Harmony in the Garden Blog

Wake your Winter Garden – Inspiration from the Washington Park Arboretum

There’s something magical about a winter garden, and I never pass up an opportunity to visit one.

Especially one that’s known for looking it’s best during the bleakest months of the year.

While in Seattle this past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the J. Witt Winter Garden in the Washington Park Arboretum.

I can’t emphasize enough what a treat it was to see such unexpected beauty on a cold and drizzly day.

Winter is often regarded as the time when both the garden and gardener takes a much-needed rest.  Which is all true, of course, but it’s also the time of year when other aspects of a plant can be best appreciated.

Without the competition from all the color and activity of spring and summer, a plant’s other elements can finally take their turn on your garden’s stage.  A plant’s other virtues, such as winter blooming flowers, sweet scents, colorful berries, textural bark, and the structure of a plant’s form, all help your garden shine in the winter months.

Taking a cue from the Arboretum, here are some ways you might add a little winter interest to your own garden:

1.  Early Bloomers

witch hazel in a winter gardenwitch hazel in a winter gardenHamamelis intermeda in a winter gardenwitch hazel in a winter garden

The various witch hazels were in their full glory during this visit, making it very hard for me to have any sort of conversation with my guests as I ran from one plant to the other inhaling their delicious fragrance while taking photos. Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet)Viburnum foetens

The wintersweet and viburnum are competing with the witch hazels to see who has the sweetest scent.

2.  Colorful Stems

Cornus stolonifera 'Flaviramea'Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'

Don’t you just love the black mondo grass at the feet of the yellow twig dogwood (Cornus ‘Flaviramea’)?

And the way the fiery stems of the ‘Midwinter Fire’ inject the garden with a much needed shot of warm color?

'Arctic Sun'

For those of you with smaller gardens, there’s a dwarf variety of dogwood called ‘Arctic Sun’ which grows to a much more manageable 3-4 feet.

These weren’t growing in the Arboretum, but in a nearby neighborhood.

I love how the owners planted them at the base of their tiered front garden – such a welcome burst of winter color!

3.  Berries and such

The tiny, tightly packed ‘snowballs’ of the snowberry bush were such a delight to find, as were the cheery orange pods of this ‘mystery plant’ – anyone know what this is?  It was a large beauty, growing to about 15’x15′ and covered with these charming little orange and yellow seeds/berries that birds seemed to love.Garrya 'Pat Ballard' in the winter garden

Just look at the tassles dangling like icicles from this unusual variety of silk tassle bush, called Garrya issaquahensis ‘Pat Ballard’.  I think this was my favorite winter surprise of all.

4.  Textural Trees

Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple)Acer 'Sango Kaku'

I dare anyone to walk by a peeling Paperbark Maple and resist the urge to pull off a curlicue strip of cinnamon colored bark.

Or, to maintain a steady heartbeat when your round the corner and discover the red stems of an Acer ‘Sango Kaku’ blazing away against a blue sky.

5.  Fabulous Forms

I have no doubt these trees are show-stoppers when in full leaf, but I bet they’d be hard-pressed to outshine their outstanding dormant winter forms.

They’re like sculptures in the garden, don’t you think?

Many Japanese maples develop twisted and contorted forms over the years that are sights to behold once the leaves have dropped. Hydrangea aspera Sargentia copy

This is a perfect example of why you should leave dormant grasses and hydrangeas alone just as long as you can, before pruning them back in the late winter.

The tall, tawny stalks of the giant Hydrangea aspera ‘Sargentia’ not only add height in the garden but rustle softly with the slightest breeze.

I hope this has given you some winter inspiration, and if you have any of your own winter favorites, please share!

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  • This is my first visit to your website/blog and what an inspiration it is. I’m in Connecticut, so these images are a sight for sore eyes. And, I appreciate your vision regarding the textures, forms and colors that are distributed throughout the landscape, even during the winter months. Quite often, we just need to take the time to really look and we’ll be surprised at the beauty surrounding us, no matter the season.

    Thank you for sharing~

    • Welcome to my blog, Kathy! And I appreciate you taking the time to leave such a nice comment. Spring is bursting forth out here on the West Coast, so it won’t be long for you now (fingers crossed). I’m finding myself loving the quiet beauty of a well-done winter garden more and more (though nothing beats the first blooms of spring, either, right?) 🙂

  • Your next garden walk in Seattle should include Kubota Garden. I think that as much as I like the Arboretum the sweet scents (sarcococca, etc.), colorful berries, textural bark, and the amazing winter color is also exceptional at Kubota. It is so beautiful there on both overcast and sunny days.

    I very much enjoyed your post, the photos, and your walk through the Arboretum. I try to take that same walk 2 or 3 times each winter.

    • Oh lovely! I’ll definitely include that next time I’m up there. I’m actually flying to Seattle this Wed. to speak at the NWFGS (Wed & Thurs), but doubt I’ll have time to visit as I fly out Friday afternoon. However….if I can sneak out extra early on Friday…and it isn’t raining….you might just see another post about Kubota! Thanks again for the tip.

  • My guess is that your mystery plant is either euonymus americana “heart’s a’bursting’ or a bittersweet.

    • Thanks Sue – I appreciate your help Id’ing the plant! Im leaning towards the ‘hearts a bursting’ (a new one to me!)

  • Thanks, Rebecca, And looking up witch hazels I learned that Lorepetalum is a Witch Hazel relative, one of my favorite flowering evergreens shrubs.

    • Really, Mary? I had no idea! I adore loropetalums, too and love learning something new – thanks!!

  • my favorite place! i visit a few times every winter, and i’ve taken all those same pictures too! awesome! 🙂 i’m glad you posted on this! 🙂

    • Lucky you, Gina, to get to visit this treasure so often! It was my first time and boy, was I blown away. Absolutely stunning!

  • You are quite the photographer, what beauty in this winter garden! I really enjoy your posts. Thanks for introducing us to some unusual plants.

    • You’re welcome, Laura. I wish I had the space in my garden to grow some of those Witch Hazels – they were absolutely breathtaking!!


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