Winter Gardens

Garden Designers Roundtable: Winter Inspiration

I’m totally obsessed with winter gardens.  The thing is though, by spring, just like everyone else I get caught up in the sexier spring and summer seasons and completely forget to plant for winter.  This year I’m going to try and change that.

Winter Gardens
Seed Pods
Winter Gardens
Winter Grasses

Most hope that permanent structures and some evergreens will be enough in winter, but I’m more interested in other elements that are unique to the season that will be as interesting and visually satisfying as other seasons.   There are plants beyond evergreens that add to the winter garden, but they require skill and maintenance to look good throughout the season.  Evergreens create bones and a backdrop and help to make things work in March and early April when just about everything else looks really crappy.  They, along with interesting and exfoliating bark, sing when there is snow.

Winter Gardens
Heptacodium miconiodes and evergreens in snow

As a designer, what I’m really excited about is creating a neutral and textural  garden story for winter that combines plants with structural elements and shadows to create a complex and interesting space.  I don’t need a lot of color in January like I do in June.  For me, winter is fairly neutral. The flat, blue quality of our eastern winter light with its long shadows lends itself to thoughtful color and texture juxtaposed with shadow play.

Winter Gardens
Winter Grasses and Stone Wall

Although the climate and light are different there, a visit to the Denver Botantic Gardens  spurred my interest in pursuing winter garden design even further.  Above, the neutral color palette makes this swath of mixed grasses have even more drama than it would have at the height of the summer. Too many people cut grasses down too early.  Wait until the end of February for that chore and reap the rewards.  Snow can make them look a bit untidy, but white and tan is an beautiful color combination.

Winter Garden Interest
Shadow play on Stone
Winter inspiration at NYBG
Shadow ‘allee’ at New York Botanical Gardens

Two ways to consider structure in the winter garden are as a canvas for shadows created by the long low light (above) and as as structural focal points (below).

Winter Garden Inspiration
Columns providing structure

A third, more fleeting way to add cold weather structure is to actually incorporate opportunities for ice to form, or to use it in big chopped up chunks as a winter feature where there was water in warmer weather.  When I lived closer, I used to make a pilgrimage to see the huge and jewel-like ice crystals on the Delaware River in mid and late winter, but I never actually considered this idea for a garden until I saw the two examples below, both at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Water Feature with Ice
Monumental ice formations on a water feature
Winter garden inspiration
Ice ‘boulders’

Inspiration is everywhere…even in January.

For more inspiration, try these ideas from the other Garden Designers Roundtable blogging designers:

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Jenny Peterson : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin, TX
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

16 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Winter Inspiration

  1. Lovely pictures! Sometimes I wish we have a proper winter here in Rome, I enjoy winter garden looks so much

  2. Thanks for the winter photos of the Denver Botanic Garden, which I’ve never seen before. I love the post, especially new ideas like finding ways for ice to form in the garden. What a great concept! I’m certainly a proponent of the winter garden and usually burn and cut the garden in March. But vole damage last winter prompted me to cut early this year. The grass cover provides a heaven for voles, which eat their hosts’ roots. Perhaps this is a weather-related problem and cyclical. I hope cutting early once in a while does the trick. Love that Heptacodium. Now I have a better idea of how to treat the four I planted last fall.

  3. It’s odd that it using ice as a feature beyond a nuisance never occurred to me before since I always stop to admire it when I see it in ‘the wild’. I, too, have a big problem with voles. They destroyed several large foundation plants last year which has, in turn, lead me to spend part of the winter re-designing a now forlorn space. I’m going to try planting in baskets. This is a common practice for gophers in by some NoCal designers I know…

  4. Scott–It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I put together these specific pieces of the winter garden puzzle so Huzzzah! to the Garden Designers Roundtable for making me think outside my own design ideas!

  5. Jocelyn- I enjoyed everything about the gardens and my trip to Denver. One of the great highlights of my year and last year too! Thanks you for your warm welcome! I will indeed publish more images when I get a chance…–S

  6. Great stuff, Susan. This is my year to amp up my winter garden, too. It’s hard, because my space is so small and shady. I’ve been toying with the idea of a cloud “hedge” — of course, it won’t be a hedge, just a small cloud formation. That and an upright evergreen pillar will I hope provide an anchor for grey, wintery days like these.

  7. I too love the winter garden. The opportunity to see form without all the fuss is so calming and beautiful. I always try to plan for winter interest when designing and to help make my clients aware of such so that they too can appreciate their surroundings in the dead of winter. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Oh god, I have not had to do math for a while!
    Susan, loved the way you brought out the fragility, shadows and even icy design potential of winter.
    There must be something about the weather over there that makes grasses so amazing.
    So often here they are a dismal dsisheveled heap by now.
    Tho of course species selection and even individual form has something to say there!
    It is a special time.
    Without it there is no spring!
    Ta and Best

  9. Susan,
    As so many have said here before me, your photos are simply deeee-lish! Capturing the idea of the shadow play in that NYBG photo was inspiring for me as well. I don’t think of the shadows this time of year the way I do in summer. I will now!

  10. I also am delighted to see Denver Botanic Gardens through your eyes: the ice you commented on is almost all melted. We’ve had warm days since you visited (nearly 70) and there is a faint stirring of spring. What a treat to chat with you and David. Look forward to seeing you perhaps next month!?

  11. Great especially since I have now met and hung out with you. Yet, seeing your take on this, including in Denver, is so new and fresh. Even your urge to leave the grasses alone until spring…that may be one of the foremost maintenance requirements we need to issue to the public and owners, expecting them to finally get it. Even if grasses are the junipers of the 21st century… The icy fountain enroute to Denver’s regular uber-thaw to 65, and that blue container…mmmm!

    I can only hope I can get a barrage of winter landscape images that work and don’t, as it starts springing here in a few weeks.

  12. Junipers of the 21st century? I had no idea you felt that way. How about pavers being the knotty pine paneling…both will date the landscape.

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