Designing a landscape for winter interest is usually a secondary factor. Our other three seasons command a lot more attention. It does not mean however that winter landscape design should be overlooked.

The degree to which an interesting winter landscape design is important depends on how present you are to your landscape at that time of year. If you’re snowbirds, then it probably is a pretty low priority. However I would suggest that times do change and keeping winter interest in mind is worthwhile – perhaps you’ll eventually decide to spend winter holidays in the house?

I have visited clients in the winter and loved seeing various beauty in their winter landscape, only to hear them say, “How soon will I start to see some color out there?” So if you’re not someone that can see the beauty of winter, perhaps it isn’t a feature you should spend much time considering.

Where you’ll want to elevate the degree of importance is in considering the views you have from your windows, particularly kitchen or living room windows that provide your daily views.

Typically we focus on more bold statements such as foliage and flowers for the summer. Interesting winter landscape design is achieved through shapes, texture, shadow and to a lesser degree, color. Boulders which are placed as key structural elements in the overall design become more important in the winter as the “busyness” of foliage and flowers are absent. Other natural elements such as stumps or stone walls become important. If you have garden art (sculpture or statuary) you’ll want to place it to good advantage from your windows.

Shrubs and particularly evergreens are very important in the winter landscape. The strong blue of a blue spruce (many dwarf options for landscapes) really stand out, particularly when paired with something of a more twiggy nature, such as a Mid Winter Fire Dogwood. Mugo pines, bird nest spruce and many more evergreen options exist for the intimate garden.

Further afield, full size evergreens such as Pinons and White Fir are excellent options and pair beautifully with the strong upright structure of grasses. The red berry-laden draping branches of a Cranberry Cotoneaster can’t be beat on a slope, particularly if wrapping around a boulder.

Trees offer their own important structural elements. They also cast fantastic shadows, particularly onto snow. Take note of the winter sun’s angles and plant a tree where the shadows can be cast on the side of a building or adobe wall. Trees offer a variety of bark colors and textures. This is a more subtle attribute, but can be quite striking. Think of the white bark of a birch, the olive-green of aspen or the twisted nature of a Toba Hawthorne’s trunk.

There are some perennials that are evergreen to semi-evergreen. Examples would be Kannah Creek Sulfur Buckwheat which turns a lovely rusty to bright red in the winter, often holding its brown seed heads above it. Others include some of the penstemons such as the Pine leaf and Fir leaf varieties and even the easy-to-grow Rocky Mountain Penstemon is semi-evergreen.

An important guideline for enjoying a winter-interest landscape is that you don’t do an extensive fall cleanup. There are many articles written about this and there are myriad reasons. Here, we won’t get into the benefits to the plants themselves and the many beneficial insects they harbor. Or the way plants help sequester moisture by holding snow or offering food and shelter to birds and other wildlife. Just trust me that it is much better overall to do your cleanup in the early spring. This means you get to enjoy the textures, shapes and shadows that your untouched (and now dry) plants offer. And a note of caution for that March cleanup. Some garden treasures appear early, such as Snow Crocus, so tread carefully and don’t injure those things getting an early start in your garden.

Ready to consider some winter design elements? I’m available in the Taos area for Garden Consultations.

See Part 1 of this spring landscape design series to learn about the challenges of early spring gardens, where to place early bloomers in the garden and a discussion about spring-blooming bulbs.

In addition to the usual tulips and daffodils, there are plants that bloom early and bring interest to your garden. As mentioned previously, you’ll want to be sure and site these plants in places where they’ll be appreciated at a time you may not be spending too much time in the garden. Also, keep in mind that after their spring bloom, these plants will mostly be green the rest of the growing season. Rather than simply dotting them around your landscape, a well thought out landscape design will place these plants where they can hold space as the summer progresses but have other plants around them that can become the stars and focus.

Whenever you’re adding new plants to your spring landscape design it is important to take note of the conditions each plant will thrive in. Water requirements and sunlight are usually at the top of the list, and you’ll also want to make sure you plan for the mature height and width of any given plant and give it the space it deserves. If you learn (through a book, a friend or a plant tag) that a plant wants a well-drained soil, pay attention. Those plants will usually only thrive if water drains quickly away from them; they do not like to have wet feet.

