Choosing Plants for Winter Interest

Choosing Plants for Winter Interest

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

I’ve known for a long time my garden could stand to look better in winter. Now is a good time to start planning for next year, because I can actually see what looks good in my garden right now and what does not. I walked my garden and made notes about what looks attractive to me. I think the dead parts of perennial plants that are dried and brown and left standing look nicer than empty space but some of my neighbors don’t agree. In winter as a compromise to keep peace I keep some dead stems standing but remove others that are in conspicuous places.

Since no one is going to mind more greenery, I want to add more plants to my garden that are still green at this time of year. First I walked my garden to see what plants I already have are still green and I will plan to add more of those to my garden during this coming growing season. I made diagrams showing where I would put them, since it’s easier to imagine where they will look good this time next year than in other seasons when there are lots of other things to distract the eye.

Another good way to get ideas for what plants look good right now is to make an outing to the Missouri Botanical Garden and pick out a section that has similar conditions to your own garden and see what is green. If you’re not sure exactly what your conditions are, explore a part of the garden that has some of the same plants that do well for you. If you’re interested in year-round flower possibilities, they always have a display of what is flowering now in the Visitor’s Center. Yes there are some plants that are in flower outdoors in mid-January, I saw some in the Bird Garden!

Before my recent Master Gardener class in Mid-January, I arrived at the garden early and walked the English Woodland Garden which is the most similar to my own conditions. I wrote down the names of four plants that not only look great right now but are native to Missouri or if not to Missouri at least to this continent. This is my wish list of plants I would like to acquire this year:

Winter Scouring RushEquisetum hyemale
Wood LilyTrillium luteum
Allegheny SpurgePachysandra procumbens
Christmas FernPolystichum acrostichoides

Other than trying to add more plants that stay green in winter, there are other options to improve your yard and garden in the cold season. Common recommendations are using evergreens and woody plants with interesting stems or bark to reduce reliance on herbaceous plants to hold the garden design together. You could also add to the hardscape with attractive features such as walls, fences and garden sculptures. The Japanese Garden at Missouri Botanical Garden is a good place to see examples of all these suggestions. The style of garden seen here features many beautiful flowers in season but flowers were never meant to be the focal point of the Japanese garden so the permanent plantings and structures found here create a landscape that can be enjoyed at any time. I took these photos after the recent snowfall in our area.

The Japanese Garden is not the only spot to appreciate winter plantings. These dried Hydrangea flowers left standing are a lovely color and look nice with a cap of snow. If you have plants with parts that look attractive dried, don’t be so quick to cut them down in the fall or you may miss out on some nice winter effects.


Something like this urn arrangement could be a lot of fun to make if you have access to natural plant material that sports different colors and textures in winter. Here the gardeners have taken advantage of attractive buds, naturally colorful branches and foliage, and dried flowers to create a subtle but beautiful arrangement. You could simulate this look with artificial plants if you don’t have natural material to use. When the rest of the landscape is either dried and brown or white with snow, subtle colors can be very effective.

Winter is something I kind of endure rather than enjoy most of the time, but I find that the more I get out in it the better mood I am in. Why not try to extend your enjoyment of your garden to another season with some of these ideas?


Backyard Wildlife Gardening

Native Plant Seeds

Native Plant Seeds

Some of the native plant seeds available at Schnarr's
Some of the native plant seeds available at Schnarr’s

In my recent article, Gardening for the Birds I suggested planting more native plants in your yard and garden to attract a more robust population of birds. Schnarr’s has several varieties of native seeds in stock and fall is a good time to plant many perennials. Next year you should be enjoying more birds if you plant some of these seeds now:

Butterfly MilkweedAsclepias tuberosa

Showy MilkweedAsclepias speciosa

Common MilkweedAsclepias syriaca

ColumbineAquilegia caerulea

Chocolate FlowerBerlandiera lyrata

RudbeckiaRudbeckia hirta

PenstemonPenstemon barbatus

Little BluestemSchizachyrium scoparium

Purple ConeflowerEchinacea purpurea

You can purchase the following native plant seeds now for planting in the spring – see our Calendar for planting times tailored to the St. Louis area. Seeds make a great holiday gift for the bird lover or gardener in your life! Great for party favors too!

