Landscape Design for Winter Interest

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.