The Garden Life: Winter is time to create garden for all seasons




Winter is the decisive moment for any garden design. By now, our blooming flower borders have faded into memory. The eye is no longer engaged or distracted by the bounty of floral color. The deciduous trees and shrubs have been stripped bare. Now, the framework of your garden becomes the dominant feature. This is a good time of year to review your overall garden plan.

If you began your garden with an initial design plan, consider yourself light years ahead of the rest of us. Most gardeners, including me, begin gardening in a flurry of interest and activity. We fall in love with the look of a plant or the idea of brilliant flower color. Later, we try to introduce structure to the accumulation of plants. The result is often a hodgepodge of ideas held together only by the glue of inspiration.

The clarity of winter brings out the skeleton of your garden. In garden design terms, the bones. Paths, walkways, hedges and walls are elements that provide background and form for your planting plan. All must stand on their own merits. A cedar trellis or metal sculpture may be the only vertical element in a winter flower border. The bare branches of a dogwood tree may be the only feature in a sea of lawn.

Use the critical eye of a visitor to see your garden plan clearly. We all know the difference between a project that was planned out well in advance and one that was pulled together at the last minute. On the other hand, many of our most successful projects begin with a simple idea and expand over time. A good basic plan allows for the process of evolution.

No gardener should expect perfection on the first outing. For gardeners making their first or second garden, there is simply too much to know to get everything right. In addition, the ideal garden you desire today will change over time. Like finding the perfect home, you don’t know exactly what you want until you’ve lived through a couple of starters.

Just like a home, what you learn from spending time in a garden is how the traffic flows from one area to another. With time, you will discover your favorite visual nooks, where the sun pools in the morning and where shade seduces you on a summer afternoon. Knowledge comes from experience.

Few plants lend texture, volume and visual depth to a planting design better than evergreens. Evergreen trees form walls and a background. Evergreen shrubs connect the earth and sky and bring your home into scale with your garden. Bold sweeps of evergreen ground covers such as pachysandra or Vinca minor threading through beds and borders are important in unifying the winter garden.

Consider character

Our first thought of a deciduous tree is the form it takes in midsummer when the crown of the tree is at its fullest. However, in winter, after leaves have fallen and the framework of the tree stands stark against the colorless sky, a deciduous tree has the structural presence to make an impact. Consider the character of your garden plants in all four seasons.

One of the best measures of your garden design is the comfort you feel when you are out in it. If the logic and design of your garden works, you will see it from all different angles. Look for garden views out of house windows. Include ornamental beds and borders in the view from the kitchen and living rooms. Create a small garden room or vignette that can be seen from private rooms of the house, such as the bedroom and bathroom.

Begin with trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Step down to shrubs and ground covers. Later, bring in perennials and annuals for additional color and texture. It’s like adding pillows to a large sofa or pictures to painted walls. The strength of your garden relies on the basic plan. Visual interest changes with the addition of seasonal plantings.

One goal in garden design is to create a space that is beautiful and pleasing to the senses in all seasons. A successful garden will also reflect your personality. Whether sleeping under a blanket of snow in deepest winter or exploding with extravagant fragrance in summer, a fabulous garden will engage all of your senses. Best of all, the sight, smell, sound, and feel of your own garden is entirely up to you. Begin with a simple plan and then make it what you will.

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