When designing a new garden, I always consider how it will look in the dead of winter.
Especially since I design in a temperate zone 9 climate, which means our gardens are on display every single day of the year.
There’s no hiding our winter garden under a forgiving blanket of snow – it’s right there staring us in the face!
And without some thoughtful plant placement and plant choices, January and February can be downright depressing.
So, before your garden begins to spring back into action, go outside and take a good, hard look at it.
Are you happy with what you see?
Or does it look like a winter moonscape, with far too many deciduous plants.
Here are some of my favorite design strategies to help give you a beautiful, year-round garden (yes, even in January!)
Since I have so much to share with you on this topic, I’m breaking this post into two parts – stay tuned for Part 2, coming in a few weeks.
1. Structure and Form are key for the winter garden
Winter is a fantastic time to assess the structure (or lack thereof) in your garden.
Structure (also known as the bones of the garden) is what holds it together on the bleakest of days.
Whether year-round form comes from living plants or non-living elements, a garden’s structure is what will let it shine in the winter.
Unfortunately, a common scenario with beginning gardeners is their focus isn’t on long-term, year-round interest but instead on immediate gratification provided by the colorful and overflowing nursery aisles.
And who could blame them- we’ve all been there, right?
While new gardeners are thrilled with their beds in May and June (when most plants are in full bloom), they quickly become frustrated and disappointed with their garden’s performance throughout the rest of the year.
More often than not, the cause of their dismay is the garden’s lack of form.
If your garden’s colorful tapestry seems a little threadbare in the winter, perhaps it needs an injection of a bold, evergreen form, such as the round Blue Spruce or triangular Dwarf Alberta Spruce.
Not only do strong forms have the strength and volume to stand up to oppressive mounds of snow, but even when covered with a blanket of white, they’ll continue to provide attractive shapes in the garden.
Can you imagine how gorgeous the round form of this Blue Spruce would look dusted with snow?
Here’s a fantastic example of a 4-Season Garden Bed, using the Dwarf Alberta Spruce to provide structure.
In the spring, all eyes are on the pink dogwood and the blue Spanish bluebell flowers. No one’s really paying attention to the triangular-shaped spruce.
And in the summer (below left) the focus shifts to those amazing blue hydrangea flowers.
In the fall, (below right) the attention is on the blazing burning bush and the dogwood leaves.
But in the winter, thank heavens for that spruce!
While many of the surrounding trees and plants are dormant, it’s the hefty form of the spruce that provides the necessary winter structure.
It’s not just evergreen shrubs that give structure to a garden.
Many deciduous plants also have the necessary shapes and lines to provide a garden with winter structure.
In fact, during the winter months, the lines of many dormant plants actually look their best.
For example, take the twisting branches of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’.)
Its branches are hidden with fairly uninteresting leaves during the summer months, but once winter arrives, it takes center stage with its unique curlicue branches and earring-like catkins.
The same thing goes for the incredible shape of this very old Japanese Maple.
I’m sure it’s stunning when in leaf, but it’s downright magical in the depth of winter.
2. Avoid the dreaded winter wasteland
With each plant I select for the garden, I imagine how it’ll look in January and February.
Will it be dormant, completely hidden from sight? Will it leave a ‘hole’ in the garden bed?
If so, I’ll make sure to surround it with a few evergreen plants that will provide an element of interest until spring arrives once again.
When too many of these ‘holes’ are next to one another, the Winter Moonscape makes its dreaded appearance.
In the photo (left) you can see a hole left by a dormant perennial, however the surrounding evergreen plants keep things interesting.
In the example below, take a look at how the evergreen plants provide winter interest (lower, right) despite the long-gone flowers and dormant Japanese maple.
One of my favorite shrubs is the ‘Aphrodite’ calycanthus (below) with its oversized apple-green foliage and unusual maroon flowers. In the winter, you can see how I’ve surrounded it with lower-growing evergreen plants to avoid a huge hole in the garden.
In my neighborhood is one of my favorite evergreen/deciduous combinations. The photo on the left was taken in spring, and the photo on the right was taken yesterday. Note how the blue spruce and evergreen coleonema provide year-round structure and color.
On a much grander scale, note how the deciduous trees are planted in front of the giant evergreens.
The green color of the evergreens not only keep things ‘lush’ looking in winter, but also highlights the shapes of the deciduous trees.
While in Seattle last February, I was visiting the Chihuly Glass & Garden (click here for some jaw-dropping art/plant combinations.)
Just outside of the museum was this recently pruned winter garden bed.
It clearly shows the method of mixing in plenty of evergreen plants between deciduous areas.
They’ve done a fantastic job of preventing a ‘winter moonscape’ from happening!
3. Don’t be so quick to prune spent flowers
I appreciate the subtle beauty of winter’s faded flowers.
Not only because of how warm the tan colors look on a cold, winter day but because many are also a source of winter seeds for birds or places of shelter for hibernating beneficial insects.
A neighbor’s gardener saw me working in my garden last week and told me he’s available for hire as he noticed I have lots of cutting back to do.
When I explained my reasons for leaving my spent hydrangea flowers alone, he looked at me like I was crazy.
I pushed my luck with him and continued to tell him how pretty the shades of brown are in the winter garden, and promptly watched his eyes glaze over.
I doubt he’ll be offering to help again – ha!
I’m not the only one who leaves hydrangea flowers on as long as possible.
I found these (left) at the Washington Park Arboretum last February. Click the link to see a breath-taking winter garden at its finest!
Of course, faded flowers will need to be pruned once they turn black and begin to fall apart, but my advice is to enjoy them as long as possible!
Other flowers that hold their own against the winter elements are those of the phlomis russeliana (left, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (lower right) and even the seedheads of ‘Monch’ aster (lower right.)
Time to sign off for now before this post gets too long.
In my next post, I’ll continue sharing strategies to create winter interest (think berries, stems, scent, and bark.)
Until next time – happy gardening!