The Winter Garden
The beauty of the winter garden depends on our ability to design structure and texture from lasting vertical elements in the landscape. Whereas the summer garden is a color photograph, the winter garden is a black and white image. Photos in black and white require more attention from us. We need to look for a quieter beauty, one based on ordered and pleasingly contrasting textures of vertical plants and materials all held gently in place by structural elements and enlivened by the lines of deciduous branching. Look for that quiet beauty and you’ll find it everywhere.
Winter teaches us how to see subtly a hierarchy that ranges from the strong linear structure of walls, hedges, gazeboes and pergolas, allees and orchards down to the refined textures of evergreen foliage and ornamental grasses as well as the ever-shifting colors of twig, fruit, stem and trunk, all seen against a white snowy background on which shadows shift throughout the day.
The place of the winter garden in the design process is very important. After designing the paths and major built structures in a garden, the next step in the design process should be the winter garden – that is, those elements of the garden that impart structure and interest 12 months of the year. More than any, the winter garden should clearly relate to windows that look out into the garden. With the framework provided by the winter garden, designing for the other three seasons is eased considerably.
Elements that I consider important to create a handsome winter garden:
Plants, Woody and Otherwise:
Plant evergreens, both as hedges as well as specimen plants, to provide structure as well as detail.
Plant crab apple trees that will have persistent fruit that will last on the trees until April: ‘Adirondack’, ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Prairiefire’, ‘Adams’, ‘Sugar Tyme’ as well as ‘Golden Raindrops’ are all good for persistent fruit. Crab apple trees as well as other plants such as Clethra alnifolia that hold their fruits or seeds deep into the winter will bring birds into your garden.
Plant fruiting shrubs that will hold their bright red fruit deep into the winter. Ilex verticillata is one example; barberry should not be an example as it is invasive.
Plant evergreens and other shrubs known to attract birds in search of food, shelter or a place to perch while at your bird-feeding area.
Plant allees or rows of trees so that their structure and alignment add to the winter view from key windows of your house.
Plant tall ornamental grasses that will turn beige in the late fall and hold their plumes deep into winter. Grasses define the movement of wind.
Plant beech trees or a beech tunnel as we did, in part because their beige leaves stay on all winter. Find other trees that retain leaves.
Pay attention to plants that catch snow in beautiful and unusual ways. The spent blooms of climbing hydrangeas are a good example. Weeping trees and shrubs with a dusting of snow on them are especially beautiful.
Choose shrubs with bright red or light green stems. Red-twigged and green-twigged dogwoods are perfect for this. Cornus ‘Cardinal’ massed in a sunny spot will satisfy.
Plant trees such as Stewartia pseudocamellia or Phellodendron amurense because of their striking winter bark.
Even deciduous hedges take on a whole new meaning in the winter; they hold snow in interesting ways, and are semi-transparent.
Materials and Garden Ornaments:
Use vertical materials such as locust or granite fence-posts that will remain above typical snow depth.
Decorative garden ornaments such as gates, plaques, sculptures that can withstand winter should be placed in such a way that they can be seen from the driveway, from key windows or doors of your house.
Stone walls poke up through the snow for a good part of the winter. Snow falling down the face of a fine dry laid wall is a handsome sight.
If furniture can withstand the elements, leave it out over the winter.
It is there for the looking: red or yellow stems or fruit, white snow, black or gray tree trunks, blue sky, dark green, blue-green or light-green conifers.
Buildings and Small Structures:
Posts placed to form a pergola will be especially striking if lined up with a key door or window of your house.
Small garden sheds and gazeboes remind us of the life lived in them during the growing season, but they also visually anchor the winter garden in very important, sound ways.
Maintenance and Techniques:
Pruning is a form of sculpting trees and shrubs. Pay attention when you prune trees so that you show off the structure of trunk, branching and limb. Notice how snow sits atop well pruned branches to show off line and form in a spare way.
We carefully clean up the garden in the fall so our winter garden has a clean, crisp look to it throughout the winter.
Mow any paths into meadows or fields one last time before the snow falls so you’ll be able to see the sinuous lines of those paths, especially in early winter. The early snows disappear among stubble but lay down a white ribbon on mown paths.
Every spring coppice plants such as red-twigged dogwoods to keep the bright red stems coming on.
Gordon Hayward is an acclaimed garden designer and lecturer and the author of over ten books and countless articles on gardening and garden design. For more information on Gordon, you can click here or visit his website at www.haywardgardens.com
All photos copyright Gordon Hayward