Tree Talk: The case for winter interest

Mary Henry

“Oh, Johnny! Please don’t cut those sunflowers down.”

It was late autumn and seeing what was coming, my mother had pushed open the kitchen window and was trying to steer my dad away from what he saw as a necessary chore.

“Honey, these things are long gone. Look at ’em.”

“No. Please. The birds will eat the seeds. And the stalks and flower heads will provide winter interest.”

He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head mumbling “winter interest?” and went on to the next project, a final cut of the lawn. The fallen leaves had been raked-up long ago.


Dad grew up on a farm. Plants were grown for food, forage, and ever-so-rarely for their beauty. Porch pots, perennial borders, or the circular bed at the end-of-the-lane turnaround, were all cultivated by the farm wife or daughters in 4-H. To his credit, Dad did plant the geraniums on the graves in the cemetery on Memorial Day and tended them through the summer.

The notion of “winter interest” was an alien concept. The remains of frost-killed plants left standing destroyed the order of a Midwestern homestead (and mind) and ran the risk of making the owner look lazy. Dad had yet to acquire the esthetic.

Had my father ever seen a row of hydrangeas like the ones pictured, he’d have instantly gotten the idea. From the moment hydrangeas bud out in spring, flaunt their mature leaves, sport their massive summer blooms, color-up, then defoliate in autumn, they are a joy to behold.

But it need not be over yet. In the hands of a sagacious gardener, the flower heads will stand into winter, dried brown and rustling in the breeze until wind, rain, or perhaps snow, batter them to pathos, at which time they’ll be cut and composted. Meanwhile: Winter interest.

We all know the value of red and yellow twigged dogwoods in the dormant garden. Ferns, evergreens, late-emerging berries are textbook examples of winter interest, but the idea of allowing the bloom stalk of a frost-killed perennial or annual to stand is an acquired taste. True, but once mastered, you’re hooked.

The trick is in choosing the right plants for the job. Some of the big ornamental grasses lead the parade, Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) being the most obvious. But there are many others. Ornamental grasses are one of nature’s gifts to winter. If you’ve ever traveled Japan or Korea in the winter and seen the Miscanthus sinensis on the hillsides, swaying in the wind, the sight is so evocative you’ll hear the melodic plunk of Koto strings in your head.

The big Sedums, like S. spectacle, hold up well in the cold season. Rudbeckia and Echinacea are particularly sturdy and offer much-needed seed for birds in our darkest months. Iris seed pods (peonies, too) sometimes last until the new spring growth starts poking up at the base. Thistles like Teasel are striking, albeit quite invasive. In Britain, Eryngium, especially E. giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost,’ is one of the stars of the winter garden.

What makes it all work is order and tidiness. A clean, impeccably groomed winter garden makes the difference between the appearance of neglect and the notion that “this gardener is a true plants person.” That’s where you want to be.

The question is, when do you take the plants down and tote them off to the compost pile? … You’ll know. It all depends on the weather of the season, but when the seed heads and blooms get too battered, you’ll begin to feel sorry for them and you’ll be out with your pruners. I like to cut the stalks down, leaving about 4 inches sticking above the ground level. Thus, I know where the plant is, so I won’t step on it or unwittingly dig it up, and the crown of stems poking up protect new growth from marauding garden critters.


That autumn, after Mother had saved the sunflower stalks, we had a light, early snow. I watched Dad standing, looking out the very kitchen window from which Mother had issued her plea. “Would you look at that,” he said rather wistfully. “There must be a dozen birds out there on those sunflowers. One’s pecking at those seeds and hanging upside down. Kinda pretty, aren’t they.”

Dad had discovered “winter interest.”