Monday, November 23, 2009

Planning for winter beauty

With the onset of another Alaskan winter and a dusting of the white stuff, some gardeners go into hibernation.  Others head to Hawaii or Arizona.  Others still, resign themselves to the inevitable and decide to enjoy the austere beauty that we call the winter landscape.  It's not challenging to find grandeur in the wilds of Alaska, but is any of this beauty to be found in your garden?  If you have not noticed it before, perhaps some adjustment is called for. 

Some are just a bit too enthusiastic with fall clean up.  Picture a mixture of Paul Bunyan and Mary Poppins.  Everything must be spit-spot and the hand pruners are slicing away vigorously for three days straight.  The chores are not done until every perennial is cut to the nubbins and every annual yanked out.  For many years my own garden looked this way in late autumn.  After the big cleanup, a heating pad and pain meds, I would look resentfully at the cause of so much pain and effort and my thoughts would be something along the lines of "good riddance."  I am softening my views, it seems.  Increased demands on my time prevented a perfectly clean sweep one autumn and that winter I noticed something I had not in years past.  My garden was interesting.  Even in winter.   

I'm not suggesting that a Paul Bunyan-type gardener go cold turkey.  Start slow if you like.  Increased attention is being paid to perennials that shine in the fall.  Perhaps those might be left intact.  What about plants with interesting seedheads or very woody, rigid stems that might make it through a winter?  Do I even need to mention ornamental grasses?  Of course I do.  If you have them, leave them intact through the winter (Phalaris pictured above).  What about your container plants?  I used to pluck each one out and fling the whole bit on the compost pile every fall like clockwork.  With my new combination of insight and laziness, I leave many plants in the containers (example below).  I might as well, they are going to die anyway.  I'd rather enjoy the show.

Trees add a lot of interest to the winter landscape.  Those blessed with established, healthy trees can just enjoy the show.  When it comes to planting a new tree, a person with a small yard needs to be especially choosy, but even those with serious acreage need to decide carefully when it comes to placement near the home.  Evergreen trees, like spruces and pines, add bulk and presence.  They are great background plants in summer that can come to the foreground after all the deciduous trees lose their leaves.  Some varieties have needles that turn colors in fall or winter for increased interest.  Deciduous trees are also attractive in their own way without their leaves.  Some varieties have attractive bark, like birches (pictured below), that can be featured with a little planning, others have brightly colored berries or fruit.  Some shrubs also have interesting bark or berries for winter, like Physocarpus (ninebark) or Viburnum.  They are especially valuable in small yards or near the house, where you don't want some thirty foot evergreen tree blocking the little bit of (precious) winter light that comes into the home.

Ah, what to say about hardscape (in other words, everything but the plants themselves) in the winter garden?  A dusting of snow can conceal many things but it can be revealing, too.  How is your space divided?  Rocks, timbers, concrete, plastic, or metal.  Is the overall shape pleasing, jarring, satisfying?  A straight line (like a path to the front door) can be very agreeable, but so can a gentle curve (like a path through the garden).  When covered in a thin layer of snow, the outline can be discerned.  Textures come into play: smooth, like concrete, versus rough, like gravel.  Directionality is a feature: vertical, like a copper trellis, versus horizontal, like a raised planter.  All these things can add appeal or interest to a garden in winter.

One more thing that can be very interesting in the winter landscape: land contours.  Slopes, inclines, knolls, rises, mounds, or hills.  All wonderful for effect.  And what effects they can be: humor, awe, mystery, drama.  It reminds me an instance when I was completely re-designing the front yard a few years ago and was trying to contour a small rise for privacy.  I imagined a tree or two planted on it and a few shrubs would shelter the path to my front door very nicely.  A neighbor thought I was making a burial mound.  Ha, ha.  Obviously my little contour was a touch too suggestive.  I pursed my lips and set about smoothing the edges out a bit.

So to conclude, there are many different ways to add interest to the garden in winter.  Take stock of your space and see if plants, hardscaping, and land contours might aid you in achieving an effect worth looking at in the cold months.  It's the next best thing to wintering in Hawaii.


  1. Wow...seriously? Is this what your garden looks like in November? I had no idea that winter came so early...My daughter would be so jealous!

  2. You photos give one perspective on what it will be like up there in the winter. When I think of Alaska in winter I recall hearing about the Christmas bird counts in one city up there, the results are one or two Ravens at the landfill.

  3. Gartengrl: Winter usually comes by Halloween. My new philosophy is to take up more winter sports;)

    Mr. Emmitt: That bird count sounds like somewhere way up north. We are relatively warm here in Anchorage (southcentral) and we get quite a few different birds in winter, ravens included of course.

    Thanks for visiting my new blog!


  4. Your garden, covered in snow is truly beautiful. Because we rarely receive snow and it doesn't stick when it does snow, I have always found snow-covered gardens fascinating. I love the different textures of the plants and how they add so much interest.

  5. @azplantlady
    Enjoying the snow covered garden is part of my "glass half full" coping strategy for living in a state with such a short gardening season.


  6. Oh how beautiful! I want to visit Alaska so bad! I'm so jealous!

  7. @madblooms
    We have some lovely garden tours in the summer. In the winter, not so much...but plenty of winter sports. Come visit us in the 49th state some time!


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