As in the rest of our youth-centered culture, gardeners tend to focus on developing gardens that highlight spring (youth) and summer (young adulthood) with a nod or two toward early autumn (middle-age). Little attention is placed on the garden in middle-late autumn or on into winter. As with life, a garden does not stop magically with the glory of early autumn, but continues to fade into the austerity of winter. Rather than viewing this as the end of the garden season, a clean-up time before the long, dismal grays of winter, we need to create a garden for all seasons, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest. This would be a garden that offers more than a few evergreens and berries to provide some substance—rather, one that capitalizes on the unique qualities of this season using plants that not only work within the spring, summer, and early autumn garden, but continue during this autumn/winter period to create a special effect. Though different from the early season garden, this landscape can be just as beautiful and satisfying.
As the garden moves from late autumn into winter, several garden aspects become more noticeable and should be considered in your planning. First, your perspective or view of the garden will change from the spring/summer garden. The colder, wetter, and darker days draw us indoors, and you will largely view the garden from within or when approaching or leaving your home. Daylight hours shorten; by winter, you will probably leave and return home in the dark and will often see your garden using artificial light. Second, the autumn/winter garden will be structurally different. As we move towards winter, the decreasing volume of vegetation makes the garden more austere; “bare bones” prevail. This results in a garden where individual shrubs and trees stand out, and, because of this enhanced simplicity, the lines of the pathways and beds become more noticeable, taking on greater significance. Third, the color palette is simpler and more limited, but, because light becomes bluer and the days are grayer, color has greater impact and provides a wonderful visual punch.
Perspective should play an important role in your planning. It makes sense to focus your late autumn/winter emphasis in those areas of your garden that you actually see during that season. Trace the visual pathways you and your guests travel to, from, and within your home. What portion of the garden is seen from the road, driveway, parking area, and pathways to front and back doors; what views of the garden are framed by windows or viewing areas used regularly by you and your guests during the winter months? Keep in mind the view you will have from these areas. Is your perspective close, as it would be by the front steps and pathway, or more distant, as, for instance, from the window over the kitchen sink toward a bed across the yard. These are the areas within your garden that should take on the highest priority as you develop a winter garden plan. Later, if you find these high impact areas rewarding, you can always expand your winter garden concepts to other areas. Because you will often see these areas in the dark or near dark, you might want to plan for additional artificial lighting to enhance the views.
Once you have viewed your garden from its winter perspective and identified key areas to highlight, you will need to consider how structural changes during this period will affect your garden plan. As we move from early to late autumn the garden is transformed from a full symphony orchestra characterized by lush abundance, varied textures, and vivid color, to a spare chamber ensemble where beds become simplified, dominated by evergreens, sculptural deciduous material, and the dying glory of perennial flowers and grasses. Whatever new material you add should work within the context of your summer symphony as well as with current plantings to form a garden plan that will largely stand on its own as a winter composition.
Study the beds in the high impact areas to evaluate their present winter structure. What is left in late fall? Is there a strong evergreen component, or is more evergreen material needed? If more is needed, what textures and heights might enhance the current design? What deciduous trees and shrubs currently work to provide interest and structure in these high profile winter beds? Is more needed? Take another look at the lines of your garden. Winter simplicity places much greater emphasis on line. Strengthening the line of beds and pathways in these winter-interest areas will enhance the improved evergreen and deciduous structure of your garden and heighten the impact of these same beds in the spring/summer season.
Color and Light
Color is the final aspect you need to consider in your winter garden planning. The winter palette, like its structure, is more spare and restrained. Gone are the abundant blooms of summer with their extended range of iridescent color. Color is the star of the summer garden, supported by the texture and structure of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. The winter garden reverses this relationship, and the garden becomes more about structure and texture with color playing a supporting, but important, role. Most color in the winter garden comes from the evergreen and deciduous plantings; colors range from yellow to brown, to a spectrum of green and blue, and finally red and plum into mahogany and black.
Because light is bluer in winter and color is related to textural/structural material, colors will appear to be more opaque and will have greater depth than colors derived from summer perennials and shrubs. This creates a misty, almost hazy color effect in the winter garden that is intensified by the likelihood that plantings will often be covered by a glaze of water from dew, fog, or rain on the West Coast. In this surreal, watercolor- like garden, red is the color that adds magic and, fortunately, is a color easily found in the winter aspect of many deciduous and evergreen plants available to the winter gardener.
