Here in Northern New England, winter interest in the garden is a must. Just because three of our seasons are “almost winter, winter, and still winter” (the fourth being “road construction”), it doesn’t mean that we have to stare out the window at nothingness much of the year. Creating winter interest is a more subtle art than designing riotous garden beds, but it is absolutely attainable, and the good news is that it can co-exist with the summertime plants without lessening any of their splendor.
Plant choices are important, but structure is even more so, so I will start with that.
STRUCTURE: The “bones” of the garden are made up of things like walls, pathways, trellises, large trees, and the patterns created by the flowerbeds. They are the framework against which we place the plants, rather like a cake before it has been decorated. Good bones give the garden visual balance and make it interesting to look at. The picture below has good bones. Although it’s not a garden, per se, but a field covered in snow, it’s far from boring to look at. The trees in the middle ground and in the background have an interesting shape, and the low hedgerow dividing the fields breaks up what could otherwise have been a rather dull expanse of snow. And the curly iron gatepost and frosty weeds add a lot of interest to the foreground. In the summer that same gatepost would probably be almost invisible, and we would be walking right by it, only registering a rather weeds patch by the side of the path.
In winter, the bones really get a chance to come into their own!
Here is another picture, but of a real garden this time. However, the principles are the same: Trees placed in the foreground, middle ground, and background, with the space divided up into sections by low hedges. The wall adds interest, too.
If you are wondering how to achieve this in your own garden, or if you aren’t quite sure how it will look in the winter, try this trick: Take a photo of your garden and change it to black and white on your phone, or make a black and white copy of a printed photo. Without the distraction of the color, you will be able to see the shapes much more clearly, and imagine what the garden will look like when the flowers have gone away. Then you can adjust, if necessary.
COLOR: Once you have structure in the garden, you can start adding some of the cake decorations- the plants. Plants with brightly colored stems, like Cornus sericea, (Red-twig Dogwood) or Salix alba var. vittellina (A shrubby willow), make a stunning display. Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry Holly, is covered in bright red berries. Neither is all that exciting in the summer, but they make a nice backdrop for other perennials, preferring to pull their weight in the winter.
Salix alba var. vitellina, I think, at the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK.
Winterberry Holly. You’ll need a male as well as females to get a lot of berries. Ask at your garden center.
TEXTURE: Interesting textures that catch the frost or fine snowflakes can also add a lot to the garden. Leave the seed heads of perennials like Echinacea, or the tall Sedums for their unusual shapes. The birds will thank you, too. Just yesterday I had at least a dozen Juncos eating the seeds of the Liatris that I never got around to deadheading. Who knew? And now I get to feel righteous instead of lazy!
Grasses of all shapes and sizes can look splendid in the winter. Tall, plumy ones like Miscanthus add great structure (!!), Medium Pennisetums like ‘Hameln’ add a fountain of foliage to the landscape, and a waterfall of Hakonechloa (see picture below) is hard to beat after a frost.
Play around with these elements and you will find that your winter garden is far from boring. Now, if we could just figure out what to do about road construction…