I relish the opportunity to study a garden in the winter. When trees and shrubs are void of leaves and groundcovers have died back until spring, we are able to really see what gives the garden its structure. Designers refer this as the bones of the garden. To take full advantage of this opportunity, I observe a garden from different perspectives – above, at ground level and from various directions. As I survey a landscape, I look for multiple dimensions provided by trees, shrubs, and garden art. Gardens that work well in winter offer this variety.
In a garden lacking winter interest, consider what you can do to break up the single one-dimensional plane. Structure is what gives a garden year-round interest but is most appreciated when the landscape is without other colors and foliage. Structure can be added to a design in several ways. Form, texture and color are the best ways to create this.
Shape is the word I think of to describe form. Examples include round, oval, pyramidal, columnar, vase-like and weeping. Natural or manmade objects can all take on these forms. Some plants and trees naturally assume one of these shapes. In a formal garden, a linear pattern of one form can create quite a dramatic effect. This is readily apparent in a clipped boxwood hedge or a tall row of Cypress trees lining a long European driveway.
In an informal setting, the use of form can serve as the comma or exclamation point in the garden. It can provide just the right break or stopping point, causing the eye to pause and take note. It can be the bold stone hardscape or the subtle silhouette formed by a plant, tree or object. In either case, form is one of the most important contributions to landscape composition.
For me, texture is most appreciated in the make-up of the plant or tree. It is seen in the stems, leaves, bark, and buds. In the dead of winter, a classic example is the exfoliating bark of an Oak leaf Hydrangea, or Paper bark maple. Yet, texture can be seen in so many elements; stones, containers, walkways, fences and sculptures just to name a few. Unlike summer months when texture may barely get noticed, in the winter garden, texture is most apparent and is a vital component in adding interest.
It is in the starkness of winter that the bright red berries of Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta) and others command attention, along with the vivid yellow of Forsythia eight weeks later. But if you pay attention for just a moment, you’ll see more subtle colors in varying shades in the tones of bark on trees and shrubs and in the contrast between them. You don’t need an annual bed in full bloom to enjoy color in the garden; only an eye to appreciate that subtle difference in hue can be equally beautiful if we only take the time to notice.
With a bit of planning, a touch of restraint, and judicious placement, a winter landscape can be every bit as beautiful as a spring garden in full bloom. You may only need a bit of patience and this new perspective to see it so.