A Case Study in My Own Garden
Studying the winter perspective, I identified specific garden beds as high impact areas seen by family and visitors during winter. Our property on Bainbridge Island slopes fairly steeply from south to north, and from east to west toward the lower bank overlooking Port Orchard Sound. A large property, we have terraced it on a number of levels. The house is approached by a long driveway that sweeps downhill to a parking area, from which brick steps and a curving path lead to the front porch. Because a significant portion of the garden is highly visible in winter, with beds seen from both close-up and distant vantage points, line and dimension are critical. The garage, parking area, house, and arbor comprise the straight lines on the property; all other lines (driveway, front path, flower beds) have been developed as sweeping curves, which keep the eyes moving across the multi-terraced garden from bed to bed, and reflect the distant undulating, lapping water of Puget Sound. In summer, line and dimension are important but take a back seat to the abundant color, texture, and sheer volume of the plantings; during the winter months, particularly with beds viewed from a distance, line and dimension have a greater impact on the garden. Over the last few years, as I became more aware of this, I have increased the size of these beds and refined the lines to create the sweeping effects I wanted.
As some of the beds were increased in size and the lines improved, additional winter structure was added as part of the garden plan. Japanese maples, various conifers, deciduous and evergreen shrubs, persistent perennials, and evergreen grasses provide winter structure and texture. Over time, I’ll make additional changes to these high-impact beds to further enhance their effect during each season in the garden. In one area, for example, blue wheat grass (Elymus), Euphorbia rigida, and Hebe were effective for only a limited season; I replaced them with a prostrate dwarf blue spruce (Picea), Euphorbia wulfenii, and pheasant tail grass (Stipa arundinacea)—plants that added year-round structure and texture to this highly visible bed, but also worked within the context of the other material. Likewise, I removed several roses, bamboo, and a hydrangea from a bed near the arbor and replaced them with a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Black Dragon’), Euphorbia wulfenii, and a Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii ‘Shiguro’) for year-round interest.
In these important areas of my winter garden, color was also a major concern. (Line, structure, and texture are the cake, but color is the frosting.) The new material I added not only needed to give year-round texture and structure to the beds, but also needed to work from the standpoint of color. The new plantings added in the first example, above, worked to make this bed’s winter color come alive. The spruce’s vivid light blue and the euphorbia’s blue green contrast with the near-black mahogany of the deciduous barberry (Berberis japonica cultivar) and the russet gold of the grass. In the second example, the new maple’s brown bark, the euphorbia’s blue green, and the pine’s deep, dense green enhance the other colors in the bed. Together these plantings form a winter composition of vivid color seen from a distance, with the dark stems of the barberry and the maple contrasting with the bright red bark of the dogwood and the willows.
One final consideration for the winter gardener is the importance of containers and garden art. Spring/summer pots, filled with plants of varied textures and colors scattered throughout the garden, have evolved into an art form, but many gardeners end their efforts in autumn. Winter is the season when these pots can have the greatest impact and are, therefore, needed the most. I have clusters of pots on either side of the front steps, filled in summer with a core planting of evergreen, usually dwarf, coniferous material and a mix of annuals and perennials for color. In fall, I remove the annuals and tender perennials, cut back the hardier perennials or heel them in elsewhere, to be returned to the pots in spring; then I add colorful winter material that can be removed in the spring and planted elsewhere. A year ago, I purchased a number of inexpensive, one-gallon-size pines and used them in several of the winter pots. I carefully chose pines that possessed an almost bonsai-like character and found they also worked well with the spring/ summer arrangements, adding an interesting, linear element. With a little judicious pruning, these pines should continue to be a good base for both winter and summer container plantings for several years. Recently, I’ve added to the pots Euphorbia martinii, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) with lovely plump red berries, and Lenten and Christmas roses (Helleborus orientalis and H. niger) that will bloom in late February with mauve and creamy white flowers.
Garden art, like planted containers, can have a significant impact on the winter garden. I placed an antique Japanese lantern by a Japanese maple on a rock wall next to the path to the front door. In winter, the lantern and the sculptural simplicity of the tree work together to add interest to this area. One of my favorite winter views is from the living room to a Japanese-inspired birdhouse surrounded by deciduous and evergreen plantings on the bank overlooking the water beyond.
Identifying high-impact winter areas within your garden, and using line, structure, texture, color, winter pots, and garden art to enhance their appeal, should give you a garden whose beauty will unfold each year as winter progresses. Don’t be surprised if your garden becomes so entrancing in winter that you and your guests find yourselves putting on your Wellingtons, donning rain gear, and heading out for winter garden walks; you might even try picnics in the garden shed, as you come to realize that there should be no seasonal limitations to your enjoyment of the garden—particularly here on the West Coast.