Lessons From the Winter Garden (of My Discontent)

A winter vignette from Mary's garden! Featuring: mud, dead leaves, old bags of planting mix, cheap hoses, rusty stakes, and disillusioned pets.

Ahhhhh yes, the garden in winter.  So serene.  So magical.  So frosty and twinkly!

That is, if you live in the pages of one of those “Winter Gardening” books or articles, which always include the following photos:

1. a cardinal sitting on a snow covered holly branch
2. a close-up shot of a berry cluster, possibly glazed with ice
3. some evergreen boughs adorned with fairy lights, once again with a fine dusting of snow

Okay, fine.  I know that winter gardens can be beautiful, but let’s be real.  This thing where there’s a half inch of fluffy snow highlighting the fine tracery of tree branches and creating a Currier and Ives wonderland is waaaaaay overrepresented in the gardening literature.  How often does it snow like that?  Where I live in Virginia, I can count on such a scene for maybe six to ten hours each winter.  Here’s a shot of a lovely, light snowfall from earlier this winter:

I think it made my backyard look rather nice.  On the other hand, it made the landscaping down at the local Shell station look like a friggin’ landscape design masterpiece, so I don’t really think it’s fair to critique winter landscaping under these conditions.  Plus, by 3pm it was all melted and I was left with my more typical winter landscape in shades of brown, tan, greenish-brown, tannish-brown, brownish-olive-green, doo-doo brown, and “mud” brown.  And all of it squishy.

Unless you are gardening in Camelot — where it snows an inch a day, melts overnight, and then snows again in the morning — your garden will not be graced with a fine dusting of fresh snow all that often.  So what to do?  How to design for winter?

Well, I’ve been mulling this over, and today I wandered around my backyard asking myself that very question.  Here are a few thoughts I had during my stroll…things I’m going to keep in mind for the future:

#1 Consider the winter color of evergreens.  Because there’s a good chance it won’t be green.  Many evergreens, like these ‘Macrantha’ azaleas in the photo below, turn a sort of muted plum color in the winter.  This is a characteristic that could be used to your advantage if you can find other plants to contrast or complement this plum color (bergenia?carex? any other ideas?)  In my planting, though, they fade right into the brown of the dirt around them and the timber wall behind them.  So the whole advantage of being evergreen is sort of lost.

Another example: the variegation on this dwarf boxwood in the photo below changes from yellow to rusty-orange in winter.  How cool is that?  I am dying to pair something with this shrub to make a winter combo extraordinaire…I just haven’t figured out what yet.  Would you hate me if I planted orange pansies around it?

#2 Colorful Stems = Best Horticultural Invention Ever  Last spring I planted three Yellowtwig Dogwoods (cultivar “Green and Gold”) and I could not be more fond of them.  If I’m feeling morose, I make a point of looking out my kitchen window at them and they cheer me right up.  Now…as much as I love colorful stems, I don’t know if I would plant a shrub if that were its ONLY worthwhile attribute.  But this cultivar looks cute in summer, too…not too big and unkempt like other shrub dogwoods, nifty green and white variegated foliage…yup, it’s definitely pulling its weight in the garden.

#3 Berries Rule!  If they are not too eagerly consumed or used as projectiles!  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve got a few Winterberry Hollies  in this garden, and they are looking pretty sad and sparse at this point.  Earlier in fall, they were loaded with berries and totally looking stellar next to a glorious clump of  tawny Miscanthus.  But the birds really do seem to like these berries, which is reason enough to plant them.  Plus, certain five year olds can’t seem to keep their little fingers from plucking them off and either a) hurling them at imaginary foes, accompanied by exploding noises or b) stomping them into a pulp on the wooden deck.  But I guess this is all part of the winter garden experience.

#4 Plant perennials that die with dignity.  My favorite pictures of winter gardens are not the ones with the dustings of snow, but rather the ones that feature large masses of perennials and grasses that remain standing through the cold months in all their brittle, straw-and-russet-colored glory.  What’s missing from my winter garden is the texture, color, and sheer mass that exists in such plantings.  I’ve just got too much empty space. 

The legendary Piet Oudolf has left me, and probably millions of other winter gardeners, striving for this ideal. It looks so easy but it is truly the work of a genius. Photo credit: Piet Oudolf.

