Create Winter Interest

Winter reveals the framework of the garden. As shrubs and trees drop their leaves, strong forms and patterns stand out. Some are man-made, like fences, arbors, arches, paths, and even raised beds. Others are Mother Nature’s gifts: stately conifers, sculptural trees, rounded shrubs. They break up the bleak landscape and give the eye a place to focus.

Structures

Twig bowers, copper triptychs, lattice screens, iron obelisks—how do you pick? Take the cue from the style of your house. If you live in a classic colonial, structures should be tailored, timeless, and formal rather than fanciful. A cottage calls for pickets, lattice, and rustic pieces like willow arches and twiggy trellises.

Contemporary houses can go classic or cutting-edge with copper arches, galvanized metal pillars, or whorled trellises that act as sculptures. That said, you should follow your own personal taste. What’s most important is to choose items for vertical impact.

Trees and shrubs

Trees, shrubs, and evergreen vines are living sculptures. They draw the eye up or down, direct attention, and produce focal points. Unlike man-made structures, these grow up and out. Keep in mind the mature size of the plants you buy.

Hedges are one of the best ways to give a garden pattern, structure, and privacy. They can be evergreen or deciduous, tall or short, berried or not. Low hedges of boxwood or yew act as borders for other plantings. Taller versions serve as walls to enclose a space or to block a view.

Besides holly and boxwood, good hedging choices are yew, privet, and euonymus. Or choose conifers with a columnar form, such as a statuesque arborvitae or a tall, skinny juniper.

Like hedges, trees and shrubs form a framework. They’ll establish an airier outline but still accomplish the feat of defining a space.

While many of us think of conifers as the ideal winter trees, deciduous trees have striking naked silhouettes. Apple trees come to mind immediately; their gnarled trunks and branches twist and turn like surrealist statues. Smallish trees also look splendid grouped together. In warmer climates, consider positioning trees and shrubs in containers and using them to anchor a border or lend vertical interest.

Vines

Another way to add intriguing patterns to the garden is with vines. Climbing hydrangea, for example, with its reddish brown stems, creates a marvelous motif along a wall. It clings by sending out aerial rootlets, thin as yarn, that grab onto brick, stone, or wood. The spring flowers dry beautifully intact and cling through the year.

Evergreen vines such as English ivy (Hedera helix), cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), or winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) lend both pattern and colour to a drab surface.

Ground covers

Evergreen ground covers—such as pachysandra, vinca, ajuga, ivy, and creeping euonymous—provide dramatic backdrops for flowering bulbs or red- and yellow-twigged plants. The ground cover insulates the bulbs from quick freezes and thaws, keeps mud from splattering on them, and hides their yellowing foliage after they bloom. If the ground cover flowers at the same time the bulbs are blooming (as in vinca and daffodils, for instance), you’ve hit the jackpot.

Ornaments

Garden ornaments offer form and structure. A birdbath steps forward in a drab landscape, calling attention to its shape and placement. The same goes for a stone bench, a cement statue, or a zinc-topped sundial. They all help define depth and distance, which are sorely needed in winter.

To lighten up the gloom of winter, carefully place garden ornaments in strategic spots. I like to consider what would naturally grow in my garden and then play with that image. For example, mushrooms grow wild in our woods, so a pair of oversize ones looks right at home. Rusty iron acorns are portable and sit quietly at the base of a winter container. Birdhouses count as ornaments, too, especially if they are colourful.

Rose Meets Cactus

Typically flowers, pretty as they are, don’t get credit for changing a life. But Pam Penick says they changed hers. Fourteen years ago, her life took an unexpected turn at the Lady Bird Johnson (LBJ) Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Pam had recently left an editing career to care for her first child, Aaron. It wasn’t long before she began toting him to the LBJ Center to look at wildflowers. “We fell in love with the rugged, western look of Austin,” she recalls. “It was a lot different than the Southeast.” Pam, a transplant from North Carolina, was soon bitten by the gardening bug. A few years later, she and her family— now with the addition of daughter Julia—moved to a house with a boring rectangle of grass in front. She knew what she had to do. Out came the St. Augustine lawn. In went a limestone path and dozens of native Texas trees, shrubs, and perennials, including autumn sage (Salvia greggii), rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala), rock penstemon (Penstemon baccharifolius), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), and Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora). The entire yard was transformed into a billowing, blossoming cottage garden—a perfect marriage of English style and Wild West.

But Pam didn’t stop there. She earned a design certificate from the LBJ Center, and it wasn’t long before family and friends wanted her to design their yards, too. In 2006, she hung out her shingle as a garden designer and coach and also started a garden blog (www.penick.net/digging), which has since won several awards.

