edges. Native to a few small areas around Payson, Arizona, this cold-hardy subspecies has proven itself to be an excellent choice for small gardens and containers. In winter when the plant is covered with some snow, its sculptural characteristics really stand out, giving you a whole new perspective on its beautiful shapes and forms. Toumey’s agave prefers sandy, rocky, or loam soil and grows well at all elevations.
2. Western soapberry
Name: Sapindus drummondii
Size: 20 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist to well-drained soil
Native range: American Southwest and Mexico
Western soapberry has large compound leaves with excellent yellow to golden fall color. Large grapelike clusters of translucent fruits vary in color from gold to dark brown and hang on the tree into winter. Transplant it as a young tree, because its long taproots resent being grown in a pot for very long. This plant is very drought tolerant and long lived once established. Because Western soapberry tolerates most soil types, including clay, and also grows well at both low and high elevations, it’s an excellent shade tree to grow in challenging situations. Just make sure to keep dogs and kids away from the berries, which are toxic.
3. ‘Mary Potter’ crabapple
Name: Malus ‘Mary Potter’
Size: 8 to 15 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil
Native range: Hybrid
Modern ornamental crabapples are some of the best flowering trees. ‘Mary Potter’ is a top-rated weeping cultivar that perfumes the air in late spring with its large, nectar-rich white flowers. This makes it a honeybee favorite. The flowers are followed by small red fruits that hang on the tree through winter. But its weeping branches really stand out in the winter months when snow covers them, highlighting their graceful forms. Plant ‘Mary Potter’ where it has room to spread, preferably where you can view it through a window and enjoy its four seasons of ornamental interest. It tolerates most soil types, including clay, and should have afternoon shade in lower elevations.
4. Winter jasmine
Name: Jasminum nudiflorum
Size: 8 to 15 feet tall and 5 to 10 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; medium to well-drained soil
Native range: Northern China
This shrub has wonderful cascading growth and can weep over retaining walls, climb a fence with trellising, or act as a large ground cover on slopes. Deep yellow, nonfragrant flowers cover the plant in late winter or early spring. The evergreen stems give it additional winter interest. While winter jasmine tolerates low, mid, and high elevations, it should have some afternoon shade and supplemental irrigation if grown in a lower elevation. It tolerates most soil types, but not heavy clay. Otherwise, winter jasmine is a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that needs infrequent summer irrigation.
David Salman is the founder of High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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