Winter Garden Plants

As the brilliant colors of fall fade Mother Nature begins to reveal the quiet beauty of the winter garden. Colorful barks, evergreen foliage, bright berries and subtle blooms reveal themselves to add interest to an otherwise stark landscape.

You would be amazed at the number of plants available to brighten your garden this winter. Here is a list of a few of my favorites.

You may be surprised to know that quite a few plants bloom during winter, especially if you live in a mild climate. Here are just a few.

Iris reticulata
Camellia japonica
Jasminum nudiflorum
Pansies and Violas
I like to plant large drifts of these cheerful flowers throughout my garden. They are the perfect companions to spring flowering bulbs and will bloom continuously through the winter in zones 7 and above. For best performance, plant violas and pansies in full sun, although violas will tolerate shade.
Snowdrops, Galanthus
White, teardrop shaped blooms adorn these little woodland beauties in late winter or very early spring. I like the variety ‘John Gray’ because of its extra-large flowers. Hardy in zones 3 – 8, plant these bulbs in early fall in partial to full shade areas. Snowdrops prefer rich, well-drained soil.
Iris reticulata
Often emerging through crusts of snow, this iris is the first to bloom in my garden. I like ‘Cantab’ because of its sky blue flowers. Plant these beauties in large drifts of 20 or more and you will be well rewarded with their beautiful blooms in late winter/early spring. Plant in full sun. Grows to about 6 inches tall.
One of my fondest memories is the ring of purple crocus that encircled the big oak tree on my grandmother’s front lawn. It was the only contribution that my grandfather made to their garden. The delicate cup shaped blooms would emerge in late winter and serve as a gentle reminder that spring was eminent. Plant spring blooming crocus in the fall in full sun to partial shade. Hardy in zones 3 – 8.
Camellia japonica
Traditionally considered the belle of the Southern garden, new cultivars of this shrub have been created that are more cold tolerant. Some varieties of this evergreen shrub bloom in very early spring. Plant camellias in partial shade in an area that is protected from drying winds. They thrive in humus rich, well-drained soil. Hardy in zones 7 – 8.
Winter Honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima
This shrub is the old fashioned and unimproved variety. How refreshing! Of course this says nothing about its incredible fragrance that fills the garden as early as January! Cold hardy to zone 5, plant winter honeysuckle in full sun to partial shade. Grows 8 to 10 tall and up to 8 feet wide.
Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum
This is a plant with subtle beauty when used as a focal point or single specimen, but when used collectively as a group it is a cold knock out. Late in January the plants are covered in tiny lemon yellow blooms. Hardy in zones 7 – 9. Winter jasmine thrives in full sun with average soil. Grows to 15 feet in warm climates, in the North it tops out at 3 to 8 feet.

During the growing season evergreens often act as background support to the more colorful plants but during the winter these quiet elements move to the forefront often providing the only color in the garden. There are many to choose from but here are a few of my favorites.

Cedrus atlantica glauca
Elaeagnus ebbingei
Great for creating a privacy screen, the plant’s silver-green leaves, cinnamon colored, whip-like stems and interesting berries make this shrub a favorite in my garden. Best if grown in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Hardy in zones 7 – 11.
My garden would not be complete without boxwoods. I use them to create living walls, punctuate entries and as focal points. Their bright green foliage pops against the gray winter landscape. Hardy from zone 6 to 9, plant these workhorse shrubs in full sun to partial shade in fertile, well-drained soil. Can grow up to 5 feet and 4 feet wide depending on variety.
Yew, Taxus baccata
An excellent shrub for creating the walls of your garden rooms. Yews are a favorite in English gardens. Hardy from zone 4 to 7. Plant in full to partial shade, well-drained soil. Will not tolerate wet feet. ‘Hick’s Yew’, a favorite of mine, grows to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
Blue Atlantic Cedar, Cedrus atlantica glauca
An attractive tree in any season, its blue green foliage really stands out during winter. This tree makes an excellent focal point in gardens where the space is available. Hardy from zone 3 to 9. Plant in full sun, well-drained soil. A slower grower, the Blue Atlantic Cedar will eventually reach 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide.


Often hidden behind a veil of green during the spring and summer, shrubs and trees with unusual bark really stand out once the leaves have fallen.