Being immersed in a new career hasn’t diminished Pam’s fervor for the simple act of gardening—in fact, that’s why she named her blog Digging. “You never want it to be finished,” she says of her garden. “I like tinkering with things. I like moving things around, trying to come up with good combinations.”

Friends and Neighbours

As good combinations go, it’s hard to beat the pads of spineless prickly pear nestled at the foot of tumbling pink roses (Rosa ‘Belinda’s Dream’) just behind Pam’s front-yard fence. Add a mound of silver ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’), and the dreamy tableau is complete.

Similar vignettes unfold around the yard—classic and surprising at the same time. Steely, gray-blue planks of whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) rise like a small mountain behind a wispy screen of hot-pink rock penstemon. Spiky arms of softleaf yucca (Yucca recurvifolia) reach out to their neighbour, a vigorous clump of purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

Though Pam’s first attraction was to regional wildflowers, she gradually realized that some hybrids play nicely with the natives—as long as they’re carefully chosen. Now, she estimates, about half of her plants are natives. “Over time I started to add nonnatives that would do well: more Mediterranean and Australian plants, and roses,” she says. “I didn’t plant roses at first, but then I realized that old hardy roses would look fantastic with agave and prickly pear.”

The key was finding cultivated plants with the same heat and drought tolerance as wildflowers. It couldn’t be just any rose—it had to be a tough-as-nails rose. A plant like an azalea, for instance—which needs moisture, rich soil, and moderate temperatures—wouldn’t work. “When I moved to Austin, I planted my requisite trio of azaleas and watched them shrivel up and die,” Pam remembers.

At the same time that she was figuring out how to combine tough perennials with desert plants, wildflowers, and native trees, Pam was learning other tricks for gardening in the desert. Though few evergreens thrive there, she found that agaves and yuccas provided similar year-round structure. Thoughtfully directed water from a rain barrel helped a cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) sapling shoot up and provide shade for the back yard. When the birdbath water evaporated within minutes on dry days, Pam came up with a clever, practical solution: tumbled green glass in the birdbath to create the look of water in the west-facing front yard, plus a deeper stock tank in the shadier back yard with a rock shelf for thirsty birds.

The Measure of a Garden

After spending eight years on her garden, Pam and her family moved about five miles northwest to a hilly, rocky part of Austin. There the garden is shaded by live oaks and frequented by wildlife, which presents new challenges.

As for the first garden, however, Pam and her husband still own the house, and for a year after they moved—a year of serious drought—it got no attention. This spring, she went to check on it.

If Pam’s goal was to create a sustainable garden that was well suited to its climate and site, she got proof that she had succeeded. The garden handily survived a year without care. “Most of those plants have held up,” she says. “I was pleased to see that.”

She hopes that whoever buys the house next will value what she’s done, but also do their own digging and tinkering to create something new. And who knows— those wildflowers might change somebody else’s life, too.

Plants for a Narrow Garden

Turn a narrow space into a spectacular sight with these top picks for tight spots.

Columnar plants are great in a narrow garden—they don’t take up much width. More columnar cultivars become available each year. Some tall, narrow favourites include:

  • Leland cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii): Particularly effective for bold vertical accents reaching well into the air; grows to 15 feet wide and 100 feet tall, but can be sheared and kept narrow if desired; Zones 6 to 9.
  •  Columnar juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’): Stays quite narrow; grows to 2 feet wide and 15 feet tall; Zones 3 to 7.
  • Irish yew (Taxus ‘Fastigiata’): Grows 4 to 8 feet wide and 15 to 30 feet tall; Zones 5 to 7.
  • Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond Pillar’): Grows 2 feet wide and 5 feet tall; Zones 4 to 7.
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’): Grows 1 foot wide and 6 feet tall; Zones 5 to 8.

Ornamental grasses, particularly the genus Miscanthus with its graceful habit, work well in narrow sites.

Vines and creeping plants that climb upward on a structure, such as wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, Zones 5 to 9), add a vertical element to narrow sites.

Plants that form a narrow base and overhead canopy when you remove their lower branches work well for narrow spaces. Try panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Kyushu’ and ‘Tardiva’, Zones 4 to 8) and crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Natchez’, Zones 7 to 9).

Liriope, hosta, and yucca are easy-care perennials that stay neat and tidy in a contained space. Low creepers, such as yellow-flowered Waldsteinia ternata (Zones 3 to 8) and checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens, Zones 3 to 8) help fill the lowest level of the garden.