Photo by Melody

Thinking Ahead 102: Planning Now for Fall Color & Winter Interest

By Toni Leland (tonilelandOctober 12, 2012

Tired of looking at a dull landscape all winter? Now is the perfect time to plan how you'll change next year's vistas. Early spring months are the ideal time to plant or transplant shrubs and trees while they are still dormant. With several months of warm growing weather, they'll be ready to put on a show for you and your neighborhood, and provide additional safe havens for overwintering birds.

Gardening picture

(This article was originally published on 3-11-2008)


Look out the windows. What shrubs, trees or ornamentals catch your eye in the yard? If you only see bare gray branches and empty flower beds, it might be time to redesign!

Fall color is easy to achieve from the wide variety of shrubs and trees available for today's gardener. The trick is to find specimens that also provide winter interest long after the colorful foliage has gone. Color is not limited to leaves; look for varieties with colorful stems, berries, or seed pods. Things to also consider for winter interest are size, color, structure, fruit or seeds, and texture; most selections will qualify for several criteria.

Depending on your zone, any of the following can provide amazing interest to a dormant landscape.

  • Blueberry (Vaccinum spp.) - native North American shrub with edible fruit and leaves that turn red, orange, and purple in fall: color & seed/fruit interest
  • Bramble (Rubus biflorus) - Graceful drooping branches in silvery gray: structure & color
  • Burning Bush (Euonymus alata "compactus") - brilliant fall color from coral to red on dark brown stems; tiny orange berries through winter: color & seed/fruit interest
  • Chinese Paper Birch (Betula albosinensis) [also called Chinese Red Birch] - White papery bark peels back to reveal rust colored underside: color & texture
  • Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) - bold red autumn leaves and dark red berries through winter: color & seed/fruit interest
  • Early Spiketail (Stachyurus praecox) - Orange red bark peels; overwintering cylindrical fruit:Image color, texture, structure, & seed/fruit interest
  • Firethorn (Pyracantha) - thorny evergreen shrub with large clusters of brilliant orange or red berries (pomes) through winter: color & seed/fruit interest
  • Fothergilla [also called witchalder] (Fothergilla) - downy twigs, brilliant orange and red color in fall: texture & color
  • Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'contorta') -a cultivar of the common hazel; grown for amazing ornamental structure; red brown branches with overwintering yellow catkins: structure & color
  • Heather (Calluna vulgaris) - late flowering perennial shrub; red brown to dark orange fall color, blooms dry and remain over the winter: structure & seed/fruit interest
  • Holly (Ilex spp.) - broad-leaved shrub with dark red or orange berries through winter: structure, color & seed/fruit interest
  • Mahonia (Mahonia spp.) - evergreen foliage with blue-black berries through winter: color & seed/fruit interest
  • Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) - young stems covered with downy bark, older branches have rusty-brown bark that peels; leaves turn dark red, bronze, and purple in fall and often remain on shrub through winter: texture & color
  • Purple Giant Filbert (Corylus maxima 'Atropurpurea') - purple leaves during season, dark red-brown branches and orange catkins: color and seed/fruit interest
  • Pussy Willow (Salix spp.) - open branching habit, yellow/green stems, gray buds: structure, color & seed/fruit interest
  • Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus alba) [also called Redtwig] - open branching habit, dark red branches, bright red to purple leaves in the fall: structure & color
  • Stewartia (Stewartia monodelpha) - peeling bark of orange to yellow-brown, glossy leaves, dry seedpods: texture, color, seed/fruit interest
  • Sumac (Rhus spp.) - interesting pinnately compound leaves that turn scarlet in fall; seed clusters (bobs) are reddish brown and upright: structure, color, & seed/fruit interest
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) [also known as Shadbush or Juneberry] - gray bark, fissured in older trees; berry-like pome matures from red to purple to nearly black: texture & seed/fruit interest
  • Witch-hazel, Japanese or Chinese (Hamamelis japonica or Hamamelis mollis) - open branching habit, yellow stems, seed pods: structure, color & seed/fruit interest
  • Witch-hazel, Vernal (Hamamelis vernalis) - light brown stems, open branching habit, winter flowering [so-called "Winterbloom"]: structure & color
  • Yellow Twig Dogwood [variety of Red Osier] (Cornus stolonifera) - open branching habit, bright yellow branches: structure & color

Think too about ground covers and ornamentals that might do double duty for winter interest.

Ground Covers
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) turns bronze or dark purple as the temperatures drop and, in many zones, will not die back; can be invasive.
  • Hardy Ivy (Hedera spp.) will stop growing and creeping, but retain its glossy green leaves, often turning dark purple with cold weather; can be invasive.
  • Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra) wilts somewhat in the snow, but seems to maintain good color through the winter months; can be invasive
  • Vinca or Periwinkle (Vinca spp.) retains its color through the winter; can be invasive.Image
  • Wintercreeper Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei spp.) is a low growing evergreen shrub; varieties include green and gold leaved, or purple leaved; can be invasive.

  • Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis spp.) - grows up to 6 feet tall, with large attractive seed-head plumes that remain through winter.
  • Liriope (Liriope spp.) [also called Lilyturf] - evergreen low-growing grass clumps, perfect for defining borders.
  • Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) - grows up to 6 feet tall, with large attractive seed-head plumes that remain through winter.
  • Stonecrop (Sedum spp.) - Hardy succulents are evergreen in most areas; the attractive flowers transform into dry seed-heads that remain through Imagewinter.


  About Toni Leland  
Toni LelandToni Leland has been writing for over 20 years. As a spokesman for the Ohio State University Master Gardener program, she has written a biweekly newspaper column and is the editor of the Muskingum County MG newsletter, Connections; she currently writes for GRIT, Over the Back Fence, and Country Living magazines. She has been a gardener all her life, working soil all over the world. In her day job, she scripts and produces educational DVDs about caring for Miniature Horses, writes and edits books about them, and has published five novels.

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