Written by Iris Clearwater, Senior Gardener at Heritage Museums & Gardens.
A gardener’s work is never done, though we do get a little more rest in the winter. If an ideal of masterful gardening is to create spaces that invoke our conscientious choices and values in every season of the year, then designing areas of our garden for winter is a worthy challenge. And it’s fun! There is so much richness to consider when designing a winter garden.
Structures of plants, no longer hidden by leaves or flowers, take the fore. Dense or sparse, unruly or refined, erect or curving, tall or short, delicate or sturdy are qualities to consider and play with. They each have their worth, and can be designed with to highlight or contrast their forms.
Consider persistent flowers, seeds, and leaves as exciting elements of design. Remaining seed heads vary in shades from papery white to charcoal. Hardy hibiscus is an excellent example or the wispy remains of butterfly weed capsules. Soft velvety buds of magnolias remind us of spring, while fuzzy sprays of Solidago ‘Fireworks’ and delicate asters cheer the spirit and remind us of summer. Elegant hydrangea flower clusters can be positioned to catch the sun, like an enchanting grove of Hydrangea paniculata. Lower to the ground, add hostas, toad lilies, astilbes and cinnamon fern fronds to your palette.
Grasses are wonderful potential winter design elements. An expanse of Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa macra, with a breeze rippling through could evoke a meadow, stream, or lake. Giant whorls of tall grasses, aptly named ‘Sky Racer’ (Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea), uplift the spirit as they gleam with and point to the sun. Sporobolus heterolepis, Panicum virgatum, and Schizachyrium scoparium are examples of hardy native grasses that have fantastic cultivars to create with for all seasons.
Evergreens become celebrities in winter months, and there are so many to choose from. They can be towering, arching, weeping, pruned into formal shapes, or hug the ground like pachysandra. Play with their hues and textures, cones and berries, even scents – like bayberries and juniper. Many reflect light, like hollies and umbrella pines that can positively shimmer. Rhododendrons and hardy magnolias, like ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, as well as evergreen shrubs like leucothoe can be designed to create an almost tropical feel.
Red is the color of the season, which you can bring into the garden with stunning varieties of winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata), and the flaming bark of Cardinal red twig dogwood or Japanese maple ‘Sango kaku’, but you can also delight the eye with the audacious purple fruits of the Beautyberry bush, and the surprising and fragrant flowers of varieties of witch-hazel that bloom from Mid Jan-mid March (Hamamelis mollis and H. x intermidia). Tree bark becomes especially noticeable and can be an element of design, like that of gorgeous gracefully mottled Stewartia pseudocamellia trees.
Then there is the element of imagining our landscapes with snow – trees outlined with thick Jack Frost sharpie, tufts of snow piled playfully on Echinacea calyxes, and Holly leaves sporting white to show off their berries.
A well-placed bird feeder and source of water, such as a heated bird bath, provide ever-changing living elements into your scene, and the joy of watching and nurturing your wider community.
As always, a skillful gardener must select plants that work with the qualities of their site, and seek out plants and varieties suited to the conditions of soil, moisture, light, wind, and temperature zones.
Gardening for winter is a bit like cultivating the soul, thinking beneath flashy appearances to structures, enduring values, and what is left for posterity. Tending our inner lives and relationships, gives us access to joy and light in more challenging times, just like in cultivating gardens for winter interest, we create places to inspire and renew the spirit in these shorter and colder days.