January 7, 2013

Gardens pretty with some snow

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — My perennial garden looks great right now. Yes, I do mean right now, the first week of January. 

It’s not as colorful as it is in mid-July when the plants are in flower, but it’s still pleasing to the eye. I can see this garden from the window over our kitchen sink, a place I seem to spend a lot of time, so I like to make sure I’ve got something interesting to look out at.

My garden’s good looks are thanks to that beautiful layer of snow that fell last week.

I leave many perennials standing through the winter, and I also have some shrubs and ornamental grasses in my garden. They look OK with no snow, but a several-inch layer of the white stuff really sets off the plants that stand above it. The snow is fresh and clean and seems to glow long after the sun has set, especially if the moon is out.

Regular readers have heard me extol the virtues of sedum “Autumn Joy” (every perennial garden should have a clump or two). This variety of sedum flowers late in the summer, and its tall, flat-topped flower heads persist throughout the winter. Because the heads are flat, they hold the fresh snow very nicely. The stems are quite stiff and can stay vertical through most, if not all, of the winter.

Sometimes a particularly heavy, wet snowstorm will topple their stems, but it’s amazing just how much they can take before that happens. I love seeing the snow pile up on those flower heads.

I have three different types of ornamental grasses in my garden, and they usually stand up beautifully all winter. The miscanthus, or fountain grass, is almost 5 feet tall with large, fluffy seed heads that are especially showy as the sun sets behind them. I also have a clump of  panicum switchgrass that stands about 4 feet tall and has a finer texture.

Up close, the seed heads are delicate and showy, but from my window, I mostly notice the overall billowy, grassy texture.

My third clump is a feather reed grass variety called “Karl Foerster.” One catalog referred to its form as an exclamation point in the garden, and that’s a very accurate description.

This grass grows straight up — no bending or flexing — with a long, narrow tuft of seeds at its tip. It has a yellowish-tan color once it goes to seed, which is very attractive next to the darker green leaves in the early fall garden.

I don’t have a fence along the back of this garden, but that would provide a nice backdrop and anchor for the garden. I live in the country, so a split-rail fence would work well. It would provide a place for birds to perch as well as one more surface for the snow to pile up on.

I think I just talked myself into putting up a section of fence there next summer! That’s one of the things I like best about perennial gardens: They’re always changing and are easy to rearrange.

Last of all are the shrubs in my garden. I’ve learned that you need to use a little caution here. That 3-foot-tall viburnum will quickly grow to 8 feet tall and take up a lot more room than you thought.

But I find some heavy pruning and rearranging help me correct any miscalculations, and all add to the year-round interest and variety in my garden.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to