Not much of a gardener yourself? That’s where a Landscape Horticulturist can come in. With a deep knowledge of plant material, I can provide you with a list of plants suited to your particular garden location, relative to the amount of sun, water, drainage and space that you have. I will take careful note of where, when and how you do (or want to) use your garden space and make a plan accordingly so your desires are achieved.

A few classic spring bloomers are Candytuft, Basket of Gold Alyssum and Creeping Phlox.

In the photo of the Creeping Phlox you’ll see some white flowers behind it which is Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry, a very xeric groundcover shrub. Note further in that same picture the Red Twig Dogwood in the background. It is another great way to add some texture and color to not only the spring garden, but the winter as well. The dogwood likes some moisture however, so site it accordingly. They usually do well near a canale or downspout where they get more regular watering.

A couple of less common flowers that definitely appreciate good drainage are the Pasque Flower and Pussytoes. They pair nicely, especially in an intimate space where you’ll be able to see them.

The photos of the Pasque Flower in bloom and the one with the seed heads were taken a couple of weeks apart. The seed heads are so attractive it means you’ll have color and interest for a longer season from the one plant.  

For a bigger plant in your garden, consider a Fernbush. It can get large, 4’x4’, and should be placed to the back with room to expand. While its leaves appear delicate, it is very xeric and cold tolerant. It doesn’t bloom until August, but is worth including here because it is the first thing to unfold new leaves in the early spring and provides a lovely pop of bright green at a time when most everything is still wearing its drab winter palette.  

Finally I’d like to include the Canada Red Chokecherry, a small tree. The early white flowers are incredibly fragrant. And a few weeks after its leaves unfurl and after the flowers have faded, it has a surprise in store for you. The green leaves which are now beginning to blend into the green of the rest of your landscape magically turn a muddy red color that makes the tree stand out once again.

So even if you’re a fair weather gardener, more prone to the warm, sun-filled days of June and July, you can carefully place a few things of interest in your spring landscape design to enjoy from key windows, perhaps one where you watch the birds at your feeder.

Achieving a colorful garden in early spring in the Rocky Mountains can be a definite challenge. Landscape design for spring interest isn’t for the faint of heart. Mother Nature can surely challenge plants meant to bloom early. Many a spring season she will cover them in snow or burn them with severe cold. Snow is actually most often a good thing as it will protect plants by insulating them from below-freezing temperatures. The weight of it however can do damage, so it is a fine line of whether to try and remove the snow or leave it in place. I generally leave it in place unless it is heavy enough that a woody tree or shrub is in danger of having branches broken. Most herbaceous plants are flexible and will bend under the weight of snow and then revive after it melts.

snow covering spring flowers

These notoriously erratic Rocky Mountains springs, in both temperature and precipitation, challenge us. Yet if you’re willing to be patient and maybe lose some blooms in occasional years, it is worth the effort. Planting a garden for spring color requires not only planning but a degree of acceptance that some years you may have to face defeat or enjoy only a brief display.

A good landscape design will focus your spring color in places where you can enjoy the flowers. Most people are not hanging out on their patios during cooler spring temperatures. Therefore, you’ll want these pops of color and interest to be along a primary walkway where you come and go often. Perhaps the path to your front door, or the route you take to the compost bin. You can also focus your spring landscape features in key positions that are highly visible from your windows and in particular, windows where you spend a lot of time looking out.

Are spring-blooming bulbs the only avenue for early pops of color? No, but they are a great starting place. Tulips come in early-mid- and late-blooming categories. By focusing on all three you increase the chances of a long span of color. There are also species (wild) tulips that bloom quite early, naturalize beautifully and provide unexpected little pops of blooming interest.

Wild tulips in spring

Daffodils are another cheerful spring flower coming in a full range of yellows with some whites. Crocus will give you very early blooms along with snowdrops and Iris reticulata.

Iris reticulata

There are other lesser-known spring bulbs as well, such as Alliums and Fritillaria. Look for them in catalogs and garden centers in September when it is time to purchase and plant these spring bloomers.

Look for Part 2 in this series for more ideas on adding color and interest to your spring garden.