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Winter Garden Design: Plants for a Four-Season Landscape

Enhance your garden by showcasing the subtle beauty of the winter landscape with the best winter plants.
By Jessica Kellner
January/February 2012
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Hibiscus seedpods, filled with a soft cottony fiber, offer a fascinating shape and structural interest.
Photo By Benjamin Carroll
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Winter is often a neglected season in the garden, but a well-designed winter garden offers unique beauty—and having one might encourage you to bundle up and get some fresh air during the coldest days of the year. Even after they lose their foliage, many plants look striking in winter, especially if they’re covered with a layer of snow.

You don’t need to follow a set of complex guidelines to create a four-season garden; you simply need to think about winter beauty as you select your garden plants. Benjamin Carroll, senior horticulturalist for Sansho-En, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Japanese garden, says winter gardens have a long history in other parts of the world, and they’re gaining popularity here—even in his notoriously chilly hometown. “I’m from Chicago, and growing up as a gardener here, you hardly ever put the words ‘winter’ and ‘garden’ in the same sentence,” Carroll says. “But I studied in England, where they have a culture and history of planting winter gardens. The Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Anglesey Abbey both have gardens designed to be at their peak during winter,” he says. “Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Evening Island garden and the Japanese garden, Sansho-En, look great through the winter months.”

Selecting Plants for the Winter Garden

Designing a garden for year-round pleasure requires consideration of plants’ colors and textures from season to season. Carroll suggests those planning a winter landscape forgo the conventional fall garden cleanup and start the design process literally in their own backyards. “The convention in old school gardening was to do a late autumn clearing, but now people are realizing that if you choose well, the garden looks good through winter, so they wait and do a late winter cleanup,” he says. If you haven’t already cleared them, let your harvest-season plants stand, and take notes: Which plants look interesting or beautiful? Which might look better in a larger group? Which would look better in the compost pile?

Next, seek outside inspiration. Take a walk through the neighborhood, a park or a nature preserve near your home with a notebook and camera. Take note of plants whose seedpods, stems or winter foliage look picturesque. Take photos to help you identify unknown plants. If you can’t figure out what they are online or in a good garden identification book (see Resources), a local garden center can likely help you identify unknown species. Or check out the Leafsnap mobile app, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland, Columbia University and the Smithsonian Institute, which identifies plants in photos you take.

Carroll says there are a few important qualities—color, rhythm, texture and plant combination—one should consider in any garden design. “If you want a garden that looks great in winter, think about those same qualities for the interest they provide in winter,” Carroll says. He puts plants into three categories when considering winter garden design: 1) The fruit and seed group, with colorful fruit, a large quantity of seeds or interesting dry seedpods; 2) the stem and bark group, with sculptural or colorful stems and interesting textures; and 3) the leaf and flower group, with cold weather foliage or blooms. Yet he says, though some plants do look especially beautiful in winter, your best tool for winter garden planning is simple observation. “Sometimes there are fun surprises—things you didn’t realize would look good in the winter landscape but really do,” Carroll says. “One example is the hardy hibiscus. Most people think of it as tropical, but really it’s a native plant. When its seedpods open up and let seeds go in the late autumn, it leaves capsules with fur inside. It’s amazing how they catch the winter sun. It’s beautiful, but it’s something you could walk by without noticing. There are always special surprises, and those are the things you should think about and plant more of for the next winter.”

After you’ve identified plants that offer interesting color, shape and texture, consider pattern, quantity and repetition in your plantings. “Sometimes you have to bulk up the quantity so you really make a show,” Carroll says. Though the amount of winter-interest plants may look sufficient amid the bounty of summer, they could still look scant when the foliage and blooms die down in winter. “If you plant something that provides stem interest—a redstem dogwood, for instance—plant three instead of one. A larger group has a bigger impact because you’re condensing the color, making it larger and more noticeable,” Carroll says.

Designing a Winter Landscape

As you plan, think about how your individual plants and overall garden design will look throughout the phases of winter, especially if you live in a climate with a long cold season. “I think of it in terms of an early winter season, a midwinter season and a late winter season,” Carroll says. “There’s no set date for these seasons to begin; they kind of fade into one another, and there are these vague transitional areas in between that are exciting.” By planting late hangers-on and early bloomers, you can create garden interest during two-thirds of a long winter season. “Although many plants will lose their leaves totally in midwinter, in early winter they hold onto them and might still have some color even though it’s way past autumn. Then there are plants that will push out some flowers in what we’d consider late winter. For example, witch hazel will flower really early—even in late February or early March in Chicago. Anything blooming then is impressive and provides hope to us gardeners,” Carroll says.

Winter is also the best time to observe your garden’s overall structure. Not distracted by brilliant blooms, you can absorb your garden’s layout. Are trees and shrubs planted where they help create flow and define distinct garden areas? Do strategic plantings block winter winds and admit winter sun? Are your vegetable patches in the optimal position for next season? Take note of large plantings you’d like to add, new locations for vegetable beds or other structural changes you’d like to think about. If you aren’t planning to grow food crops during winter, it’s wise to plant cover crops such as rye, sorghum or buckwheat in your vegetable beds. Cover crops provide beautiful texture and movement, help make soil healthier and provide mulch materials for spring. Cut them down before they go to seed. Read more about cover crops in Weed & Water Wednesday: Planting Cover Crops.