Some gardeners think that planting evergreens can solve this dilemma; however, too many evergreens make a landscape look monotonous, so the trick is to figure out which herbaceous perennials retain strong stems and/or cool seedheads, and plant more of those.  Many ornamental grasses fit the bill.  Sedums, yeah.  I don’t cut those back.  In the spirit of Piet Oudolf and Oehme/van Sweden, I really want to keep all of my perennials standing through winter, but my garden phlox and my turtlehead?  Oh man, they just have to go.  I can’t bear to let their limp, eviscerated corpses lay strewn about my garden.  Leaving too many gaps, though, becomes a problem.  Does Piet Oudolf leave gaps?  I think not.

#5 Have fun with winter vignettes.  I think it’s a great idea to have a few places in the garden in which plant combinations are created specifically for winter appeal.   When I worked at a garden center one year, I was driving one of those electric carts back to a lot where the surplus plants were stored.  It was late fall, and as I was speeding along, a couple of random plants caught my eye — a Nandina domestica and a red Camellia sasanqua.  The pairing of the red berries and deep red flowers, of lacy and glossy foliage together, was stunning. I slammed on my brakes and just stared at this marvelous combo for several minutes.   It was lush and bold and wintry all at the same time…and no snow necessary!

33 thoughts on “Lessons From the Winter Garden (of My Discontent)

  1. hahaha…so very true. I’ve come to regard the term Winter Interest to be more euphemism than reality. Here in the PNW, most gardens seem to rely on evergreens…which, while green, are hardly interesting (oh, how monotonous). Plus, even though they look ok in winter, that’s all they ever are, and does anyone want a garden that’s just “ok”? I strive for that Oudolf-esque look…and grasses have become the key for my gardens…and I honestly consider the winter form of perennials when I’m purchasing them these days. One thing is for sure…there’s always room for improvement (especially in my sad little winter garden)!

    • Scott, I think that plant tags need to start conveying some info about how well a plant holds up over the winter. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’ve seen some gardening books are starting to offer lists of perennials with ‘interesting seedheads’ which is a good thing, but still, your average homeowner probably isn’t seeking out that kind of info. Overall, the Pacific NW seems like a great place to garden in winter, at least on the coast, am I right? You don’t get too many crushing snows out there or frigid temps? Sadly, I’ve never been there, so I’m only going by my impressions…

  2. Mary, This post is so typical of your writing in this situation–a cheeky and fresh tone coupled with an incredible combination of knowledge and humor. I smiled the whole time I read it, with timeouts to roll on the floor laughing. You are not only a master landscape designer: you are a master comedian and writer. Thank you for all this!

  3. I love a blogger who can mix doo-doo brown and His Holiness Piet Oudolf into one post. I’ve been contemplating my garden in winter too, grasses seem like the obvious choice/need. They not only have a great structure, but I love how they add movement too, swaying in the winter winds.

  4. Your #4 says much, relating to your earlier points from the brown wood retaining wall in #1 and down. It is about strong plant bones *massed*, with accents of the plants that add seasonal interest. That is what lacks so much where we get some degree of winter, especially with the ornamental grasses fad…not enough green bones, as well as strong, contrasting hardscape. More massing, more life-giving green as stages for bling.

    • I completely agree about the green “bones” David, although I do think ornamental grasses have become an integral part of landscape design, and very valuable in the winter landscape. Do you really think they’re just a fad?

      • When orn grasses are used well, I think they have classic good looks…esp. native species with patterns and spacing that work with the local environment, complimenting their companion plants. Oehme Van Sweden, Rick Darke, etc do that there. Takes passion about place, rare.

        Christy Ten Eyck and Jim Martinez do that in the wider SW, but their work is Austin (prairie, woodland), Marfa (like Abq, but wetter), or Phoenix (hotter).

        Most designs in Abq do not do that – they use humid climate grasses instead of our own, and not in the way they truly will sustain long-term, look compelling, or maintained well…I don’t think that will last. People are noticing how such spaces are browner than our natural areas look, esp the foothills. At least I hope that Abq copying what is used in Chicago will pass, and such “designers” will move.

