When it comes to garden design, the vibrant colors of spring and summer are the first things we consider. After all, that's when we use our gardens the most. But with just a bit of planning and effort, the winter landscape can be unique and interesting, too. The key is diversity. A variety of textures, colors and forms will take a winter landscape from dull to dazzling.
Start by choosing plants that don't all look the same after their leaves drop in fall. Contrast shapes (round vs. triangular, weeping vs. upright), textures (coarse vs. fine) and colors (intense vs. pale, dark vs. bright, warm vs. cool). Set up a strong contrast between elements, such as red berries against the white snow; or thin, feathery grasses in front of stiff, upright evergreens. Balance these strong elements with more subtle colors and textures.
If hungry birds and animals don't get them, many fruits ripen in late summer and fall. They hang on through the winter, making bright punctuation marks on the landscape. Deciduous hollies, chokeberry, coralberry, heavenly bamboo and hawthorn all feature colorful fruits.
After trees and shrubs drop their leaves, their inner beauty comes through in brightly colored stems that grow richer in hue as the temperature drops. Dogwoods, Japanese kerria and many willows offer bright green, yellow and red accents to the winter garden.
Witchhazel and Christmas rose really command attention because their flowers are so unexpected. Most evergreens feature some varieties that burst with color. Try a golden or bluish conifer or a variegated broadleaf like euonymus. There are endless sizes, shapes and textures to work in any landscape.
The scaffold, the trees' and shrubs' bare bones, really put on a show in the winter when the foliage is out of the way. The wings on the stems of a burning bush or the spidery traces of Boston ivy snaking along a wall are wonderful surprises. Harry Lauder's walking stick and corkscrew willow have tremendously twisted branches.
Herbaceous perennials that die back in the winter also add structure. Golden brown and tan grasses look great popping out of the snow, adding a lazy movement that only shows up at this time of year. Purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and other stiff-stemmed flowers stand up to winter winds and provide a little food for wild birds. Pigsqueak turns a vibrant, golden orange while keeping its ground hugging form. Yucca shoots blossoms to the sky like winter fireworks.
In winter, bark becomes a powerful landscape element. Stewartia and river birch have exfoliating bark that peels off in distinctive shapes. Silver green honey locust and smooth, bronze cherry are also effective players.
Select just a few places to highlight: the front door, views from a favorite room, and the most visible front corner of the lot are good places to feature. Draw a rough plan of the design, first concentrating on shapes, textures and colors. Then select favorite plants that work in your USDA zone and in the various exposures and microclimates in your unique location.
Remember colorful twigs will fade and scaffold shapes change as the plant matures. Keep everything trimmed in a pruning routine that will encourage a fresh crop of striking new growth year after year. And make a habit to tidy up the garden in the fall so it will start winter off looking fit.