(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 21, 2008. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)



...Or, if your garden has lots of tans and browns in winter, think of it as a sepia print.

In recent years, gardeners' interest in seeing the beauty of a winter garden in temperate climes has awakened from dormancy and is growing. Here is what that great gardening icon, Rosemary Verey,* had to say about the subject: "A garden in winter is the absolute test of the true gardener. Fair weather gardeners are to gardens what interior decorators are to buildings--they only know half the story. True gardening is as much about the bones of a garden as its planting: true architecture is as much about the form and structure of a building as its rooms...If you master the worst that winter can throw at you - Ice, snow, wind, without remorse--you will have a sense of conquest." And, I might add, a greater appreciation of its beauty.

So, how does one go about appreciating such beauty? Rather than hibernating indoors all winter, a first step might be to simply visit your garden daily or at least several times weekly. Look for interesting forms and shapes: seedheads that are visually intriguing, a cluster of stems that you find attractive, trees or shrubs with interesting branches and branching patterns that dominate the landscape now that their leaves are gone, bark that exfoliates or presents interesting patterns.

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Focal point: Fence and bench with grass

Snowy garden chair

Cobblestones with thyme and snow

Alberta spruce with snow "frosting"

Red-twig Dogwood

Green Kerria twigs

Winterberry Holly

Witch Hazel

February arrangement of evergreens,
witch hazels, and maple twigs

What plant is pictured here? Take a guess and then check out the answer below.

You say your garden doesn't have any of these attributes? Then it's time to remedy that. Unless there is a disease issue, at the end of the next gardening season, leave some interesting plant stems and seedheads standing, instead of cutting them down. By choosing judiciously which plant material to leave and which to cut, you can control patterns and create interest. A word of caution about seedheads: If a particular plant variety tends to be weedy and you don't want it coming up all over your flower bed the next season, exclude those seedheads from your winter garden.

Even though your garden isn't growing now, it's constantly changing. The most obvious changes occur when ice and snow are added to the scene, but there are more subtle changes as well. Plant material may shatter at some point during the winter. Ask yourself whether this creates additional interest or whether you should clean it up and perhaps do some pruning as well. Winter winds will create new patterns. Some plants may begin to lean or be swept into different positions by the prevailing winds. Think about the "sense of conquest," as Rosemary Verey calls it. Mother Nature may shape your garden to some degree, but you're in control when it comes to dealing with the result. And think about this as well: The winter garden requires no weeding!

As you ponder your winter garden scene, take note of plants you might add next growing season that would increase your enjoyment in winter. Here are some suggestions:

Choose varieties that have mophead or conical blooms

Ornamental grasses
Add some grace to your winter garden by choosing varieties such as miscanthus cultivars, whose arching leaves create a fountain effect and provide movement as they sway in the breeze.

Ramrod-straight stems and flat-topped seedheads create interest and contrast with the arching grasses.

Try some of the many varieties and colors that have come onto the market in recent years. The conical seedheads not only add interest, but also supply nourishment for hungry birds. (Here is another example of change in the winter garden. You may want to cut off the stems, once the seedheads are gone.)

Northern sea oats
The seedheads are of great interest. Not only is their form and pattern beautiful, but each seed cluster is suspended by a "thread," so that it dangles and moves in the breeze.

Varieties with flat-topped seedheads generally have a lower profile than the other plants I've listed. Use them as a filler among the taller plants above.

Trees with interesting bark-colorful, patterned, and exfoliating
Seven-son flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides), Paperbark maple (Acer griseum), River birch (Betula nigra).

All plants in this list require partial to full sun and thrive in most garden soils.

As Rosemary Verey points out in the quote above, winter reveals the basic "bones" of your garden. This is so because the plants, trees, and shrubs have been "neutralized" by reducing their colors to browns, greys, and blacks. Fencing becomes more prominent. Garden furniture, should you choose to leave it outside over winter, takes center stage for awhile in this never-ending drama that is your garden. Also prominent are other structures such as pergolas, trellises, sundials, and garden art.

Use this winter revelation to see what you might want to alter, add, or enhance. Would a bench look good in this spot? How about some garden art over there? Perhaps a trellis on one of the exterior walls of the garage?

Now let's talk for a moment about some enlivening, non-neutral colors. Use them judiciously. In a sea of neutral colors, your eye will be drawn to them instantly. Ask yourself if there is a spot that you would really like to showcase in the wintertime. Make sure that the soil conditions, sun exposure, and general climate are right for whatever you decide to plant there. Here are some suggestions:

Dwarf false cypress, boxwood, dwarf Alberta spruce, dwarf Serbian spruce, 'Montgomery' blue spruce, and 'Spartan' juniper

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View from our living room window

Echinacea seedhead

Lilac branches

Exfoliating bark

Hydrangea in December

Ornamental grass adds realism

northern sea oats

all work well in a winter setting.

Red: Red Osier Dogwood
Green: Japanese Yellow Rose (Kerria)

Plant these two in close proximity, and you'll have the colors of the season right there in your garden!

Red berries
My favorite red-berry plant is the deciduous winterberry holly, with entire stems covered in clusters of bright red fruit. Others include certain varieties of crabapple, bush honeysuckle, firethorn, and heavenly bamboo.

In this survey of the winter garden scene, we should not neglect fragrance. In our gardens, we have a Witch Hazel growing right outside our potting shed/greenhouse. As early as late February the blossoms open to release their wonderful perfume. The flowers are insignificant to the point of not really adding much color to the landscape, but, oh, the fragrance!

Despite my encouragement earlier to get out into the garden frequently, you can, of course, relate to your garden while indoors as well. Look out your windows. What do you see? Is it pleasing to the eye? What might you do to make it more so? Take some photos. Let them help remind you of what looks good in winter and what you might like to add or move to another location.

Finally, you can bring the outdoors in by using plants in your winter garden for floral arrangements. I'm using "floral" loosely here, because there won't be much, if anything, blooming in your garden at this time of the year. Try to think outside the box a bit. Gather some evergreen boughs. They generally look good in a vase all by themselves. You may want to add colorful twigs and branches. Perhaps some seedheads for additional interest? Even though your spring-flowering shrubs or trees are slumbering, you can awaken branches by bringing them indoors and forcing them into bloom. For forcing instructions, click here.

Now get out there and do some winter gardening! (If ice and snow are present, please do be careful.)

Answer: Asparagus

*Rosemary Verey, The Garden in Winter, Timber Press, 1998.
Witch Hazel photo by DG member ViburnumValley
Red-Twig Dogwood photo by DG member Gabrielle
Initial photo is of a potted crepe myrtle with icy
seed pods

Echinacea, lilac, seven-son flower tree (exfoli-
ating bark),
hydrangea, ornamental grass, sea
, Alberta spruce, red-twig dogwood, kerria,
winterberry holly, witch hazel, achillea, sedum,
false cypress, boxwood, dwarf Serbian spruce, 'Montgomery' blue spruce, and 'Spartan' juniper

Please use the form below for questions and
comments. I enjoy hearing from my readers


Winter herb garden

Additional Links
Exfoliating bark:
paperbark maple, river birch
Red Berries: crabapple, bush honeysuckle, firethorn, heavenly bamboo
DG Article, "
Rediscovering my winter wonderland," by bookerc1

DG article, "
Winter's Wrath: Ice and Snow Damage" by tonileand
For another view of winter beauty, look for the article, "Snapshots of a Winter Garden" by Stephanie Boles, scheduled for publication on January 2, 2009.

© Larry Rettig 2008