Take a look at your garden right now. Do you like what you see? Creating gardens that are attractive in all four seasons is one of the goals of landscape design. Spring, summer, and fall are no-brainers for most gardeners, but winter can be a challenge. Here are some techniques to consider.
Develop Good Bones
"Good bones" in landscape speak means that the garden is laid out in such a way that the design itself is harmonious and satisfying, even when the plants are dormant. This often involves the use of hardscape materials — walkways, benches, colorful ceramic containers, statuary — that are visible year-round. An artful layout of planting beds and various forms of hardscaping will please the eye even in the dead of winter.
Now, when the garden is without masses of flower color to catch the eye, it is especially important that it includes a pleasing variety of plant sizes, shapes and textures. So this is a good opportunity to critically assess the overall composition of the garden to see how it could be improved.
Deciduous trees have a lot to offer after they have lost their leaves. Many have an attractive branch structure that is easier to appreciate when they are leafless. A Persian parrotia tree in my front garden is actually a more important component of the landscape in winter, when its sculptural form is a focal point, than during the rest of the year.
Then there are deciduous trees with distinctive bark texture that offer winter interest, such as paperbark maple, Jacquemont birch and river birch. Other trees sport brightly-colored bark: some Japanese maples, red-twig and other dogwoods, and some willows. Every winter I also appreciate our native red alders, with their white or light-gray trunks that stand out so well against a backdrop of conifers.
Conifers and Other Evergreens
In winter, conifers really come into their own. They are available in many shades of green, blue-green, yellow-green, gold and even purplish-green. I once saw a planting consisting solely of conifers that was thoroughly appealing because it contained such a variety of sizes, textures and colors.
Winter is also the time to appreciate other plants that retain their leaves year-round, such as local favorites rhododendron and camellia. Many native plants stay green all year: toyon, coffeeberry, madrone, evergreen huckleberry and coast silktassel. When I prepare a planting plan, I try to ensure that conifers or other evergreen plants are spread evenly throughout the landscape so there are no large "holes" from dormant plants.
We can take advantage of our mild winters and enjoy flower color from many annuals and perennials that bloom through the winter months such as pansies, calendulas, snapdragons, sweet alyssum, bergenias and primroses. Some shrubs also provide winter flower color, including Australian fuchsia and many varieties of grevillea and heath. I grow an Australian fuchsia variety called 'Ivory Bells' that, true to its name, is festooned from late fall until February with ivory bell-shaped flowers that are bee magnets.
In my garden I can count on Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) and pincushion flower to start blooming in early January, followed by grape hyacinth and lithodora. If you're a fan of weird flowers, you might enjoy Dutchman's pipevine, a California native vine that is covered with intriguing odd-shaped flowers in late winter. And several native shrubs also begin flowering in January and early February: manzanita, coast silktassel, and red-flowering currant (an important nectar source for hummingbirds at this time of year).
Colored foliage is yet another source of winter color. Heathers, similar to heaths in terms of their low-growing habit and suitability to our climate, are available in a wide range of foliage colors including chartreuse, gold, gray and russet. Lamb's ears and snow-in-summer create pools of silvery-gray foliage, while fringe flower adds deep burgundy to the palette. Ornamental grasses and sedges, such as pheasant's-tail grass and carex 'Prairie Fire,' can provide touches of copper and bronze, and even the blond clumps of deciduous ornamental grass have a presence in the garden.
Berries are one more source of color in the winter landscape. But please don't plant English holly or cotoneaster; these are noxious, invasive weeds in our area. Birds eat these berries and spread the seeds, so the plants are a problem in gardens. (I frequently pull up holly and cotoneaster seedlings in my yard.) More importantly, if these plants spread into natural areas they can outcompete and displace native plants. Better choices for colorful berries are firethorn, hawthorn and our native toyon.
If your current winter landscape has a case of the "blahs," experiment with these suggestions. At some point you may find that you look forward to the winter landscape and its treasures as much as you anticipate the exuberance of spring.
Donna Wildearth is the owner of Garden Visions Landscape Design in Eureka. Visit her website at www.gardenvisions.biz.