As the last summer and autumn flowers fade, many gardeners rush to strip away the remnants of flowers and foliage. But left alone, many border plants will keep their structure, their dying stems a reflection of former glory, yet still captivating in their own right. Some essential maintenance must be done at this time of year—for example, mulching dormant perennials vulnerable to frost and collecting seed, whether for use next season or simply to avoid self-sown seedlings. But the big cleanup is best left until early spring; the dead growth helps to insulate against hard frosts as well as providing winter interest and often seeds for birds and animals. Toward the back of the border, the light filigree form of Foeniculum (fennel, USDA Zones 5-8) contrasts with the heavier upright rods of faded verbascums (Zones 608). Echinopses (Zones 6-7) hold their rounded thistle heads, and the flat head of Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ (Zones 2-9) turn golden brown. The cones of echinaceas (Zones 4-8) and rudbeckias (Zones 4-8) remain deep black-brown, persisting long after the colorful petals have fallen.
The reddened stems of rounded heads of Angelica gigas (Zones 4-8), blackened by frost, persist alongside the oblong cones of the teasel, Dipsacus fullonum (Zones 4-8), and surrounded by gypsophila (Zones 4-8). The plant known as Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi, Zones 4-7) has intriguing winter remains. The papery lanterns lose their rich orange color, leaving skeletal frames, each imprisoning a shriveled fruit waiting to release its seeds.
Frost etches the silhouettes of winter, snowfall emphasizes shapes and hides imperfections. Low sun changes color and outline. The winter garden is a magical place above and below ground. While we enjoy the delights of the more minimal landscape, those deciduous herbaceous perennials are waiting expectantly for warmer days to come.