Finally, consider the quantity, style and placement of hardscape such as benches, tables, patios, fountains, pergolas, gazebos, stepping stones or pavers, and paths (make sure there is a clear path to any areas you’ll want to frequent in winter). Consider whether you’ve placed all of your garden hardscape where you’re most likely to take advantage of it. Is there anything you’d like to give a fresh coat of paint or any items to add? A colored garden bench surrounded by a swath of fluffy clover provides a pretty sitting spot. Garden walls made of stone, rock or brick and planted with climbing vines display an interesting mix of textures, and look beautiful covered with snow. But be sure to self-edit; you don’t want benches and patios to overwhelm delicate seeds and sparkling snowscapes.

After making all of these observations, you’ll likely have heightened your appreciation of the winter landscape, and you’ll be ready to make next winter’s garden even more beautiful. Using your complete winter arsenal—plants with bright color and interesting textures, statuesque trees and sturdy stems, evergreen trees and shrubs, along with stone, brick, rock or wood—you can define spaces and create focal points. Whatever elements you choose to incorporate, let the delicate beauty of the season inspire a garden of winter wonders.

Plants for a Winter Landscape

Chicago Botanic Garden Senior Horticulturalist Benjamin Carroll shares some of his favorite picks for a winter garden. Most are appropriate for multiple garden climates.

Fruit and Seeds
Chinese Astilbe (Astilbe chinensis): Sturdy brown seedheads
Crab Apples (Malus ‘Donald Wyman’): Long-lasting red fruit that birds leave alone until late in the season
Crab Apples (Crataegus phaenopyrum ‘Washington Hawthorn’): Orange-red berries cardinals love
Cranberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus): Bright red berries that hang on horizontally branched stems
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): Almost black stems and seedheads; goldfinches eat seeds all winter
Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos): Wonderful seed capsules with fine hairs that catch the winter sun
Siberian Iris (Iris siberica): Rusty brown foliage and sturdy seedpods
Sumac (Rhus typhina): Fuzzy red seed clumps on branches

Bark and Stems
Birch Tree (Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire Senior’): Bright white trunks; wash to keep white (watch a tutorial with Benjamin Carroll about washing your birch tree)
Coral Embers Willow (Salix alba ‘Britzensis’): Amazing red-orange stems
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum): Glossy, rusty-brown bark that peels
Redstem Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ and C. sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’): Orange and red twigs
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Sturdy, white stems
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris): Exfoliating bark is orange underneath
Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum): Green trunk with white stripes

Foliage and Flowers
Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas): Bright yellow flowers very early in the season
Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’): Upright grass forms tight clumps of golden brown flower stems that stand tall through the winter
Golden Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa): Grassy foliage that turns a warm orangey-tan and catches the sun
Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata): Dry flower bracts look beautiful throughout the winter
Persian Ivy (Hedera colchica): Evergreen vine
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis): Fresh green foliage and pure white flowers that bloom very early, even in snow
Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis): Gorgeous yellow flowers, even when there is still some snow on the ground
Wintergreen Boxwood (Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Wintergreen’): Broadleaf evergreen shrub; great for shaping
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promis’ and ‘Jelena’): Yellow or rusty orange flowers that appear in late February or early March, earlier in warmer zones
Yew (Taxus spp.): Evergreen with dark green needles

Four-Season Food

Many gardeners—especially those in climates with mild to moderate winters—find success growing food during the winter months. In nearly any winter climate, hearty greens such as chicory, radicchio, kale and endive can grow year-round. Other winter potentials include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, fennel, horseradish, kohlrabi and winter squash. Adding protection with heavy mulch, garden blankets and row covers can increase your food-growing success. (Learn more about planting and harvesting greens year-round.) You can get good advice and a variety of ways to enhance the winter garden at Ed Hume Seeds.

Manage Winter Plants for Color

You can manipulate winter garden plants to produce more color. “With shrubs like dogwoods and willows, which have colored stems in winter, you need to manage your plants if you want to keep the color,” Carroll says. Many plant stems have bright color in their first two seasons, then they turn gray. You can encourage new, brightly colored growth by cutting plants back hard each winter when the shrubs’ buds begin to swell. “Be careful not to do it too early, because the whole point of having the red stems is for winter interest,” Carroll says. He advises gardeners to count the number of stems on winter garden plants and remove a third each year, cutting the oldest stems first. After cutting back plants, apply organic plant food. “You’re asking a lot of the plant—cutting a third of it away and expecting it to push out new stems. It’s providing beauty for us, so we should provide for it,” Carroll says.

Wildlife in the Winter Landscape

Along with the beauty it provides you, your winter garden will also help provide food and habitat for wildlife in your area. Birds rely on seeds to survive winter, and beneficial insects need places to hibernate. If you’re interested in attracting birds and other animals to your garden, choosing native plants is a good starting point. “Use plants from your area that would naturally provide food for the birds and materials for insect hibernation,” Carroll says. “Anything with many seeds or that holds onto its fruit into winter is good for carrying birds through the cold months.” If you are a bird enthusiast, take it a step further by supplementing winter plantings with birdhouses or birdfeeders, strategically positioned within view of both an indoor and outdoor perch for human admirers.

Resources 

Books 

“The Garden in Winter: Plant for Beauty and Interest in the Quiet Season” by Suzy Bales

“The Garden in Winter” by Rosemary Verey

“The Winter Garden” by Val Bourne

“The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses” by Eliot Coleman

Field Guides 

Audubon Society
plant identification books and mobile apps

Leafsnap
plant-identification mobile app

Garden Hardscape 

Clean Air Gardening
garden tools, supplies and hardscape

Loll Designs
recycled plastic garden furniture

Whitacre Greer
permeable pavers

After interviewing Benjamin Carroll for this article, Natural Home & Garden Editor Jessica Kellner began to take note of the beautiful shapes, colors and textures to be found along the trail of her morning walk, even in the depths of winter. 


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