        (in 1991, I moved back to metro Denver where I grew up, considering buying my first house, and create a landscape cover of native high plains grasses in sweeps, complete w/ sunflowers and woody tree groves, like I was fond of on the plains around town…but I moved to the desert in ’92)

  5. A somewhat weedy but never-the-less valuable addition to our winter garden is one of the Aster family members, Verbesina virginica. It’s common name of “frostweed” gives some indication of its winter value. For at least the first half dozen good hard freezes hoarfrost oozes out from the stems of this plant in wonderful delicate ribbons, letting one know at a glance just how cold it must have gotten the previous night. These ribbons of frost decrease over the next half dozen to dozen freezes, but it’s a welcome sight in the winter garden at our house every year. The head of white ray and disc flowers attracts butterflies in late summer, but the hardy seed can make this plant somewhat weedy over time. That’s when you start deciding where you want individuals or groups to provide the best viewing of the ribbon frost that welcomes the cold.

  6. Those yellowtwig dogwoods look wonderful! I haven’t acquired those yet because I’m not totally sure of the definition of “suckering” that I see in their descriptions. I understand it means that the stems sprout from the base, but will the stems/branches stay in a nice compact area, or will I find them wandering all over the yard? However, they look so good I may just go get some and see how it all works out.

    I’m not sure if it would work color-wise, but maybe a blue foliage plant to go with your orange boxwood? Like a Blue Star juniper? I know orange and blue are supposed to go well together, but I’m not sure how well rusty-orange would work.

    • Hmm, I’m pretty sure the suckering would be fairly local, and that it would actually be better to leave the suckers and cut out the older stems, since the new growth is most colorful.

      I like your blue foliage idea…I think a bluish looking grass or carex could be interesting, too. Thanks!

  7. I’ve been looking through old Library of Congress photos, and I notice that many wealthy Washingtonians in the early 1900s had this thing called the “Winter Garden” — a very cheery, bright (indoor) room with some palms and walls painted with plant motifs. I think that is probably the best way to manage a mid-Atlantic winter.

    Definitely do the orange pansies, but be sure to drop in some purple ones too.

    • Oh man, Cindy, it’s my dream to one day have a little conservatory and bask in the tropical atmosphere through the winter months! Until I become a “wealthy Washingtonian” though, it will probably remain a dream.

      And good call on the purple pansies…gotta get that contrast! :o)

  8. Mary, I love your observations and expressions…insightful and entertaining. Where does the discontent lie, however? Perhaps in one’s own view? I find the barren trees revealing the core structure of their nature, its unique skeleton so to speak. And the birds are alot easier to see without all those leaves in the way. Seeking the beauty in bleakness is a zen art form we all can enjoy. And bummer about enjoying those nandina domestica berries…that’s one invasive plant we all need to send back to China!
    Thanks for your sharing! Tom

    • Thanks, Tom. I do admire your outlook and being able to see the the beauty in bleakness…I guess I’m just not always in the mood! But you’re right, there is much to admire in the pared down winter landscape. And where I live, I believe nandina is on the “one to watch” list, but I don’t THINK it’s labeled invasive here. Thanks for reading!

  9. Mary, Great post and light hearted insights as always. You should introduce more evergreens with color in their foliage. Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’ and Cedrus deodara ‘Aurea’ are a few of my favorites. Plants like this can compliment the other woody and herbaceous plants as long as they are not overused. Another trick is to cut back your Yellow Twig Dogwoods, evergreesn, perennials and other assorted plants and put them in your planters. They can make some great arrangements in some very unexpected places. Besides, you have to cut them back at some time, you might as well give them new life for a few more months.
    A good book to check out, if it is still in print, is Rosemary Verey’s The Garden in Winter. This is the best book I own on the subject.

    • Excellent suggestions, Bill! I do love evergreens and conifers, but unfortunately I don’t have all that much sun in my yard to support needled evergreens — except yew, of course. I very much look forward to pruning out some of my yellow twig dogwood stems for decorations….I feel like I want them to get just a tad bigger before I cut any bits out, though!

  10. Oh, just found your blog and totally enjoying your 2012 posts – can’t wait to go through all the suggestions from your esteemed readership as well! There is no snow where I live, so I cannot rely on the 10 minutes of beauty there – always need more suggestions for winter that will serve round the year. I also agree with the denser plantings, to keep the cost down (so you don’t have to buy, buy, buy) keep clipping and starting plants in old garden pots – that is my plan anyway – of course my Japanese Maple clippings failed miserably – which you all could probably have told me would likely happen. Love the posts, keep them coming!

