5 Best Flowers For A Dead Winter Garden

These beauties actually look better when they're dead.

December 22, 2017
flowers that look best dead

It’s hard to make a winter garden look good, especially when you’re deep in the bowels of mid-winter, slogging through a landscape full of dull grays and browns. Instead of pining for color, alter your focus and seek that other crucial component every good garden employs: texture.

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Think about how to best use the thin, but nourishing winter light; how it plays with the spent seed heads, stems, leaves and petals of the summer garden past. There are a great many plants with interesting bark, or winter fruits to keep the season lively, but there are also flowers that shine with a whole other light once the verdant days of summer are long gone.  


A native grass hailing from the East coast and Midwest, switchgrass is a garden must-have for any season. Varieties of this species come in all kinds of colors—from metallic blue to red to plain old green— but it’s the spent winter seed head that really makes a statement.

Emerging in late summer the switchgrass’ ripening seeds are consumed by a plethora of wildlife, large and small. The airy structure that sticks around after the seeds are gone is delicate and seemingly translucent, catching winter’s meager rays in its tangle of fibrous fingers. Plant switchgrass almost anywhere, but make sure it has lots of sun to get the full effect of its seed heads come winter. Clumping at least 3 switchgrass together will create a silvery wall of light when the sun hits on chilly winter days. (Here are more ideas for having a stunning garden in the middle of winter.) 


In the case of the sunflower, it’s not the plant itself that’s the stunner, but the gaggle of birds the sunflower’s oily, rich seeds will attract. Sow tall varieties like Sunforest and American Giant in the back row of the garden for goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees and other winter birds that will keep the garden lively until December.

Related: 81 Border Plants That Are Better Than A Fence

globe thistle
Dan Rosenholm/Getty
Globe Thistle

This prickly flower is blue come midsummer, when starry little petals unfurl into an azure ball. Leave the flowers up once bloom peak is past and the dark brown orbs will add texture and contrast to an otherwise flat and boring winter bed. Globe thistles prefer warm spots in freely draining soil under full sun but are very tolerant of most conditions all the way down to zone 3. The dried flower heads make excellent indoor arrangements and will hold their color if dried in a well ventilated, shady spot.

Related: 8 Weeds You Should Actually Let Grow In Your Yard

hydrangea with frost

A big dormant hydrangea adds an anchor to a winter flower bed like no other plant can. Huge, conical spent flower heads maintain a greenish to blush hue until the weather gets wet, keeping up their good looks for months.  Once really cold weather hits, the flowers fade to tawny brown, becoming deft catchers of sunlight. The panicled hydrangeas are the most elegant of the bunch, sporting loosely clustered flowers bigger than your head. Prune the dead flowers to the second leaf node just as spring is about to break.

Related: 8 Really Easy Ways To Attract Birds To Your Garden This Winter

honesty flower

Lunaria is a popular, easy to grow annual with a uniquely shaped flat seed head. Blooming pink and purple in May-June, honesty’s flowers are a sweet, but nothing special, addition to the late spring garden. The ovate seed heads that come in late summer mature into silver lanterns, ready to sail away on the wind spreading seed as they go. If planted in a sheltered spot some of these seed pods will persist through the winter catching light in their papery little lanterns.

Related: A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating Your Own Foraged Evergreen Wreath

fennel in winter
Marie-Pierre Samel/Getty

Fennel is fabulous in summer with its leggy lime green stems and pale yellow crowns of flowers. What’s sinfully overlooked is the role it has to play in the winter garden, when cheery petals are long gone. Fennel is what’s known as umbelliferous, meaning, it has an umbrella shaped flower. It’s these umbels that look so good in the winter garden, breaking up the black dollops of spent rudbeckia and the long tassels of old grass with their delicate, spreading heads (which are also great for catching frost and snow). Any umbelliferous flower will look lovely in winter, especially outsized ones like Cow parsnip, but what’s best about fennel is its quality as a year round plant: edible bulbs and foliage in spring and summer; diaphanous umbels all fall and winter long.

Related: 6 Of Winter’s Tastiest Crops