Forcing Winter Interest

Forcing Winter Interest
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I have been thinking about Elizabeth’s post on The Myth of Winter Interest. Having spent 25+ years in Minnesota, and recently moved halfway across the country to (among other things) escape the relentless northern winter, I do identify with the urge to focus only on the indoor world during the harshest season.

But I remember, too, the exquisite texture and salmon coloring of a river birch trunk rising from a snowy lawn, a chittering flock of lively waxwings divesting the tall juniper of its berries, a downy woodpecker gleaning seeds from a defunct mullein stem, the cream-and-green plumpness of a variegated holly (in a warmer-climate garden than mine), among many other cherished winter garden experiences. And I feel compelled to argue that hating winter is an excellent reason to plan a winter garden.

Willow, sumac, and wild geese: three of my favorite elements for winter interest.

What constitutes winter interest? Obviously not just a few plants that show some sign of color or life during winter. A landscape might need more to entice the reluctant gardener.

I recently spent a weekend in the mountains of Idaho. The snow-cloaked evergreens displayed contrasting colors of needles and snow, textural variety, dramatic columnar shapes of the trees, and then there were texture, color, and contrast contributed by built elements from fences to lampposts to gazebos.

Though it didn’t deliver loads of color, the landscape offered ample scope for sensory exploration, natural and manmade beauty, plants and wildlife, and outdoor activities for people. I spent hours appreciating it while hiking, sitting on the deck, poking my head out to survey the night sky, and soaking up the view from indoors.

This scene definitely rings my bell for winter interest.

Obviously, we can’t all have (and wouldn’t all want) a landscape of this scope or character. But there are plenty of ways to make a more interesting winter landscape, whatever your location. If you find your garden drab at this season, why not add color and texture with hardscape, art, and lights? Why not add life with berries, bark, evergreens, and the winter birds they attract? Bring these elements close to the house, so you can appreciate them from indoors if you don’t plan on going outside much.

Lights not only add visual excitement to the garden at night, they also accentuate the contrasting textures and tones of wispy grasses and velvety viburnum.

Like bulbs, we may benefit from forcing. Your winter garden might become more interesting the more time you spend in it. Gardens gain life through our interaction with them, our presence in them, our attention to them.

Wrap yourself in a blanket and sit out there with a mug of something warm. Catch snowflakes on your tongue. Note the pattern of bright green moss in the cracks between the bricks. Listen for sounds like the occasional slump of snow off a high branch, or the shrill cry of a winter bird. Admire the dead leaves skittering across the patio, the remaining parts of whatever plants are showing aboveground.

I’m not saying winter is the best season. Still… the unique pleasures of a winter garden can make the season more bearable and perhaps even enjoyable.

Like living ornaments, winter birds decorate an evergreen just outside the kitchen window.

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on January 7, 2015 at 7:46 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody’s a Critic.


    • carolyn choi
    • 22nd October 2016

    Enjoyed reading your article on winter. As one who endured 45 of them in Chicago I believe it’s really what you grow up with and love from your youth. Now that I’ve returned to the South I realized that I’ve missed being able to garden year around and enjoy the relative absence of snow and not having to shovel it . Like you I admire the landscape of winter and have captured many of them on canvas but Spring, Summer and Fall remain my favorite seasons.
    In my new garden I am planting shrubs with winter interest, such as the winterberry holly, nandina, and grasses with seeds to attract the birds .
    Snow is a big occasion here and everything grinds to a stop. The landscape is a wondrous sight with children delighting in the snow but then it disappears as squickly as it came. And that’s about as much winter as I want.

    • Andy
    • 9th November 2016

    While I agree with a few of Evelyn’s points, I found both posts regarding winter interest to be extremely self indulgent and also reeking of narrow world view. What about sustainability? Ecology? The idea of a garden simply functioning as novel ornamentation to entertain us as we watch with glazed over eyes from our heated homes in this day and age is borderline disgusting to me (living birds compared to ornaments?!). My garden was created to heal the land and to sustain the creatures that we humans impact so horrifically. Sure, I try to execute good design practices; I (and my neighbors) do have to look at it all year long (and in all different seasons). Why is it that we can’t we have a perspective that is bigger than our own immediate needs when it comes to our landscaping practices? God forbid we grow some native plants whose seedheads sustain a few birds when it’s -20 f, or give some insects a hibernation space. You can’t have the “good” without the “bad”. I wish there could be a paradigm shift within the gardening community; to figure out the real reason why some of us are gardening at all.

    • Beth
    • 13th November 2016

    Evelyn, but you got out of Dodge to escape winters, which says it all. (I envy you!)

    • Andy
    • 14th November 2016

    …what a disappointing and dire response! I have never claimed to be superior to anyone in my life, but I thank you for putting words in my mouth. That said, I think your 99.9% estimation is a vast, vast generalization. Any searching will show that there are an increasingly large number of gardeners and landscape enthusiasts passionate about permaculture, sustainability, native landscape, etc., all while creating beautiful spaces. Form, meet function! These avant garde practices can help to correct ecological imbalances on all levels. “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”, as they say. If we all did a little something here and there to better our gardens, we may begin to see a difference. Please, at the very least, make sure your pretty flowers are neonicotinoid free. Enjoy our beautiful winter; might I suggest a hot toddy to get you through? 😉

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