SunflowerHelianthus annuus

CosmosCosmos bipinnatus

SalviaSalvia farinacea

California PoppyEschscholzia californica

Backyard Wildlife Gardening Sustainability

Gardening for the Birds

Gardening for the Birds

In Feburary, I attended a lecture “Naturescaping: Gardening for the Birds and their Friends”, sponsored by the The Saint Louis Urban Farm & Sustainable Development Group. The speaker was Mitch Leachman, Executive Director of the St. Louis Audubon Society and coordinator of their Bring Conservation Home program.

I’ve been gardening partly to benefit birds for over 10 years now. I’m not allowed to have bird feeders where I live, but I can provide a water feature and plants that help provide food, shelter and nest materials. I also have permission from the Condo Association for a nest box, which was used by Carolina Wrens this past summer. I refrain from using pesticides to help ensure that the bugs in my garden are safe for birds to eat. Like a lot of people, I am also interested in invertebrate conservation, so I have planted several species of plants specifically to be used as host plants for butterflies and as habitat for beneficial insects.

One of the factors that helps birds to successfully raise young is the ability to find food. Seeds and nectar feeders are great for feeding adult birds, but most wild baby birds need lots of animal protein. One amazing statistic that Mr. Leachman shared with us is that it takes the equivalent of 6-9,000 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees! That’s a staggering amount of invertebrates. Hummingbirds don’t feed nectar to their young – they feed tiny caterpillars, wasps, bees, gnats and spiders. Clearly one of the best ways to help birds is to learn more about how to co-exist with invertebrates. Some of them don’t need to be controlled and of those that do, there are ways to manage them that minimize harm to other species.

Two examples of native plants, Purple Coneflower and Mistflower that help attract birds..

Most of us have been raised to think of all invertebrates as something that must be eliminated from our environment, but if you think of them as bird food, some of them might be acceptable in your yard or garden. “Bird-friendly means insect-friendly”, stated Mr. Leachman. Caterpillars are often tolerated by people better than other insects because they grow into beautiful butterflies and moths. They can be very attractive in their own right. Caterpillars are also excellent bird nutrition – they are soft and have a very high protein content. You can grow caterpillars in your garden with non-native plants as I do with Queen Anne’s lace and Rue, but you’ll get more caterpillars if you plant native plants. Fall is a great time to plant trees, shrubs and perennial plants – if you choose native plants that are used as host plants by moths and butterflies, you will help feed a lot of birds.

Native plants have had more time to evolve with our native butterflies and moths. Therefore, as Mr. Leachman pointed out, native plants can be utilized as host plants by many, many more species of butterflies and moths. To name a couple of extreme examples, Oaks are used by 518 species and Hostas are used by none (yes slugs eat them but no larvae of butterflies or moths use them as a host plant). Large trees, understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and ground covers can all be good host plants, and native plants are available in all of those categories for all growing conditions. Native plants are available at some nurseries – don’t try to take them from the wild because many native plants are endangered along with native birds.

Besides choosing native plants as host plants, here are some other things you can do to make your garden produce more bird food:

  • Do less tidying up in the garden – removing plant debris destroys many cocoons and overwintering creatures. If you can’t let leaves, dead plants and other natural materials alone in your whole garden without getting grief from your Homeowners Association or neighbors, try experimenting with an out-of-the-way section to conserve some of the insects.
  • Plant fruiting plants that bear at varying times of the year.
  • Plant a good variety of species – if plant diversity is low, insect diversity is low.
  • Plant large bunches of host plants so they are easier to find rather than scattered individual specimens.
  • Care for the total ecology of your garden or yard – the whole food web will be healthier and more productive.

Many common birds in Missouri are in decline – several have lost 60-70% of their numbers in the last 40 years. Feeding and watching birds is the second most popular hobby in the USA after gardening. To make sure there is always a variety of birds to watch, you can make your part of the environment healthier for birds! And you can further help your local bird families with items we have at Schnarr’s, such as feeders, seed, suet, nest boxes and bird bath heaters!

Additional resources:

Create a Songbird Haven with Natives
Landscaping with Native Plants: A Gardener’s Guide for Missouri
Xerxes Society – Invertebrate conservation
What’s That Bug – A good place to look up unknown critters to see if they really need to be controlled or not
Beneficial Insects in the Garden