Four Season Interest for the Small Yard

Many people believe that four season interest means that they’re limited to evergreens but that’s not always the case! There are several plants that offer year round interest, especially in winter, through their unique bark and/or berries. Here are a few of our favorites.

  1. Seven-Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides) is a unique, multi-stemmed specimen plant which can be grown as a small tree or large shrub. In spring, the glossy green leaves emerge and remain attractive throughout the season. The distinct (and fragrant!) creamy white flowers bloom late in the summer/early fall when few other woody ornamentals are blooming. The flowers have a jasmine-like scent which last several weeks and are a good late-season nectar source for butterflies. As if the flowers weren’t exceptional enough on their own, the most stunning trait of Heptacodium are the small, inconspicuous fruits that are surrounded by a persistent calyx. These turn a bright red/magenta color that result in another eye-catching display late in the season and last another 4 to 5 weeks into late fall. Even during our long winters, this plant looks great! It has an interesting branching form with light brown exfoliating bark. A true multi-seasonal plant that will have your neighbors talking!
  2. Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a small horizontally spreading tree or large shrub (depending on who you ask)! The unusual features of the witch hazel family make them excellent choices for adventurous gardeners. Many people know of the Common Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and appreciate its late fall bloom and shade tolerance, but for an even more unique choice – go Vernal! It is one of the earliest shrubs to flower in spring, the flowers range from yellow to orangey-red in color with four strap-like petals that curl inward on chilly days. This is actually an adaptive mechanism to protect them from freezing. In fall, the attractive oval-shaped leaves turn a golden yellow/orange and the woody fruit capsules split in half to disperse the seeds. Another impressive spectacle, if you are lucky enough to witness it – the seeds are forced or shot-out of the seed pod to a distance of 30 feet! The seeds are happily eaten by turkeys and grouse.
  3. Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Autumn Magic’) this is one of my favorite underutilized shrubs! Dainty white flower clusters in spring and nice dark green leaves through summer. The common name is in reference to the tart (and very astringent) berries! The fruits contain about 3X MORE ANTIOXIDANTS than blueberries and can make tasty jams and jellies. Fall color is wonderful, ranging from bright orange to reddish-purple. The fruits form in clusters that cover the plant and persist into January, offering nice winter interest – they are some of the last fruits the birds will take! Aronia can withstand a wide range of soils, including wet soils making them a good choice for rain gardens as well.

Landscape Shrubs

It can be mind boggling selecting the right landscaping shrubs for your backyard. There are literally 1000’s of different types of shrubs for you to choose from. The easiest way to start the process of picking the right shrub, is the process of elimination.

The first thing you should know your plant Hardiness Zone, this will reduce your selection quite a bit.

Sun or Shade

Next you want to look at the light conditions in your backyard. Sketch up a map of your backyard and then mark the areas that are full sun, partial sun or shade.

This can eliminate some more shrubs, because some yards will be only full sun while others might have a mixture of full sun and shade.

Here are some general rules for light exposure. Shrubs that are planted with northern exposure very rarely get any direct sunlight. So you would want to choose shrubs that grow well in the shade.

Shrubs that are planted with southern light exposure, will get sunlight all day long. This area is best to plant trees, shrubs and flowering plants that require full sun.

Shrubs that are planted on the east, only receive morning sun. So you should select plants that are labeled for partial sun.

If you are planting shrubs on the west side or with western exposure to the light. Choose shrubs that are for full sun and can tolerate the afternoon heat from the sun.


Now you want to look at what soil conditions you have in the areas you are planning to plant the shrubs. You need to know what type of soil you have, the three most common types of soil are clay, sand and loamy.

Almost any landscape shrub will not do well in heavy clay soil. If you find that you have heavy clay soil you will need to improve it. The best way to do this is by adding 2 to 3 inches of organic material to the top six inches of your soil.

Wet or Dry

The same goes for areas that are wet or stay wet, you will need to improve those areas too.

Next look at the area you will be planting and determine if it will be wet, medium or dry. Many landscape shrubs will fall into the medium to dry category and is often referred to as well drained soil. Some shrubs can handle wetter conditions, but most often you will need a well drained soil.

Favorite Colors

Now comes the fun part of this whole process, you want to make a list of all the colors that you like and the shapes or forms of the shrubs you are wanting in your backyard.

The reason behind the shapes and forms, is that some shrubs will be better for making a formal looking backyard, while others are best used for an informal look.

Another thing that is most often overlooked with choosing landscaping shrubs is the winter landscape. You should always plan your landscape to include shrubs with winter interest.

By now you should have a map and list that shows you what type of landscaping shrubs you will want to be shopping for.