Winter Interest, My Ass

Current events are not doing much to put me in a holiday mood, and the garden isn’t really helping. That’s because this year the whole “winter interest”  thing has been a big dud.


In theory, there should be lots of plants in my garden providing winter interest, especially some of the tall grasses and perennials. But winter interest is only achieved under certain conditions. In particular, snow should be light and powdery – the kind of snow my kids used to refer to as “angel dandruff”.

Instead, the snow this year has been wet and heavy. It looks like someone dumped a truckload of half-melted Italian ice all over the garden. The result: almost everything has flopped over.

The photo above is just about all you can see of one of my big clumps of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Looks like a cave that could be used by some little critter, which may or may not be a good thing.


Here’s some New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) also flopping over under the weight of the Italian ice.


This is the only little bit of Switchgrass seedhead not covered up by the snow.


The Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is at least making an effort.


For the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila), this seemed like a good time to drop a gigantic branch onto the back garden. I haven’t had time to cut it up just yet. The branch almost knocked over one of my bird feeding poles, making it a sort of Leaning Tower of Bird Food. I’ll have to wait for a thaw before straightening it. Luckily nothing was seriously damaged.


I’ve made this complaint before, but the Cranberrybush Viburnum (V. trilobum) was supposed to have lots of persistent red fruit to brighten winter days. That’s one reason why I planted five of these large shrubs.

‘Golden Raindrops’ Crabapple

Unfortunately, no one told the squirrels that the fruit was supposed to be unpalatable until late winter. The last Viburnum berry was eaten weeks ago.

The only ornamental winter fruit right now is on the ‘Golden Raindrops’ Crabapple (above) and the hips on the shrub rose ‘Cassie’. I do feel good about planting ‘Golden Raindrops’ a couple years back, and I expect its performance to improve as it gets bigger.

So what, if anything, is providing winter interest in your garden right now?

64 Comments on “Winter Interest, My Ass

  1. The only thing adding winter interest around here is the snow. And a dwarf blue spruce, which has Christmas lights but they’re hard to see now because of all the snow. You guys must have had warmer temps than us? Our most recent snow was especially light and powdery! It created several 4 ft drifts across the walkway 🙂

    • So the last bit of snow was pretty powdery, but first we were hit with some really wet stuff. Seems like it will all melt next week, but my plants will not spring back to attention.

  2. Your title made me laugh – which I sorely needed after seeing the outcome of the electoral vote.

    In my yard the dogwood bush stems are now a vibrant red which always draws the eye. The sea oats are covered with a dusting of snow – same as the coneflowers. There was a light icing yesterday so the autumn clematis is sparkling in the garage lights (I just got home & it’s dark out). All of that helps.

    • I should really plant some red osier dogwood – that would help with this time of year. I have sea oats, but they have mostly collapsed under the snow.

  3. Thank you for the title because I enjoyed the laugh immensely. 🙂 I have nada of interest here in my garden unless you count arbors with no plants. We have so much snow that I just hack almost everything down because it never works. We’ve got branches down too because of the wind but you get the prize for the biggest one. We had three snowstorms, one day of ice, and one day of -15 actual degrees. Winter is here for sure. 🙂

  4. I’m too cowardly to go outside and look! My take on this beautiful wonderland — snow weighing down the bare branches of trees, snow covering every shrub, snow carpeting the ground — is this: it’s more beautiful when admired from someplace warm and toasty indoors. Only venture out if you must.

  5. When we lived in Massachusetts I always laughed my ass off over the concept of winter interest. We spent four months under four feet of heavy wet snow like you’ve pictured here. In those conditions plants providing winter interest in the garden is impossible. I understand the concept now. The idea of an outdoor kitchen is rather ridiculous too, IMO, unless you live in southern California.

  6. You do give us plant recommendations, regardless of the weather conditions, for which I, for one, am grateful.
    Our neighborhood association planted a butterfly/pollinator garden last year in the local park. (Monarch Watch certified). However, this came with an agreement with the board to cut everything to ground level at the end of the year, plus sinking the plant markers. This is in case we get sufficient snow cover to permit the local children to sled down the adjoining hill and not hinder their glide path. Mission accomplished!

  7. I’m laughing here! Sorry about the lack of winter interest, seriously, I just wish a shedload of snow would land here, the mess that is my garden would be covered, pristine and beautiful. Send some of the white stuff over here immediately!xxx

  8. Paul & I had a laugh at your post but we sympathise with your winter problems ..dreadful, especially the tree branch falling.. .. and the snow… Good luck!

  9. I hope you feel better now that you got that off your chest. You got some lovely photos out of it, by the way.

  10. Even here in balmy Austin, we’ve seen temperatures in the mid-twenties, but nothing like feet and feet of snow. There are plenty of crispy and soggy plant critters and in the garden now. I love your title!

  11. This morning everything was glistening, covered in ice crystals, sparkling in the sun – and me freezing my ass in the cold. I still have berries on the cranberry viburnum. Had some birds out there this weekend getting a taste.

