The Garden Life: Holiday decorating gives gardeners winter chore



Every year about this time, someone says to me, “It’s winter. What will you do now that there’s nothing to do in the garden?” I answer by opening last year’s garden journal to December. Just one look at the full pages of my winter journal confirms the notion that we can always find something to do in the year-round garden.

To begin with, there is the job of refreshing plantings in seasonal pots and hanging baskets around the house and garden. Frilly ornamental kale and winter pansies replace spent petunias and geraniums. Planters with permanent plantings of seasonal perennials and ornamental grasses should be moved to a protected site in preparation for harsh winter weather.

It’s time, again, to decorate for the upcoming holiday season. Hanging lights from the eaves of the house, draping trees and shrubs with festive garlands and wrapping tree trunks with gold or silver ribbon can fill a weekend. I’m convinced that the tradition of outdoor holiday decorating began with a gardener looking for something else to do in December.

Run a string of lights through a small stand of vine maples for a starlight effect on winter nights. Put twinkle lights on low-growing azaleas. Add sound to the winter garden by hanging a string of sleigh bells to low tree branches. Like wind chimes with a distinct holiday tenor, they jingle in the slightest breeze. I like to hang half a dozen bells of assorted sizes on the front door as a signal of welcome to every guest over the holiday season.

An important aspect of garden design is creating views from the inside of the

house looking out. In winter, the garden is stripped to the bones and there is little to draw your attention from its basic structure. There is no better time to decide what you want to see out those windows in winter than in winter itself. Use your imagination to conjure up a pleasant view that fits your garden’s personality.

Make the view from your master bedroom one of a private winter oasis. Create a semi-circle of berry-laden holly bushes with the open end facing your bedroom window. Plant this area as an enclosed seasonal planting bed. For the winter months, fill the area with winter blooming hellebores, sweet box (Sarcococca), “Rainbow” leucothoe and an undulating sweep of early blooming snowdrops.

Early nights and cool weather drive us indoors where it is warm and cozy. How fitting for an evening of garden catalogue shopping. Use catalogues as a plant reference as well. You can learn more about the plants already in your garden, as well as get inspiration for filling the garden with newer varieties. It’s one of the few reading jobs you can do with a friend, sharing pictures, information and personal knowledge about a plant as you peruse catalogues together.

Winter solstice

This year, winter begins in the northern hemisphere on Dec. 22. It will be the shortest day of the year, when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky. We refer to this phenomenon as the winter solstice, when the sun is directly overhead at high-noon at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words “sun” and “to stop,” because the sun seems to stop in the sky. This is still a viable time of year to add color and life to the garden by planting. There are whole groups of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees that can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen.

For some gardeners, a day is not well spent without some time in the garden. For others, winter is a time to dream. Now our gardens are less cluttered than in the midst of the growing season, and it’s often easier to envision something on a clean slate.

When it’s temperate enough to spend time outdoors, wander through the garden without intention. This is long-term dreaming, when you spend time doing what you love to do, fully aware that you don’t have to act on the idea for months to come.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at