    • Thank you, Tracy! Glad you found my blog! I think you’re very bold to dive into propagation….I try doing some at least once a year but, like you, haven’t had much success. I’ve had the AHS Guide to Plant Propagation sitting on my shelf for almost a year, but I haven’t yet cracked it open. Something I keep meaning to do!

  11. Living in a climate which has snow from November to April, sometimes it’s hard to see the good side of that too – I would love to have your brown and poo coloured garden! So what’s good about snow? Nice warm blanket for perennials sleeping until spring, ‘poor mans fertilizer’ as it drags a whole bunch of Nitrogen with it as it falls through the atmosphere, good exercise digging the greenhouse out and pulling it off roofs before they collapse…

  12. Mary, this is yet another inspiring and wonderfully written post. I always enjoy your writing and have, therefore, nominated you and your Blog for The Versatile Blogger Award. My post this week includes your nomination and a link to your writing. ~Debra

  13. Mary –
    Nandina domestica is moderately invasive in the DC area. I’ve pulled out more suckers from these plants than I care to. Self seeds readily also. Kept under control, it is a really nice winter garden plant. Mixed in deciduous azaleas, Mother Lode juniper, winterberry hollies, enkianthus – a great all around plant. And the berries are of course wonderful for holiday decorations. Sprayed with hairspray, they last forever. As for needled evergreens, aside from yews and Korean boxwoods, consider using Cephalotaxus (Japanese Plum yew). Is totally bambi resistant, turns a light burgundyish for the winter and is something that should be used much more frequently around DC than it is. Same conditions as yews, but none of the problems.
    As always, enjoy reading your columns.

  14. Great thoughts as usual Mary. I love the winter garden complete with grasses, partially upright perennials, huge magnolia buds and the architecture of a Climbing Hydrangea on a wrought iron fence. I have been in this business for 40 years and love the comparison of gardening with life and have designed our business to share the same cycle. Gardens are colorful, dynamic and alive in Wisconsin from April through late October and then still during the winter months. That parallels our business, I work 40-50 hours a week with clients and their gardens in season and love every minute of it and then………winter allows both our gardens and our bodies and souls an opportunity to rest, refresh and get ready to begin once again. For the four months of winter, I work 20-30 hours a week on clients designs, our website and reviewing our personal and business $ numbers. We go to the movies at 1 PM on a Wednesday and then grab a late lunch or early dinner. We work out on the spin bike at 8 AM and then wander into the office. Gardening for a living is the best gift anyone can ever have……

    • I have to admit I’m kinda envious of your lifestyle! You’re totally right that the winter serves a great purpose for landscape designers, in that it gives them a little respite from 50-60 hour weeks. I wonder what designers from the tropical areas do….does it ever let up?

  15. What a great post, Mary! Here in MA the idea of grasses, sedums, lovely umbelled seedheads, etc. is tempered by the snow and cold (not much snow this year, but cold seems to do the trick as well) that weakens the stems and bends ’em over and leaves the garden looking like a pile of pickup sticks. Quite a few subshrubs work nicely, though, both for sturdiness and for color. My perovskia, lavender, and culinary sage (started as a 4-incher, now spread over about 4 feet at the front of a shrub bed) all give me shades of grey-green as well as interesting form. I cut the perovskia and lavender back a bit to make them more compact (do the big cutting back in spring); the sage doesn’t care. They all get covered with tons of snow when we shovel the walks, but when they reappear they look fresh and frosty and fine.

    • Thanks, Deborah. I do love the gray-green color in winter. I’ve got a tiny lavender plant that I put in the ground last summer and I love its color and hope it spreads. btw…”fresh and frosty and fine”…great alliteration there!

  16. Pingback: The Garden in a Snow-Free Winter « Gardora.net

  17. I didn’t read all the comments so if someone has mentioned this already I apologize. Pick up a copy of Roy Diblik’s Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance Approach. He has some simple designs in there that reflect much of Piet’s style. This approach will also do away with a lot of the mud issues.

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