Cornus sericea
Acer griseum
Red Twig Dogwood, Cornus sericea
After the leaves fall in autumn, the red stems and twigs take center stage. The color ranges from dark coral to Chinese red. This is a shrub that can take very cold conditions. It seems the colder it gets, the "redder" the stems look, but maybe it’s because of their contrast with snow! Cold hardy from zone 2 to 8. Tolerates most soil types. Grows 8 to 10 feet tall.
Paper Bark Maple, Acer griseum
This tree is slow growing and will reach a height of 30 feet tall with an equally wide canopy. The old bark peels off in strips, revealing cinnamon brown color underneath. Hardy in zones 4 – 8. Plant in full sun and fertile, moist but well-drained soil.
London Plane Tree, Platanus x hispanica
Last year I saw this tree planted in a friend’s garden. I was spellbound by the beautiful bark – a tapestry of brown, gray and cream. This tree can grow up to 100 feet, so site it in a place where it has plenty of room. It prefers full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. Hardy in zones 5 – 8.
Birch, Betula
In a garden in Georgia I planted a small grove of birch with spectacular results. The peeled and papery bark is a beautiful texture in the garden. Cold tolerance depends on species. The Paper birch, B. papyrifera, is cold tolerant to zone 2. Plant in full sun to light shade in moist but well drained soil. Mature plant size depends on variety and species.


I consider berries the flowers of winter. Not only do they add color to the garden but provide food for birds as well.

Aronia melanocarpa

Ilex opaca

Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa
This plant is much more garden friendly than its unruly cousin the red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia. Deep purple almost black berries form in late summer and persist through January. A particularly nice cultivar is ‘Autumn Magic’, which has brilliant fall color and larger, longer lasting berries. Black chokeberries are very adaptable. They can be planted in full sun or partial shade. The plant prefers moist areas but will grow in dry soils as well. Hardy in zones 4 through 9.
Rosa rugosa species
This roses produce lovely, orange-red rose hips. It is extremely cold tolerant and is hardy from zones 2 – 9. Plant in full sun in a spot where it will get plenty of air circulation. R. rugosa can get up to 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall.
American Holly ‘Carolina No. 2’, Ilex opaca
I have always considered the American holly one of the most noble trees in the southeastern forest. If you have ever examined a fully ripened holly berry closely you find they are such as intense shade of red that they almost appear to glow. Native to North America, this holly is hardy in zones 5 – 9. Plant in full sun or shade in well-drained soil. Can reach up 50 feet tall with a 30 foot spread. Requires a male pollinator within 300 feet to bear fruit.
Possumhaw, Ilex decidua
There is nothing like this plant’s scarlet berries to break the gray pall of winter. A well-berried tree can easily be the center of attention in any landscape. The cultivar ‘Warren Red’ produces especially lustrous and long lasting berries. Plant in full sun to partial shade with alkaline soil. Possum haw can grow up to 20 feet tall. It is hardy in zones 5 – 9. One thing to keep in mind that the plant requires a male pollinator within 300 feet to bear fruit.
Crabapples, Malus
There are not enough good things to be said about crabapples. My ‘Narragansett’ crabapples are beautiful in every season. In the late fall and winter they produce small clusters of light red fruit. I think the birds appreciate them even more than I do. Crabapples thrive in full sun but will tolerate light shade. Plant in consistently moist, well-drained moderately fertile soil. Most varieties are hardy in zones 5 – 8 but there are one or two that can survive in zone 4. Mature plant size depends on variety.

Evergreen groundcovers should also be considered for your winter garden. These plants can add a carpet of color, pattern and texture to otherwise bare spots in your flowerbeds.

Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’

Euonymus fortunei

Hedera helix
Liriope muscari, ‘Silver Dragon’
I like liriope because of its grass like foliage and dense habit. ‘Silver Dragon’ has attractive green foliage with white and silver variegation. Liriope will thrive under any light condition. It is drought tolerant but prefers to be sheltered from cold, drying winds. Hardy in zones 6 – 10. You can expect this plant to reach about 12 inches tall.
Creeping Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’, Veronica peduncularis
This plant has delicate green foliage that turns slightly purple in winter. The true wonder of this plant appears in late February when it becomes covered with clear blue flowers. Expect creeping Veronica to reach a mature height of about 4 inches with a 2 foot spread. Plant in full sun to partial shade in consistently moist but well-drained soil. Hardy in zones 4 – 8.
Wintercreeper, Euonymus fortunei
Wintercreeper is one of my favorite groundcovers. I particularly like the variety ‘Coloratus’, which turns a nice burgundy color in the fall. This plant grows up to 2 feet tall. Performs best in full sun and tolerates any well-drained soil. Hardy in zones 5 – 9
English Ivy, Hedera helix
One of the best groundcovers for shady areas has to be English ivy. There are several varieties to choose from. I often rely on the green and white variegated varieties such as ‘Anne Marie’ and ‘Baltica’ to bring interest and color to a garden. English ivy will tolerate full sun in cooler climates but should be planted in partial shade in zones 7 and above. It is important to plant English ivy in an area that has good drainage.

Because English ivy is a potential hazard for native plants I only use it in controlled environments in areas where it is not a problem and recommend that it is not allowed to run rampant. Always check with your local Cooperative Extension before planting it or go to the National Park Service’s web site at They have a nice map that shows which states are troubled by this plant.