The Winter Garden: Planning for Year Round Pleasure


We have our first snowfall here at the west coast today – perhaps the only one this winter – and our winter garden is looking ethereal. The soft fluffy flakes are piling up on the bamboo outside my window, bending some of the canes almost to the ground. Tiny chickadees flit back and forth, mining the branches for hidden bugs. The snow has hidden the golden grasses around the pond. The only colours are the green of the firs and the bamboo leaves and the browns of dead leaves still visible on the archway.

Plan the Garden’s Backbone with Trees and Shrubs

Form the backbone of your winter garden with woody plants that have beautiful bark, evergreen foliage or interesting architectural structure. Outline pathways with evergreen hedges of box or yew. Add tall conifers like pencil pines or Irish juniper for vertical drama.  Arches and decorative gates add interesting architectural shapes even in winter.

Evergreens with colourful foliage throughout the year come into their own in winter, when there is no competition from green deciduous leaves and bright flowering plants. In the winter garden, the golden new growth of the Golden Hinoki cypress reveals itself. Plant several varieties of juniper and add colours ranging from a rosy purple to silvery blue. These seem even more colourful next to white snow. The bright red/purple leaves of the Oregon grape will also light up the winter landscape.

Many gardeners choose evergreens to add colour and texture all year long, but if you deliberately choose deciduous plantings to complement your landscape in all seasons, the patterns of their bare branches enhance the beauty of your garden once their leaves have fallen. One of the best examples is the corkscrew hazel, also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick. This Medusa head of contorted branches and stems grows up to ten feet.

Seed heads for winter gardens

Ornamental perennials add beautiful colour in summer, and a few of them can add interesting focal points in winter as well. To showcase interesting seedpods, plant en masse, as a border or in containers strategically positioned in highly visible places.

Once poppies have bloomed, leave some of the seed capsules on the plants. Their round heads with serrated haloes are held high all winter by the tough stalks. Lunaria or silver dollar is a popular plant, grown for its seed heads that form a flat pod about the size and shape of a coin. The semi transparent covering encloses small flat brown seeds. The seed heads can remain on the plant in fall and winter unless you choose them for dried arrangements.

Winter–interest perennials

You may want to include winter flowering perennials, like hardy cyclamen with bright mauve blossoms or hellebores, snowdrops and yellow or purple winter blooming crocus. These will bloom in either late fall, with winter foliage, or in late winter, pushing up through brown earth or patches of snow. Choose cyclamen or hellebore for containers and their blooms will liven your home’s front entrance. Chrysanthemums are another good choice for containers. Bright golds, bronzes and reds of their blossoms will liven up any entryway.

Heucheras, with evergreen foliage in shades of red, purple, orange, bronze or green, can add both colour and texture in the understory of your garden throughout the year. It’s just as attractive in summer, with its panicles of tiny bell-shaped flowers on tall stems rising above the colourful foliage.

Ornamental grasses in the winter garden

Tough, upright ornamental grasses can poke through winter snows and give your garden lots of visual interest. Their tall flower spikes are full of seeds that attract cardinals, juncos, and other over-wintering birds. Perennial ornamental grasses also add texture and motion to the garden in all seasons. They are becoming more popular in landscaping, since many of them are tolerant of dry sites, infertile soil and partial shade.

Add colour with fruits and berries

Another way to add colour to the winter landscape is to plant shrubs and trees that sport berries. Not only do these add colour, they attract winter birds, which further enliven the garden.

Cotoneaster brightens up walls and hedges with its bunches of red or orange berries while wintergreen can cover the bare brown earth with its evergreen leaves and small red berries. If left on the tree, the small purplish fruits of crabapples can last throughout the winter, feeding birds and adding even more cheery colour to the yard.

Elderberries have versatile garden uses, either as foundation shrubs or as eye-catching specimens in a mixed border. The plants produce umbrella-shaped clusters of small white flowers that form clusters of purplish-black berries. Use them in juices, jellies, or jams, or leave the berries for the birds to enjoy!

Holly is one of the most versatile plants, with shiny deep green leaves and berries with colours ranging from yellow to orange, red and even black. Over 400 species abound, many of them evergreen, and range from shrubs to trees over 100 feet tall. It’s worth knowing that only the female trees (yes, there are both male and female hollies) will produce berries. If your tree has berries, it’s a female, and a male holly must be nearby.