Quite often, my clients will preface our design discussions with the statement that they want to see flowers in bloom throughout the year. They just hate it, they say, when the garden looks “bare” from December to February.
In my opinion, they’re just not seeing the possibilities their gardens have to offer. In fact, winter is my favorite time of the year, and it’s about more than the holidays, the gift giving (and receiving!) and the chilly temperatures: Mainly, it’s about my love affair with winterscapes.
It may be because I’m a northeasterner somewhere deep inside, but I love the fact that colder climates, with their snow and other weather inclemencies, require those with gardens to put a lot more thought into what they plant than is true for gardeners in southern California. Plants in cold climates must withstand the elements and, if the gardens are well-designed, will provide a totally different aesthetic appeal during the leafless, flowerless months of winter.
What my clients seem to be missing is an appreciation of just how beautiful a winter garden can be. And all is not evergreen: Even though our temperatures rarely get into the 30s in southern California, we still have deciduous trees and plants that can be used for this purpose to great effect.
Are flowers the only thing that makes a garden beautiful? Of course not: What makes a garden beautiful is putting thought into plant selection that makes things look great and well-balanced even when leaves and flowers are gone.
This is why I often use combinations of plants that are deciduous, evergreen, blooming and non-blooming. When properly assembled, they compose an ever-changing garden that is as eye-catching and interesting in the barest times of the year as it is in the most prolific days of the growth cycle.
To capture this cyclical balance, the designer needs to consider the year-round characteristics of each plant selected within the palette. Japanese maples, for example, are prime examples of plants that look beautiful when they have leaves and also have a fantastic sculptural quality during the leafless winter months. And there are several other plants that fill this bill, as we’ll see below.
Where I live and work, it is indeed possible to have flowers in bloom throughout the year, but I’d argue the value of a different approach and of embracing seasonal change in gardens no matter where they are.
In choosing plants for beautiful winterscapes, start by evaluating which deciduous plants have interesting branching structures. If you’re looking for a plant that’s narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, Japanese maples are ideal. If you’re looking for something monumental, think Sycamores. Whatever the space requires, consult with your plant suppliers and make a list of all the plants that fit the space and the need – and then pare the list down to the best options.
How do I know certain plants will work? Through the years, I’ve learned enough about available plants that I can visualize how a mature landscape will look, just by reviewing a planting plan. If you don’t have that peculiar ability, perspective drawings and computer-aided design (CAD) systems can help.
Taking that image a step farther and visualizing a design that works in different ways at all times of the year is a more involved process, of course, particularly in considering deciduous plants. In this case, there’s no substitute for knowing exactly how each plant looks during every month of the year. If you find that a daunting task, there are books that help by providing lists of plants that are in bloom during each month of the year, but you’ll still need to do your homework locally to find out how they look in winter.
In designing for gorgeous winterscapes, I make selections among four categories of plants:
* Deciduous plants with interesting branching structures
* Plants with interesting berries, nuts, seed pods, or fruits that hang on during the winter
* Plants with foliage that has colorful or interesting shapes that stand up against the weight of snow or other elements
* Everything else.
Here are just a few of my favorites from each category, just to give you a starting point:
[ ] Interesting branching structures.
* Salix babylonica (Weeping Willow): I would welcome other suggestions, but I can’t think of a more graceful structural tree for this purpose. The lightweight branch ends of this beautiful tree are the perfect complement to the rest of a winter garden, particularly when covered in snow or swaying in the breeze.
* Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple): Many (if not all) varieties of this tree are perfect for winterscaping. Most have interesting branching structures when well pruned, and ‘Sangu Kaku’ in particular has red bark and looks particularly outstanding against snow or, in milder climates, against backdrops of gray or other light-colored foliage.
* Platanus racemosa (California Sycamore): Where I live, nothing rivals the unique, mottled colors and textures of the bark of this statuesque tree, which truly commands attention any time of the year. They are grown extensively in California and perfectly suit our need for specimens with spectacular trunks and great branching structures.
* Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick): This plant is prized for its gnarled and twisted branches and might best be described as the perfect candidate for use in a haunted-house setting. With this shrub, the visual intricacy is there 365 days a year.
[ ] Plants with interesting hangers-on.
* Ilex (Hollies), Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Heteromeles and other plants with fruits and berries: All of these are great for winterscaping and for decorating during the holiday season.
* Roses. They’re beautiful during the flowering season, of course, but the rose hips left behind at the end of the season, if allowed to hang on to full maturity, are prized for their decorative quality. Most people cut off these berry-like pods, which have the appearance of tiny orange or red pomegranates, before they get there, but a bit of late-season patience will result in rose hips of many different sizes and colors (depending upon the variety).
[ ] Plants with interesting foliage.
Selections among these plants will vary from region to region. Where I live and work, I favor the burgundy foliage of Azalea ‘Little John,’ but most other burgundy-leafed plants are deciduous and are considered instead, in this case, for their fruits or berries.
Eleagnus varieties offer some silver foliage that can work as a backdrop or even as specimens, and several grasses offer interesting shapes and textures during the winter. I often encourage clients not to cut grasses down to the ground in winter, but instead to leave them be for their visual appeal, but that can be a tough sell depending upon their tastes.
[ ] Everything else.
The possibilities here are endless, of course, with selection depending on how you want to fill gaps between deciduous plants and structure the space for enduring, year-round survival and visual appeal. I generally pick evergreen plants, shrubs and trees for the purpose, using them as a foundation for the more transitory components of the garden space. Your idea of “everything else” will also vary depending upon the style of the garden, the climate and the overall setting.
A BALANCED APPROACH
These are just a few suggestions in four distinct categories, and there are many approaches for achieving winterscapes with visual appeal. No matter what combination of plants you choose, if you always keep an eye on balance among the four categories, you’ll hit on something that pleases the eye while offering distinct changes from season to season.
Also keep pruning in mind when planning a winterscape: Many plants can be adapted to look more suitable to a winterscape when pruned through the year with their leafless forms in mind.
And remember, any of these plants, particularly those with spectacular branching structures, can create stunningly picturesque vistas when placed behind watershapes. It doesn’t take much effort or skill to visualize a leafless Weeping Willow after a snow flurry, its branches swaying in the wind and mirrored on the water.
I can almost feel the chill in the air.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected]