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University of Illinois Extension

The winter garden

November 7, 2012

Freezing temperatures and snow are not good reasons to stay cooped up indoors this winter, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Winter is a wonderful time to explore plants outside," said Rhonda Ferree. "Without their camouflage of summer leaves, the starkness of trees and shrubs during the winter season is most revealing."

Ferree suggested some things to look for this winter.

"Look for plant silhouettes," she said. "Each plant displays a branching silhouette that is characteristic of that particular species. Branching patterns range from strongly upright and horizontal to weeping and cascading. The bare silhouette of a big old tree looks magnificent against the wintry sky."

Notice the differences between oak, maple, and redbud. "Oaks, which are majestic in size and striking in texture, are sometimes called the kings of the forest," Ferree said. "They soar well above the maples and smaller redbuds."

Winter is also a good time to see different colors, she added. The evergreens each come in a specific shade of green, ranging from gray to blue to yellow and all shades in between. It is amazing how many different greens are created in nature.

Textures and patterns come alive in winter as well. Ferree finds tree bark particularly interesting.

"Tree bark is often more striking during winter," she said. "Bark patterns are unique to each tree species and are often used in winter identification. The greenish gray of an elm is quite different from a black, dark linden."

Take a closer look at plant buds, seeds, seed capsules, and fruit. Some trees have very unusual buds. For example, flowering dogwood buds are usually at the ends of stems and shaped like flattened biscuits.

Notice berries and fruits. Bright red berries come alive when they are no longer hidden by leaves. Even brown fruits such as the Alder's small winged nutlets are beautiful as they persist through the winter.

In addition to the trees and shrubs, Ferree particularly likes the look of perennials and ornamental grasses in winter. These plants have a whole new look in winter, adding another dimension to the winter garden. "A bird swaying on top of a dried perennial plant in winter is an amazing sight," she said.

"Some mornings, every twig and shrub will be outlined in icy transparency," she said. "Snow and ice somehow enhance the beauty of plants and seem to show every feature of evergreens. Too much of this can harm the plants, but a little ice can be pretty."

In conclusion, Ferree encourages readers to take a few minutes to really look at the plants in the landscape this winter. "While outside, enjoy the wildlife too," she said. "Take your camera. You'll be surprised by what you find."

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