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.


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.


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.


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.

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