January 10, 2013


Secrets of a Winter Landscape

Whether you live in northern California, Colorado or Maryland, when winter arrives everything changes.  The beautiful flowers of spring and summer are a faded memory, and even the autumn leaves have rotted away or are hidden by the snow.  What are you left with?  Well, it depends.

If you don’t want a garden or landscape to become a boring (or worse, ugly) barren no-man’s land, you need to design it with certain elements in mind.  It really does help to think seriously about the seasons where you are designing, and how a garden is going to look as each season comes along.

One of the main reasons I always stress the need for structure in a garden plan is because of winter when these elements will keep the view interesting and attractive.  It can be as simple as including a few well-shaped evergreen trees on the perimeter, a birdbath or water feature with plantings around it, an arbor or a pergola.  For larger projects, there are clipped box hedges and low field stone walls curving through a woodland.  What looks good with a dusting of snow?  What looks good when all the trees are bare?  Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Garden art can truly come alive in a winter garden, and in our own back yard we pruned a large dead manzanita bush until it resembled a natural sculpture, and then painted it brilliant yellow.  Now it brightens a dark corner of the garden and it looks great year-round, and best of all it cost us nothing.

If you live in an area where you know there will be snow for much of the year include vertical elements of varying heights, as mentioned above.  Otherwise, all the eye will see is a blanket of white with the occasional low bulge concealing a frozen shrub.  Boring.  At our elevation in northern California, we don’t get much snow but plenty of rain and cold.  Grass grows, but the trees are bare and all the perennials and so forth have been cut back.  This is when structure becomes critical, so we have a long boxwood hedge, a strategically placed red watering can, dry-stack stone walls (native stone – of course!) the aforementioned yellow Manzanita.  We also use a variety of ornamental grasses that hold your interest with seed heads and warm colors even though they are dormant – we’ll cut them back in late winter anticipating the spring flush.  Bamboo hedge rows provide a vertical element while giving birds a safe roost for the evening and when we do get a light snow the bamboo still lends a sculptural quality.  English holly and our native toyon provide berries for the birds while giving that brilliant bit of red on a winter’s afternoon.

I also believe in including some harbingers of spring.  Early blooming bulbs like paper whites (the fragrance is wonderful when all is still cold and damp outdoors), double narcissus and tulips, these will always have a place in the garden, no matter where we live.  Perhaps plant some in a large pot near the front door, or scatter them in a woodland area if your project happens to have that.

One landscape architect that I feel captured the essence of structure in the landscape is A. E. Bye who passed away in Nov. of 2001.  He was one of the most influential landscape architects since world war II and well worth researching.   ae bye

Below, this courtyard entryway has everything going for it in winter:  tall pots, evergreen plantings, seed heads for color, interesting paving – even a pretty watering can.  In fact, this particular entryway has something interesting going on all year long.

Entryway with interest

     Below is a lovely example of how uplifting and beautiful some spring bulbs can be in a winter garden.This  is a woodland garden, but you can manage something like this on even a small bit of land, or even a cluster of pots.

Spring bulbs in the garden


Below is a picture taken of the reflecting pool at the Empire Mine State Park, not far from where we live.  It was taken in winter, and aptly demonstrates the value of evergreens and vertical in the winter garden.  Your property may not have room to include a reflecting pool, but you probably could find room for a juniper or other compact, conical tree.

Garden under snow

Finally here is a gorgeous example of a snow-covered yard where the owners (and landscape designer) thought about the need for vertical structure and an evergreen.  This garden would be a pleasure to look out at from the cozy house, and a joy any time of year.

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