I turned on the tv to a morning show just in time for the weather report. Somewhere out east there was a snowstorm that left an inch or two of snow on the ground. At the same time, a glance out my back windows showed blue sky with white fluffy clouds and a temperature of 59 degrees at 8 in the morning. Neither the snow nor the warmth seemed quite normal for the time of year, but they both started me thinking.
As much as I love the exuberance of spring and summer and the dramatic colors of fall, I am always a little relieved to see and to feel winter arrive. For me, winter is a time to slow down and in that slower pace, to see the world around me in a different way. I find that I take delight in things I would never even notice at other, busier times of the year. My landscape is no exception.
Landscape designs during the spring and summer are often focused on riots of colors from blooming trees and shrubs and beds of annuals and perennials. In contrast, the winter design emphasizes form and structure over color. Using elements such as contrasts of light and dark, wispy and solid, the winter design communicates an ever changing subtle beauty that takes time to appreciate. In the winter almost everything becomes sculptural, stripped to its essential form.
Creating a landscape that celebrates winter requires a special touch. Designers not only need an understanding of how to design the space and a thorough knowledge of the characteristics of a vast array of plant material, but also an insight into how the play of light throughout the day will impact the views of the landscape. Unlike spring and summer’s flowers which favor front lighting, many of winter’s plants are best viewed in a side or back light which brings out their hidden details.
Professional designers have long thought of evergreens as the foundation of the winter landscape. Their color and lasting foliage provide a solid, defining backdrop for the more ethereal plantings surrounding them. Available in many shapes, sizes and colors, evergreens are used to pull the eye to a specific space and then to lead the viewer into another exquisite perspective. When covered in snow, evergreens shimmer in both the sunlight and the moonlight, adding yet another dimension to the winter landscape.
Another group of plants necessary to the winter landscape is that of native and ornamental grasses. Grasses, especially native grasses, are tough, adaptable plants with a variety of shapes, colors and textures. Unlike flowers that fade as winter approaches, many grasses seem to come into their own, often with their colors enriching throughout the fall and into the winter. Grasses are available in a variety of sizes and shapes, from tiny mounded varieties such as prairie dropseed to the taller graceful plumes of fountain grass. Other varieties, for example some pampas grasses, can reach 15 to 20ft in soaring height. When used with plants of a similar texture, grasses can give a restful feel to the design. The slight rustle of their leaves in a soft breeze re-enforces the peacefulness of the scene. If grasses are paired with contrasting textures and shapes, they add unexpected drama.
Before I understood and appreciated the winter garden, I spent hours each fall “cleaning” my yard. I zealously trimmed down, cut back and hauled away endless numbers of dried stalks and brown flower heads. Today I regret each snip of my pruning shears because now I recognize the beauty in the round seed pod of a purple coneflower, the flat brown head of a yarrow or the whirl of a monarda left to stand in winter. These and other deciduous perennials are another plant group of importance to the winter garden for the striking forms of their flower heads, seed pods and stems which add impressive structure to the winter garden. As an added benefit, they can also attract and feed native birds.
Architectural elements are yet another essential piece of the winter garden, not only giving unexpected and sometimes whimsical focal points, but also drawing the viewer physically into the winter garden. A gate invites you to enter the scene while a precisely placed bench can invite a viewer to stop and savor a moment longer. A garden shed can offer a promise of the spring to come. A bird bath can draw wildlife to the landscape, adding to the visual interest of the winter landscape.
Finally, deciduous trees and shrubs are important pieces of the winter garden. Even though their leaves have disappeared, these trees and shrubs offer interest through their branches, their bark and often their colors. When selecting deciduous material, professional landscape designers consider how the structure of the plants they choose complements the space they are designing. Will the arching branches of a shrub frame a view or will the soaring limbs of a tree draw the eye upward into the horizon? They understand that bark can add interest to the view through its texture and that adding a grouping of a shrub such as a red-twigged dogwood adds a splash of color to a largely monochromatic landscape.
With the right design and plant material, your winter landscape can be a stunning display. The expert design staff at Embassy can help you plan and even still install your winter garden before the cold and ice settles in on us. To help in the planning process, check out our blog on Monday, November 27th for a listing of some outstanding plants for the winter landscape.