Get Growing Blog

Winter Interests

February 7, 2022


As the ground begins to freeze and we turn inward, or into a pile of blankets and chamomile tea, certain flora make their way to the forefront of the landscape, shining against the stark white backdrop of a cold Ohio winter. If you’re more likely to hibernate during these winters, I challenge you to get out, and go on an invigorating winter hike. Maybe you’ll even end up with a group of polar bears studying the teachings of Wim Hof. You might fall in love with forest bathing, even if the waters are a bit icy.

Let’s go on a hike through The Holden Arboretum, and soak in all the Winter Interests it has to offer.

As you turn onto Sperry Road from Kirtland-Chardon Road, you’ll drive past the Conifer Collection. If no one’s behind you, slow down a little, and roll down your window. Notice the subtle differences in greens to blue-grey, the short prickly needles, or the soft kind that can be used to make a bed in a childhood fort.
After you park at the main entrance, take a look around, and you’ll find a stand of chartreuse golden-twig dogwood, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, hinting at the spring to come. These are stunning paired along with orange-fruited winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Aurantiaca’.
Let’s begin our walk with a peek behind the Corning Visitor Center at theArlene and Arthur S. Holden Jr. Butterfly Garden, where we’ll be met by the striking, sculptural cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. The balance of branches teeters the eye up to this rare blue winter sky. Golden patches of grasses create an undulating movement through this snow-covered landscape.
This paperbark maple, Acer griseum, nearly extinct in its native of China, has thin pealing bark the color of rusted flames. The light shines through like a stained-glass temple just around the edges, if you walk by too quickly, you might miss it. Tactile tree bark can add winter interests to any garden, the key is to plan for it.
This weeping beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, creates a cave that children love to hide in during the summer months, but as the leaves fall, it reveals a skeleton of gnarled branches, the sun flickering through its ribcage, revealing the secret forts and hidden treasures left behind, mostly acorns and stones.
We’ve made it up to the Stickworks exhibit of Patrick Dougherty, thanks to the brave visitors before us who’ve forged a path through the thick snow. If you’ve already seen this wonder in the warmer months, you must return to see it covered in a freshly fallen snow, each organic line painted with titanium white, and of course a few ‘happy little trees’ dappled in.
Next to Blueberry Pond, the audacious autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’, stands in defiance of the cold. Paper birch, Betula papyrifera glows in contrast to the deep greens of the surrounding conifers and fallen leaves.
As we make our way up to the R. Henry Norweb Jr. Tree Allée, Gardener Lakeside Terrace, John Dick Meadow, and Eliot and Linda Paine Rhododendron Discovery Garden, our senses are instantly hit with the wide expanse of Corning Lake, seemingly aerial grasses awash in the gust. The lake’s various stages of freeze and eroding winds create a topographic tactile design reminding us of the glaciers that pushed their way through Ohio thousands of years ago.
The meadow creates an ocean of grasses, pushed and pulled by the Corning Lake winds. Close your eyes and listen to the Panicum ‘Cape Breeze’ whisper winter meditations. Beneath the surface of broom sedges sweeping, mice and voles go about their busy days, hoping to keep out of view of the red-tailed hawk. In the tree allée, young oaks and elms stand over us, with arms out offering a gentle buffer from the cold flurries, and a promise of shade this coming summer.
Pinus koraiensis ‘Silveray’ against the swaying little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’ in theRhododendron Discovery Garden.
winterberry, Ilex verticillata
Scotch pine, Pinus sylvestris ‘Albyn’ against the blaze of heather, Calluna vulgaris ‘Wickwar Flame’.

I’m starting to need my blankets and tea, so let’s head back, and promise that we’ll bring warmer gloves next time, to venture out even farther. If these gardens have you thinking about creating winter interests at home, remember this moment in spring when choosing new perennials and trees for your space. It’s easy to be wooed by all the colors of spring and summer, but winter has a distinctive color palette and mood that deserves some of the garden spotlight as well. Consider using the deep colors of the dogwood and heathers, the movement of the beige grasses, and adding form and sculptural shapes through conifers and trees. The sounds of crisp leaves rustling, to the sounds of nothing at all. I hope you’ve found your own Winter Garden aesthetic and have gathered some ideas for spring planting.

Keep your eye out for interesting buds emerging across the gardens above and below, a tightly wrapped gift to be presented in the spring. You’ll have to return to see it all unfold. I’ll see you out on the paths as we all thaw, unfurl, and stretch into spring at The Holden Arboretum. Until then, gather your hiking boots, cross-country skis, snowshoes, and binoculars to witness this whimsical winter wonderland.

*For your safety, please sign-in at the Corning Visitor Center if you are hiking alone. Paths are not salted or cleared of snow.

Sommer Tolan

Sommer Tolan


Sommer Tolan brings her sense of creativity, design and wonder to the Horticulture Team at The Holden Arboretum. Previously, she taught children about organic vegetable gardening with the Chicago Parks District, and designed rooftop gardens and patios with Sprout Home in Chicago. She’s so thrilled to extend her aesthetic of using native plants fused with a modern edge into the Eliot and Linda Paine Rhododendron Discovery Garden.

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