    • Well, I’m in California now, so that helps. And based on the weather forecast, the snow may all be melted next week. But there’s still 2+ months of winter to go.

  12. You had me laughing out loud as I read, which was only unfortunate because my husband was trying to sleep. Indeed….wet snow is a flatterer of all things good.

  13. not much winter interest here, either. Even though it hasn’t snowed yet. We’ll have a foggy, rainy Christmas in Berlin, it seems.

      • I used to spent quite a few Christmasses in LA, way back when. Was always weird to be in such a climate, coming from an alpine region. But still great. So try and enjoy it. And if you need snow, try Mammoth mountains nearby. I remember great skiing there…..

      • Spoken like a true Austrian! Sadly when I am on skis I am a danger to myself and others. I won’t be sad if I don’t see any snow until I return to Chicago. Happy Christmas to you!

  14. I sympathise, and your post was almost consolation to me. I have very little that survives the damp and cold and cut much down beforehand. But the fennel is still standing and the dwarf Miscanthus still looks nice. We haven’t had any snow yet though! Just fog and frost. I think your snow should just stick around until spring now, to hide the squashed plants! Hope you can start feeling festive this week Jason!

    • If the snow would keep a consistent layer of insulation around the plants, that would be great. It rarely happens – we have lots of freeze-thaw through the winter.

  15. Seedheads rimed with hoarfrost is something that hsppens once every 5 years here so December in the garden is always dreary. At least the snow makes everything sparkly in your garden. I avert my eyes and ignore it all until January.

  16. I don’t think anything but evergreens would give you any interest. Maybe a statue to collect snow would fall down. Here we haven’t had any snow accumulation so the the left over flowers, grasses are upright. Evergreens are shining bright in the brown landscape. Hellebores are standing up to the cold so far. Our Cranberry Viburnum berries don’t make it into fall. They are pretty when they are there. Hawthorn is good for berries but the Robins eat them by late fall.

  17. Sigh. Exactly the same situation at the little house in the big woods.

    • Well, then we are fellow sufferers. Laurie, I think your website is still putting my comments in your spam folder. I don’t know why wordpress is so suspicious of me.

  18. I have a few stray, lonely-looking winterberries left on the bush. Other than that, nada. Let’s face it, in the north, snow IS the winter interest.

  19. I think that anything that is above the snow has interest. If you’ve ever looked out over a snow covered lake or pasture you’ve seen nothing of interest, and I see that a lot.
    In the garden I think seed heads of things like coneflowers, black eyed Susans and many others are interesting.

  20. I found your pictures quite interesting, actually. How come the squirrels are not eating those crabapples? I am finding the birds and the squirrels to be of interest here though we didn’t get that much snow like you guys in Chicago.

  21. The snow made parts of our backyard beautiful–by covering up the parts I neglected during the fall. Guess you could title this post “Winter Snow, My Asset.”

  22. Well, you’re FAR ahead of me in this department. I aspire to “winter interest” but that’s about it. I have frozen dog droppings. Love your title. ~Grin~

  23. Well, the switchgrasses are still standing tall here. They do provide some winter interest for sure. In fact, for whatever reason (no autumn rains?) they’re much more upright this year than in years past.

    Until recently, the camellia sasanqua was blooming, which gave great winter interest, but a couple of nights in the high teens seem to have put a stop to that.

    Other plants providing winter interest include false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’), oakleaf hydrangea (deciduous, but some leaves usually hang on late into winter), wax myrtle, various native junipers, Biokovo geranium, etc.

    I don’t have any Monarda here at the moment (though I plan to add some M. fistulosa next year), but I do think the stems and spiky seedheads of the purple coneflower add nice interest and provide some seeds for the birds.

    If you’re looking for bright berries that hang on late into winter, how about Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry –

    It’s apparently hardy to zone 4 and a North American native.

    Although if you’re looking for a chokeberry that would be native to Illinois, you’d need to go for black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) or purple chokeberry (Aronia prunifolia) –

    Personally, I’ve found the red chokeberry grows *much* better in Tennessee, although that’s not too surprising given that it’s able to grow naturally from Florida to Maine.

    By contrast, the black and purple chokeberries are much more common in northern parts of the U.S., although the black chokeberry’s natural range does extend down into the Appalachians.

    Ilex verticillata (another Illinois native) would probably also give good winter interest in your neck of the woods –,

  24. Hello Jason, we don’t get heavy snowfalls like you do, in fact, we rarely get snow so “winter interest” makes more sense as the faded plants stand up better, if they’re not being battered down by storm after storm sweeping in from the west. I’ve noticed this year that our garden remains remarkably green over winter due to the combination of pines, the large rhododendron hedge, Camellias and other evergreen plants we’ve planted.

  25. enjoyed reading that thanks
    I don’t do much in the garden over winter just a tidy up really Ill be pushing my production a little earlier and later with the use of low tunnels this year tho atb

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