6 Plants For a Winter Cutting Garden
A winter cutting garden supplies all you need for decorating—and brightens the backyard in the gray months that follow.
Winter cutting garden
Most of us have an evergreen or two, but I first encountered a true winter cutting garden a few years ago, in the historic German Village neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. What a notion! Sidestep pricey store-bought bundles of cedar or eucalyptus and simply pull on your boots, grab your pruners, and clip a bucketful of berried twigs, fragrant pine boughs and textural evergreen sprays.
Besides supplying greenery for years of wreath-making, container-arranging or gift-topping, these plants provide winter interest through your window and even look better with snow. Since some are pricey or slow-growing, add one or two a year, and in the meantime, ask friends for extra cuttings. (My neighbors gladly let me snip their mop head cypress shrubs and junipers.) I mix their clippings and mine with pinecones and hedge apples gathered on woodland walks. Sometimes I spray-paint seed heads or branches white or metallic, but generally, nature needs little help from me.
Pictured: Gather ingredients to decorate the front door or mantel from your own backyard—evergreen, juniper berries, seed pods and tawny dried grasses.
The best year-round gardens mix evergreens with trees whose bark provides interesting textures or colors even after their leaves fall. (And don’t forget: Ornamental grasses are another essential in the winter landscape to toolbox.)
For centuries, boxwoods have been planted in neat hedges, shaped topiaries and mounded accents. Today’s growers are introducing disease-resistant varieties like NewGen (pictured) and look-alike alternatives like Gem Box inkberry holly. To shape and thin mature shrubs (and collect for decorating), prune 8- to 10-inch stems.
Red Twig Dogwood
Arctic Fire (pictured) reaches 3 to 5 feet and has bright red or yellow branches. Plant in clusters along a backdrop of evergreens. The shrubs thrive in wet areas and respond well to annual pruning. Cut up to 30 percent of stems to the ground in fall for tucking in containers— then more, if desired, in early spring—to encourage new, brighter growth.
Plant fast-growing Eastern white pine (pictured), Norway spruce or ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae as a rear privacy hedge or windbreak. Cuttings provide bulk and texture to containers, but only trim from established trees (two to three years old). Preserve tree shape by taking select cuttings from the tree’s less visible side, back to a joint or to the trunk.
Unlike classic Christmas holly, these natives lose their leaves in fall to reveal striking berry-loaded branches. Pair Berry Heavy (pictured) with male Mr. Poppins to ensure fruiting. The shrubs do best with minimal pruning, so harvest only sparingly for displays. The berries lure robins, bluebirds, cedar waxwings and woodpeckers.
Gold and blue conifers bring color and texture to wreaths and your backyard. Favorites include ‘Golden Mop’ false cypress (pictured), blue-berried junipers and blue spruce. For warmer Midwestern states, try blue hollies and classic redberried hollies, as well as hardy magnolias like ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’.
Birch branches add structure and interest to evergreen container designs. Luckily, ‘Heritage’ river birch is fast-growing and benefits from annual pruning. Once leaves drop, cut lower branches from mature trees or thin upper ones. If you like, spray-paint the cuttings in flat white for a more graphic and crisp look.
Ideally, harvest evergreen cuttings after a nice rain. To extend their life, place branches in a bucket to fully hydrate them, then spray the needles or leaves with an antidesiccant like Wilt Pruf to seal and slow down drying. Preserve boxwood branches for a couple of seasons by crushing stem bases with a hammer, then placing them in a bucket of glycerin combined with two parts hot water for two to three weeks. Add drops of green food coloring to keep their color.