Most of us, when planning a garden or flowerbed, do not consider how it will look in the winter. This is a great mistake, especially for the ones that live in the North and have plenty of winter each year. In this post I will share with you my experience on how to create a garden with winter interest.
The way a garden is beautiful changes with each season. You will definitely not find flowering roses in a Nordic garden in February. However, if a garden is well planned, you will be able to take long walks through your garden in the winter, admiring its beauty and looking forward to the next spring. This is what we call a garden with winter interest.
In this post I will guide you through the process of understanding what are the qualities to look for when choosing plants for winter interest. In this way, even if you do not have the same climate as I, you can understand how to find suitable plants for your region. Once you are familiar with the principles, check out this post on shrubs that I recommend for winter interest.
I love perennials with their beautiful coloured flowers. However, perennials have a major drawback. For about 7 months of the year you can’t see most of them, as they overwinter below the ground. This means that if you plant a beautiful perennial flowerbed, be prepared to look at a greish snow-ice mix for a good part of the year.The conclusion is quite straightforward. Don’t plant exclusively perennials. Think how the border will look in the winter!
Let’s jump straight into the qualities that a plant should have to create a garden with winter interest!
This means that once you step into the winter garden, you are able to see the plant. Immediately. Small details are lost in the winter. You want to look at the picture from your house window or main path and find it beautiful, and not be forced to crawl through the snow to see a beautiful detail. Plants for winter interest should stand out of the snow for at least a meter to be visible enough to cheer your winter garden.
Visible is good, but what is even better? Winter height!
Add height to the garden
Very important point that many beginners forget. A substantial part of the charm of a garden comes from tall plants that grew there over the years. Just planted gardens look plain and sterile. If you plant your new flowerbed in an impeccable way, you will maximally achieve a “garden centre show-case look”. You will never obtain the romantic beauty of mature gardens. This takes time, and high plants.
Our garden is dominated by a large evergreen that was planted long before we bought the house. In the first years after moving here, we were often taken by the wild wish to cut it down. If you look at it, it is not very decorative, it gives shade to the fruit trees and we are not attached to it on a personal level. However, I am very glad that we didn’t cut down the tree.
In fact, it has a very important function. It is the only tall plant in our garden. This makes the garden look less flat and boring, it creates obstacles to the sight and makes you wonder what is hidden behind the big tree. In addition, it is a great green focus point for the winter garden.
Deciduous trees (the ones that lose their leaves in autumn) can be also used for winter interest. They give the landscape some height, their dark grey branches make interesting graphic patterns against the white snow or sky and they are definitely visible from the distance. The bark of some tree has even an interesting colour, which further adds winter interest to the tree. However, remember that each tree will give shade during the summer, and therefore I would not recommend planting too many trees, and purely for winter interest. Especially if you live in regions with cold summers.
Visible and high is good, but what is even better? If you not only see the plant, but it attracts you to come and give it a closer look. This can be achieved by planting:
Plants for Winter Colour
What are you missing the most in the winter? I miss the colours of our garden. Should a winter garden be all white? Not at all, if you select the plants wisely. Below are some tips on how to keep your winter garden as colourful as possible.
Add green to the winter garden
Evergreens give a green colour to the winter garden, which is very pleasant. Which evergreens to choose? Large evergreens are optimal as they add both colour and height to the garden. However, be aware that it will take many years for them to reach the right size to give the wanted effect. There are also small evergreen varieties. These do not add much to the winter interest as they are usually covered by snow. Medium size evergreens are very useful. They can have different shapes and form interesting patterns (see next chapter). Summing up, plant tall or medium sized evergreens for winter interest.
Include bright colours to the winter garden
Winter gardens can have other colours besides green. How about red or yellow? There are many varieties of dogwood (Cornus) that brighten the winter landscape. These shrubs lose their leaves in autumn showing the charming red, orange or yellow branches beneath. A good variety for cold winters is the Cornus alba Sibirica, with beautiful red branches.
I wanted to add some striking red colour in our winter garden and decided to buy a couple of dogwood plants. However, I felt their plain green leaves looked boring. I ended up buying the variegated variety (Cornus alba Sibirica Variegata). This plant gives quite a cheerful feel to the garden during the summer. Unfortunately, its branches are not as red as that of the plain variety. A good lesson learnt: Don’t compromise on plant for winter interest. If you want a stunning picture, go for the plant with the qualities you really want.
Don’t forget Winter Interest Perennials
Do you live in regions with little or no snow during winter? Then you can expand the palette of colours with silver and wine red by planting next to the paths Ajuga Catlin’s Giant, Stachys byzantina “Silver carpet” and Bergenia cordifolia. These perennials keep their leaves during the winter. Their coloured leaves covered with frost look magnificent! For the best look, plant very large clumps of these perennials.
Have plenty of winter berries
Berries give tons of colour and interest to a winter garden. Be warned: Not all berries keep their colour through the winter. For example, many plants of the sorbus genus (rowan) have beautifully coloured berries in autumn. However, in winter, these become dark brown or black.
Even if your favourite berries turn black during the winter, don’t despair. The shrub might be adding to winter interest in a different way! Many berries attract birds, which bring motion, colour and life into your backyard. There is nothing better than to sit comfortably at home in the winter and look at dozens of birds in your garden enjoying the berries your shrubs provide!
Probably by now you have the impression that only colour or height can create a garden with winter interest. It is not true! Here are some other ways!
One of the most beautiful features of a winter garden is the “pattern-graphics” its plants create. Think of neat Syringa branches forming intricate pattern in the winter sky. Imagine very subtle grasses forming a transparent veil through which you can see the rest of the garden. See the beautiful curled branches of the Corylus avellana “Contorta”. How about the stunning picture of a weeping willow covered with snow? All these black white images give beauty, motion and interest to your garden.
Another aspect that gives interest to a winter garden is structure. This can be of any nature. An evergreen of an interesting shape; arches and benches, partially covered with snow; hills and valleys, formed by paths, dry rivers and alpine compositions covered in snow. In our garden, we have planted a curved line of yews (Taxus baccata Hilii) that in the future is supposed to grow and become a wall. Although for now the yews are quite small, their large number and the interesting contour they make attracts attention in the winter.
Keep it neat
I believe the most beautiful winter gardens are the neatest ones. Although dried flowerheads might look nice and romantic in autumn, I believe they give the snow-covered garden a messy look. Therefore, I would recommend cutting down flower heads (especially short ones) at the end of autumn. There might be some exceptions. For instance, hydrangea bushes with their dried flowers look very beautiful in the winter. It depends on the bush size, its location and the magnitude of the flowers. Larger flower heads will look nicer.
Low maintenance gardens, e.g. a lawn and some easy-care shrubs can look very nice in the winter. The few plants will dominate the landscape and look like beautiful fountains.
Do you want some help in choosing the right plants? Check out this post: