De-Mystifying Winter Interest

The subject of winter interest seems to mystify gardeners when it comes to design. Just what makes a garden interesting in winter? It is a common misconception that color alone from the ephemeral flower defines the garden. Design and style is based upon our choice of plant, hardscape and materials, their placement in the landscape in relation to each other.

The garden in winter can be an alluring and peaceful place. Our winter enjoyment may encompass briefer moments of contemplation and inspection than in the spring, summer and fall. But that's only because the cold weather shortens our visits to the garden. Gardens are often viewed from the warmth and comfort inside, looking out. Because they're viewed from a distance, rather than close up, the larger forms, shapes and structure are observed. A well designed garden carries as much interest into the winter as was displayed in the fall, summer or spring, but it is interest of a different sort.

The elements that make up a well designed winter garden are no different than the elements that make up the garden during the growing seasons. Good implementation of structure, line, texture, shape, contrast, height, depth and color are even more necessary when flowers and foliage go to ground. When the enticing distractions offered by splashes of color and scent disappear, a stillness and sense of simplicity descends on the landscape, revealing the heart and soul of the garden. Whatever garden style, themed or intended should be readily discernible any time of the year. For example, when winter's snow has blanketed, the features that define a Japanese garden will be evident even though spring blooms and summer leaves are absent. Likewise, even with a covering of snow, well constructed beds and borders will contain elements that give description to their style.

Giving Description to Style
Herbaceous perennial beds and borders suffer the most from lack of definition and therefore, interest, in the winter. When flowers cease and leaves fall, unattractive brown stalks is what usually remains. Strong lines -- curved or straight, texture and structure in pathways, borders, walls, benches, pergolas, arches, trellis, lattices, gates, accent rocks, pots and statuary all combine for solid and steady interest. Repetition and rhythm works just as much in winter as in other seasons. Color in winter is evident, though subdued, if the gardener was careful with plant selection, not just of evergreens, but of bark and stems, seed heads, pods and berries. Plants that combine good texture or structure with a strong winter color provide twice the interest.

Height in the landscape is equally important in winter, as summer. Ground level pathways lead the eye along and through, as well as up sides of bricked raised beds (or other material), to ground-level plants all the way up to upright shrubs and trees. Arches, pergolas and trellises, either bare or vine entwined, catch the eye.

Winter is the time of year when pots and statuary stand proudly and distinctly in gardens. Statuary seems suddenly serene, solitaire; adding to the winter mood. These garden ornaments are just that – objects that ornament plant combinations by enhancing, highlighting or embellishing. A well placed ornament fits in by itself or surrounded by plants.

Pay particular attention to their placement. After leaves are raked and composted, inspect the landscape, looking to improve these little vignettes. If they've been knocked slightly off kilter, straighten them, as one would interior decoration. Once foliage has died away, awkwardly placed or spaced ornaments glare. Think of them as plant accessories. Without a few, the garden is the poorer for it.

 Plants in Focus
In a properly composed garden, evergreens, grasses, and woody perennials mingle with herbaceous perennials. Each shines through in their own season just as they adopt the role of supporting cast when the spotlight focuses elsewhere. Special attention is given to evergreens in winter, their spotlight season.
Here in the Texas Panhandle, we are fortunate to have an abundance of low water-use landscape evergreens suitable to adorn beds and borders. Agaves, yuccas, mahonias, agaritas, ephedra, nolinas, cactus, santolina, Arizona and Chiso rosewoods (Vauquelinia), Silverberry, nandinas, lavender, rosemary, cedars, junipers, both prostrate and upright, even some artemisias retain their leaves throughout winter. (Click here for lists of cold hardy agaves, yuccas and cactus for the Texas Panhandle.)  Both the Arizona and Chiso rosewoods sport green leaves during the growing season, but display this eye-catching rusty red leaves in winter.

Grasses in masses or combined in a mixed bed can either be upright or flowing, ranging in color from the evergreen blue grasses to tawney, golden and dusky shades, even red. Diminutive evergreen blue fescue, our native shortgrass little bluestem that sports a handsome upright reddish color in winter, and the intricate panicles and varied colors of Panicums (switchgrass) should intermingle with evergreens and woody perennials.

For the true four season look, be sure to include a few winter blooming plants. Yellow blooming forsythias bloom in winter as do creeping and upright Oregon grape holly. Weigela, snowberry, pink flowering almond, flowering quince (Chaenomeles) commonly bloom at the cusp of spring. In years with warm winters, they will break bud a few days before the spring equinox.

These elements provide a background set for late winter and early spring blooming bulbs. As winter moderates and afternoon temperatures warm, you'll find gardeners inspecting the grounds for signs of the early, diminutive bulbs: crocus (the early crocus: Crocus chrysanthus, C. vernus, C angustifolius, C. biflorus, C. etruscus), daffodils (many early blooming Narcissus species), squill (Scilla bifolia, S. pratensis and S. siberica), snowdrops (Galanthus), snowflakes (Leucojum), winter aconite (Eranthus), and the snow iris (Iris reticulata,  I. histriodes, I. danfordiae). In warm winters I will usually find a few blue flowers on my ground cover veronicas, Veronica pectinata and Veronica 'Blue Reflection', a garden variety “trailer” of the main show to come in mid-spring.

Maintenance Tips
Resist the urge to tidy the beds when cold whether descends in the fall. What looks like plant litter destined to be composted is the winter home to beneficial wildlife, macro and microorganisms. Waiting to clean up the garden until the end of February, or the beginning of March and new growth, will help both plants and animals survive the cold months. Your garden will not only be better in winter, but also the rest of the year.

Heavy snowfall can permanently damage the shape of evergreens, in some cases even breaking limbs. Early ice and snowstorms, before leaves have been shed, are damaging to deciduous plants as well. During and after heavy snowfalls, it may be necessary to gently shake snow from limbs and branches to prevent injury and contortion.

Choose a calcium chloride de-icer (instead of a sodium based de-icer) for those snowy, icy driveways and sidewalks. Use only in the recommended manner to minimize residue in your lawn and gardens. Or spread coarse sand or crushed lava rock instead. Yes, you might track some grit inside, but you will also track some of the de-icer inside as well.

Improving One's Winter Interest
Fresh after snowfall is an interesting and illuminating time to visit gardens, whether home or botanic. Snow covers the distractions and allows one to see the elements that combine to give definition and structure, that create visual interest. Often times, shortly after snowfall, our winds diminish, making possible a pleasant walk through one's winter garden. Embark on a photographic quest to capture the little nooks and crannies of your landscape as well as the larger sense of structure that will frame the plants that will soon emerge.

If your photographic journey through your own backyard is brief, make plans to combine hardscape and plants that contribute to year-round structure and pleasing composition. Stone paths, raised borders defined with rock, stone, brick or block, benches, wrought iron gates, and structures that support vines become especially noticeable during winter. Unlike plants that come and go, hardscape features are long lasting and prove to be a solid, worthwhile investment. Plants are beautiful and interesting by themselves, however coupled with containers, pots, statuary and hardscape that compliment the design combine to form a garden filled with interest season to season, year to year.

Plant Lists

For extensive lists of cold hardy evergreens native to the Southwest US, go to my section on Plant List or click here for separate lists of:

Angie Hanna, February 5, 2014