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.

| January/February 2012

  • The simple, clean lines of the arbor house combine with the softness of snow-covered Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) and the texture and color of flowering quince’s (Chaenomeles japonica) lovely orange fruit to create an intriguing winter landscape at Sansho-En, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Japanese garden.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Barberry plants (Berberis spp.) provide bright berries deep into winter.
    Photo By Benjamin Carroll
  • Rows of rounded boxwood take on a new look when covered with mounds of freshly fallen snow.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Many clematis varities’ seedheads feature wispy feathers.
    Photo By Benjamin Carroll
  • Crab apple (Malus spp.) varieties show off beautiful spring flowers and deep red winter fruits.
    Photo By Benjamin Carroll
  • A delicate statue lends nuanced whimsy.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • A wall covered with fan-trained Japanese crab apple creates a spot for snow to softly sit.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Hibiscus seedpods, filled with a soft cottony fiber, offer a fascinating shape and structural interest.
    Photo By Benjamin Carroll
  • A hill gathers layers of drifting snow.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Light and shadow play an integral role in the winter garden, transforming throughout the course of the day.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Hardscape is more important in winter than during any other time of year. Here, a softly curving bridge becomes a focal point amid the subtle greens, yellows and reds of the winter landscape.
    Photo By Robin Carlson
  • Bundle up for an inspiration-seeking winter walk through your local nature preserve or botanical garden.
    Photo By Robin Carlson

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.



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