How to make a Winter Garden to Delight, Invite, and Inspire

Even when you’re in the depths of a cold and snowy winter, looking out at or being in a winter garden doesn’t have be dull or ugly. When well-designed and planted with ornamental foliage and form combined with colorful stems and fruit, they delight, invite, and inspire you to look out and perhaps venture outside to explore.

Winter is also the perfect time to appreciate the more subtle beauty of tree bark and silhouettes, and how evergreen conifers can anchor a winter garden planting composition, but also a garden’s basic underlying structure. The spaces and shapes – the structural ‘bones’ of a well-designed garden that are created by the paving, walls, paths and garden beds are easier to see in a bare winter garden.

Here’s a few of my favorites from recent winter treks to public spaces.

The Bressingham Garden

Bressingham Garden, MHS, Elm Bank. Beautiful  cream-colored peeling bark of river birch and the rich orange ‘fire’ of dogwood stems.

The first series of photos feature one planting combination at the Bressingham Garden, Mass Horticultural Society at Elm Bank. Magnificent and inspiring in summer the garden does not disappoint in winter.

The plantings show off the peeling creamy and brown bark of river birch trees (Betual nigra variety) highlighted and lit up by the vivid orange stems of Cornus s. ‘Midwinter Fire’ with various clipped ornamental grasses.

Image a summer “stream” of blue flowering geranium flowing thru the open space now framed by stems of “Midwinter Fire”.
Looking along the nearby garden path, notice how the splash of solid color of the distant golden conifer draws the eye (and the feet) through the garden.

The Winter Garden

The next photo series also showcase an effective use of the dogwood shrub ‘Midwinter Fire’, but in a more formal garden setting.

Looking out from the Orangerie to the Winter Garden at Tower Hill Botanical Garden, Boylston, MA, we see the orange stems blazing away and contrasting nicely with green evergreen conifers, reddish plum colored fruits of a Crab Apple and winter creamy- brown of the grasses. Outside in the garden itself we see the “Midwinter Fire” from different perspectives–all effective.

Note how the evergreens keep some weight in the composition with their deep color and strong form and how they also highlight the delicate tracery of the deciduous plants and make a color contrast with the orange-red Cornus stems.

1-174 looking out to the winter landscape Tower Hill
Looking out from the Orangerie.


Tower Hill’s “Winter Garden”.

1-195 Cornus midwinter fire _stems and grasses Tower Hill Winter Garden Courtyard

Grasses, snow, C.s. “Midwinter Fire”.

Decordova Museum Entry Gardens

In the third set of photos, a sea of grasses in their splendid winter brown are used effectively in the Decordova Museum’s entry gardens.

It also shows that you can leave your winter grass cutdown until later in February to get the full benefit of that winter foliage that’s so beautiful set against the white snow.

1-007 Decordova winter grasses
Decordova Museum winter ornamental grasses.
A view from inside of the winter landscape.








These public gardens inspire us and give ideas about what a winter landscape can aspire to.

As a designer I start with the winter landscape and then layer in the spring, summer, and fall.  That means, designing  the shape of the spaces with paths, patios, walls, and planting beds first.

Then adding planting drifts, masses, moving lines, and individuals of conifers and broad-leaf evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs.

Later, adding the perennials that will flower from spring to frost in combination with flowering shrubs and trees.  Designing with a seasonal progression in mind means we can enjoy our landscapes and gardens all year round.


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