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Structural Plants for Enduring Winter Interest in the Mid-Atlantic

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Gardeners in the mid-Atlantic don’t need to have empty gardens in winter. With a little thoughtful design and the right plants, you can have a garden full of structure and winter interest that everyone will want to look at through the window on the coldest days. The combination of texture and shape creates the best structure in a winter garden. The following are some great structural plants that can be used in combination with others to make a solid winter composition in any garden.

The Japanese crepe myrtle ‘Townhouse’ has a beautiful, cinnamon-colored rind and grows in a shockingly upright shape. Photo: Michele Christiano

“Townhouse” Japanese crepe myrtle

Lagerstroemia subcostata var. Fauriei ‘Townhouse’, zones 6-10

This crepe myrtle has great properties for year-round interest. It has beautifully upright trunks and branches and cinnamon-colored bark that looks showy in winter. And yet one cannot forget its fragrant white flowers in late summer to early autumn and its yellow autumn leaves. ‘Townhouse’ is best in full sun. Unlike common crepe myrtle (L. indica, zones 6–9), which can grow up to 25 feet, ‘Townhouse’ stays about 15 feet tall.

PaperbushPaperbush is a favorite for its bronze bark, which contrasts well with its creamy white flowers. Here a bed of white pine needles from a nearby tree (Pinus strobus, zones 3–8) covers the ground the same color as the bark of paperbush. Photo: Michele Christiano

Paperbush

Edgeworthia chrysantha, zones 7-10

This plant can be harder in the southern areas of the mid-Atlantic. With an umbrella-like shape, the branches of the paper shrub begin to bloom in January and February and can last until April. The striking, silver flowers have a wonderful scent. The robust form of the shrub is strongly represented in the garden during the barren winter months. It looks great with an evergreen underplant. It is better planted in a sheltered space or nestled next to a wall or hill. Native to the Himalayan forests, it is best suited to rich soils with shelter from the afternoon sun. Be sure to remove the suction cups from the base of the plant for a more open shape.

Dwarf sweet boxThe striking evergreen foliage of the dwarf sweet box reflects light into the branches of the paper bush growing above it. Photo: Michele Christiano

Dwarf cute box

Sarcococca hookeriana var. Humilis, zones 6-8

Sweet Box may seem old-fashioned to some, but for good reasons. Although it looks tender, it is a sturdy, versatile plant with perennial interest. This shrub has a long list of positive properties: it is evergreen, drought-resistant, deer-resistant, and has fragrant winter flowers. Dwarf Sweet Box offers great contrasting texture when planted with a shrub like Paperbush, and it works great in the mid-Atlantic area.

Karl Foerster feather reed grass‘Karl Foerster’ takes on an orange hue in the middle of winter without hanging and losing its structure. Photo: Michele Christiano

Feather reed ‘Karl Foerster’

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, zones 4–9

This grass should be a staple in any mid-Atlantic garden. The shape and structure of ‘Karl Foerster’ can matter if the grass is mass-planted or used in accents in the back of the border. It’s tall and slim, 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and can be easily stowed anywhere. You also can’t beat the versatility of this plant, as it can tolerate moist to dry conditions, as well as sun to partial shade. As a bonus, it can be tricky for zone 4 so maybe try a winter container.

Adam's needleAdam’s needle retains its color exceptionally well into the winter months; Shocking turquoise and light green tones dazzle in the bright winter light. Photo: Michele Christiano

Adam’s needle

Yucca filamentosa, zones 5–10

Who could forget that southern native for the winter garden? Adam’s needle fits well in our mid-Atlantic gardens and forms a structural element with its unique sword-like leaves. While it is native to sandy areas from South Carolina to Florida, it can tolerate most soils but is best for dry, rocky ones. This shrub – yes, many yuccas that look like perennials are technically shrubs – is resistant to drought, deer, soil erosion, and air pollution. The prickly blue-green green is particularly noticeable in winter. It is a wonderful structural addition to conservatories.

For more great recommendations for adding winter interest to your garden, see the articles below.

– Michelle Christiano has worked in public gardens for most of her career. She currently works as a gardener in Piet Oudolf’s private garden.

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