Studying the Winter Garden

I remember my early years as a gardener and the feelings of gloom and boredom that crept in with the winter months. As a novice gardener I mistakenly equated winter with the end of the garden season. Now that I am a seasoned gardener I know better.

Research, research, research.   Winter is a wonderful time to hone our garden skills.  We should learn all we can about new plants and garden design by reading as many books and magazines as we can get our hands on. It is blissfully self-indulgent to say, Today all I shall do is read garden books! No weeding, watering or plant divisions to call you away to the garden.
An example of how the right trees add visual interest in the winter landscape.

This climbing hydrangea is a spectacular plant and now that I see it in the winter, it has definitely moved up a few rungs on my favorite list. The twisty, knotty contortions of the branches contrast nicely to the linear form of the arbor. The bark itself is also visually interesting. I am drawn to the structure and order of a formal garden, but too much order can be boring. Thankfully, this hydrangea adds just the right amount of drama.
This garden vignette would be far less effective sans the larger planter taking center stage. It provides a focal point in the spring, fall and winter months. In the summer, it is often obstructed by a lush planting.

Study the winter garden before setting pencil to paper to design a garden. It is so easy to get swept away with flowers and foliage. I think that is why most of us get hooked on gardening- the flowers! But if we want to be more than good garden designers we must design for all the seasons- which can be tricky. It may tie designing for continuous bloom in the garden as a new gardener’s toughest lesson to learn. By studying the winter garden we learn about structure, flow, scale, texture, and the importance of adding non-green materials to the landscape.

 A snow covered bench in the winter garden.
Generously include trees and shrubs with winter berries. The red of these berries pop against a backdrop of evergreens, snow and grey skies.

Even on the coldest winter day a well designed garden will draw us in and embrace us. A well designed garden has good bones. The foundation of the garden is not in annuals and perennials. Rather, it is in its shape, form, flow of the beds, inclusion of trees and shrubs and non-green items. Without these design elements, even an expertly arranged collection of annuals and perennials will fall a bit short of a success. I liken it to cooking. The perfect sauce needs an equally impressive meat or pasta to make the meal a success!


  1. so well put...I liken it to adding the right spices and herbs to the sauce just like adding the right touches to the garden to make it 4 seasons....I guess I have come up into the seasoned gardener ranks as well since I have a stack of books to read, and penciled designs as I look at those beds and the lines etc...of course I am receiving seeds and planning my seed starting as well...I am now feeling like I am running out of time already before the ground warms and swells and the first flowers push forth...

  2. I know what you mean! Once you have gardened for a while, winter seems like a very short break-planning period.

  3. Hello Jennifer;

    I'm happy to see gardeners mention how important it is to follow a garden year round. I have this personal plan to go to Boothbay, Maine to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for a winter tour. Winter gardens may not "bloom" with color but it's a time to evaluate the bones of the garden, the trees and shrubs and hardscape that stand out so clearly, leafless and with a fresh coat of snow.

    I recommend to people buying property for a house or planning a garden that they try to catch as many seasons as possible to understand the weather. Wind and sun are critical. I really like a new book by Sue Reed titled "Energy-Wise Landscape Design". It is the best resource I have ever found for garden and home planning.

    George Africa
    The Vermont Gardener

  4. Thanks for the head's up Jenny! This is good stuff. I hope you won't think I was copying you with my post (going live as soon as I leave here)- I wrote it last night before I saw this!

    Lovely blog - now I have ANOTHER one to follow! :-)

    George - Boothbay in winter sounds like a really great idea, too. You give me food for thought.

  5. Oh yes, I am quite upset!! Just kidding. I am sure there are many of us writing about the winter garden- tis the season for many of us. Can you send a link to your Blog?

    George- I learned the hard way many years back about the impact of not thinking about the winter garden. I was in northern WIS. Long winters. After a few years I started added more small trees and shrubs, and other features that would show off the garden when most everything was asleep. Also when done well, the snow enhances the structure of the garden. As for touring gardens in winter- I am all for it! For some of us, the garden off season is too long not to engage in the garden world in one way or the other. The winter garden is becoming more and more attractive to me.

  6. Stunning photos, how inspiring! Thanks for sharing. I'm inviting you to post a winter garden at YourGardenShow.com, a site my husband and I founded. It may help brand you with a new audience - there are people who need to know that there is a season beyond hierloom tomatoes! -- and you can put any and all links in. You're content stays as your own, but we will be promoting for the first quarter with traditional and online press, plus we are doing alot (paying for!) SEO so we/you will be found.

  7. Hi Jennifer: Thanks for the reminder about appreciating the winter garden. I tend to neglect mine during the cold months. The research has always been fun for me, but not the going OUT in it. Also, thanks for the fave on Blotanical. I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  8. Simply beautiful! I love the winter berries.

  9. Hi, Jennifer. Lisa, who blogs at Natural Gardening, has a link to your Horticulture blog, which led me here. It's great to find links to many wonderful garden-related blogs.

    You might enjoy my blog, Piedmont Gardener, if you are ever curious about southeastern US Piedmont region gardening. Please stop by any time. :)

  10. The tree with the red berries....what is the name of the tree?