As the temperatures cool and daylight hours shorten, the beautiful blooms of fall plants fade. While late autumn and winter induce dormancy in many plants, your garden can still shine brightly with a bit of planning—and the proper perennials that add color, texture, and interest throughout the dreary days of winter. Rather than focus on flowers, though, think foliage first for a gorgeous winter garden!
Choose Perennials with Great Foliage
Depending on where you garden, many plants maintain colorful, attractive foliage throughout fall and winter. If you live in temperate climates, you’ll find plenty of options for winter interest. However, even in colder areas, many perennials perform beautifully, gracing your garden with colorful leaves, texture, and forms throughout the chilliest days.
Fall offers a perfect time to plant perennials—but don’t wait too late. Ideally, your plants should be in their beds six weeks prior to the ground freezing. The plants need time to settle in and establish a good root system before severe cold arrives. Water newly planted perennials well to help them acclimate and avoid transplanting stress—about an inch of water per week—then add a layer of mulch to insulate the new roots as they develop.
Look for perennials that boast evergreen foliage, strong stems for winter landscape interest, or interesting seed heads that add texture to the garden. Many perennials also provide a winter food source for wildlife, like the seed heads of Echinacea ‘Mistral’, which birds adore.
Perennials with interesting, colorful foliage that last throughout winter include:
Heuchera ‘Raspberry Ice’
Although the pretty, delicate, two-toned pink flowers of ‘Raspberry Ice’ appear in late spring/early summer, the foliage provides star power in the garden all year long. A mesh of dark veins over a background of raspberry and frosty silver leaves makes these coral bells outstanding additions to partially shady gardens and containers.
If you’re looking for unique seed heads rising above evergreen foliage to add winter interest to garden beds, add Centaurea ‘Amethyst in Snow’ to your perennial selections. The gorgeous bi-color flower blooms in late spring to early summer, with silky white, tubular petals radiating from royal purple centers. The silvery, evergreen foliage forms dense masses, adding continued garden interest throughout the seasons.
With white flowers appearing from pinkish buds on dark flowering stems in late spring/early summer, the leaves of ‘Quicksilver’ provide a brilliant, brightening addition to shady spots in the garden. Pronounced silver metallic overlay between veins of bronze foliage make this plant a must-have for ongoing seasonal interest.
Anemone ‘Pretty Lady Julia’
While the gorgeous pink, 2-inch, double blooms of ‘Pretty Lady Julia’ steal the show in autumn gardens, the foliage creates a lovely, spreading groundcover as the plants grow throughout the years. The ‘Pretty Lady’ Series offers a more compact habit than other Japanese anemones, reaching just 16 inches high. Anemone foliage remains green for months in moderate climates, transitioning into fall hues late in the season. While a hard freeze in cold zones can end the foliage show, the globe-shaped seed heads add interest in garden beds throughout the winter.
Best known for its sweet scent, the evergreen foliage of Dianthus ‘Lionheart’ extends the plant’s interest well past its spring and summer bloom time, adding pretty texture to beds and borders. The stunning, single red flowers with white filigree background bloom May to July, but the foliage continues its show into winter.
Anthemis ‘Susanna Mitchell’
The pretty white, daisy-like flowers of chamomile grace the summer garden, but the fern-like silvery foliage of ‘Susanna Mitchell’ will keep beds looking lovely for many seasons. A perfect plant for adding texture to front borders and rock gardens that performs well mixed with other perennials.
Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’
For a perfect burst of late-season color in a groundcover, add ‘Bressingham Ruby’ to your garden design. Glossy green leaves appear in spring, with bold spikes of deep rose-red flowers. Already a spring beauty, the plant continues to surprise, with green foliage morphing into a gorgeous ruby-bronze in late autumn and continuing into winter.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Little Jack’
Foliage aficionados turn to Brunnera to brighten shady gardens, and the lovely leaves continue to decorate garden beds well into winter in warm climates. While ‘Little Jack’ produces pretty blue flowers in the spring, its distinctive heart-shaped, mid-green leaves with pronounced silver markings add multi-season interest to the garden. As a compact variety, ‘Little Jack’ is perfect for smaller spaces.
If you garden in a warmer climate, you’ll love the stunning blooms of Delosperma Fire Spinner®, as well as its succulent evergreen foliage that provides a gorgeous groundcover all year. Dazzling tri-colored blooms cover the plant throughout the summer, and the foliage adds terrific texture all year long. Perfect for dry or sandy spots, Fire Spinner is a good choice for use in water-wise gardens.
Eryngium ‘Big Blue’
The architectural foliage and seed heads of Eryngium ‘Big Blue’ provide an impressive show well past its peak bloom time, providing spiky foliage and unique seed heads to the winter landscape. Imagine how pretty sea holly will look when dusted with snow!
Add Supportive Plants for Winter Interest
Although fabulous foliage adds color and texture to winter gardens and containers, perennials with great forms also create interest throughout the season. Consider adding plants that look lovely under a blanket of snow or frost-kissed in the morning light. Strong, mounding plants that withstand the weight of snow create interesting shapes in the garden, while seed heads of plants like Rudbeckia ‘Viette’s Little Suzy’ look beautiful encased in ice. Before you cut back perennials during fall clean up, try leaving seed heads and foliage in your garden this winter to see how they create interest when covered in frost or snow.
Create Good Garden Bones
Winter offers a perfect opportunity to assess the “bones” of your garden—those plants and structures that give your garden definition and interest, even when there’s not a bloom in sight. Good garden bones provide the foundation for creating a welcoming, interesting landscape that thrives throughout all four seasons. Once the spring blooms begin, all gardens look gorgeous—but great gardens are the ones that still inspire excitement when stripped to the bare bones.
Consider incorporating hardscaping, like walls, fences, paths, or arbors, as well as choosing trees and shrubs with winter interest, paying attention to bark for color and texture. Select specimens with unique forms, like Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick. Some shrubs, like witch hazel, offer both great form and winter blooms, making them perfect companions to evergreen perennials.
While most gardeners dread winter days, incorporating perennials that add interest, color, and texture to your cold-season garden helps you enjoy your space as you anxiously await the first spring bloom.
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