The Garden in Winter
(plus tips for a quickie garden clean-up)

Formal Garden, Acorn Hill
February 11, 2018

I have a prospective design client, Karen, who is interested in a garden with year-round interest.  Although winter is not the most exciting time to look at a garden, a walk through the garden in winter can be telling.  In spring, summer and autumn the garden’s attractions are many, but the spareness of the winter landscape has its own loveliness.  The broad-leaf evergreens and conifers which form the backdrop of the garden in summer, take center stage without the colorful competition.  And in winter the functional aspects of the garden, pathways, steps, walls, fences, and so on, either really shine or stick out like a sore thumb.

So back to Karen.  I suggested we visit a few gardens that I’ve designed as well as my garden.  I hate to impose on my clients at this time of year, because who’s garden really looks great in early February?  A quick pass around my own garden made me question the soundness of my plan.  But if well-designed, a garden in winter can hold its own.

We stopped in to see Mignon’s garden which I can always count on to show as it is beautifully kept.  Karen wanted to see some ‘before’ pictures of the gardens we were going to see; below is the way it looked the first time I met Mignon at her home under construction.

And here is the courtyard last week (looking down from the other end).  The long corridor is punctuated with Ilex crenata ‘Hoogandorn’, Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’, and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracillis’.  The stones on gravel lead the eye down the space and the sculptures add interest and contrast to the organic materials.  Hellebores at the entrance are a welcome note this time of year.

Compare this to the exuberance of summer where Hydrangeas, Hostas, and Ferns steal the show.


We also walked through Ann Marie and Sam’s garden to see wide pathways, dry stack stone and many native plants.  This path is lined with evergreen Ilex glabra for winter interest, and deciduous Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ for spring, summer and fall.  Both are native to the Southeastern US.  Metal edging keeps this gravel pathway tidy, and the low-voltage lighting makes for easy walking after dark.

The path turns the corner at Ann Marie’s custom-made gong which she and her sister next door ring to announce their comings and goings.

And here is Ann Marie and Sam’s summer garden where grasses and perennials draw the eye.


When I design a planting plan, I start with the proportion of 1/3 evergreen, 1/3 deciduous, and 1/3 herbaceous.  From there, I modify my plan based on client’s preferences and the site conditions.  As you sweep your eye across your garden in winter, it should be rhythmically punctuated with something evergreen.  Here we have Buxus ‘Wintergreen’ on the left, Chamacyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracillis’ on the right with Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ behind that, Juniperus chinensis ‘Kaizuka’ further down on the left and the bright note of Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’ and the center end point.  Adding to winter interest here are the twisting branches of Corylus avellana ‘Red Dragon’, two kinds of Hydrangea flowerheads and a smattering of persistant perennials.

In summer, most of this evergreen material disappears behind the floral show.

Of course, winter interest can come in the form of the bare architecture of a tree, an early flowering shrub, colorful bark, or a piece of art, but nothing beats a note of green in the winter garden.

Artfully pruned Ginkgo biloba ‘Jade Butterflies’.

Edgeworthia chrysantha about to bloom.

Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’

Quickie Clean-up:

I didn’t have much time to tidy up before Karen’s visit, but Amanda, who helps me keep things ticking along in the garden, and I spent three hours the morning of her visit to do a quickie clean-up.  That morning before Amanda arrived, I walked through the garden squinting.  In each main area, I would squint and the worst offending elements jumped out at me … a pile of leaves here, and water sprout on the holly there.  We allotted about 30 minutes in each area so we wouldn’t get into detailing, just addressing the messiest aspects.

Our broad-strokes work paid off, and Karen was able see and understand the garden without being distracted by messiness.  Here are the tasks that Amanda and I accomplished quickly and which made a huge difference in the look of the garden:

  • Raked leaves and debris off the pathways and steps.  We did not clean up leaves from the beds.
  • Raked gravel smooth.
  • Picked up and stacked fallen limbs.
  • Pruned water-sprouts from hollies.
  • Cut back LARGE perennials that had been left for winter interest, such as Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’, Eutrochium purpureum – Joe Pye Weed, Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, Aralia ‘Sun King’.  Small perennials remained as is.
  • Bundled and cut LARGE ornamental grasses.
  • Cleared leaves and bird droppings off fountain and outdoor benches and chairs.
  • Final touch was to blow the walks and steps.

Hemlock Garden, Acorn Hill after quickie clean-up

I would have liked to cut the old foliage from the Hellebores, but ran out of time.  Desirable, yes, but it did not interfere with the general impression of this garden.  I’ll get that done this week so I can really enjoy these early flowers.

5 Replies to “The Garden in Winter
(plus tips for a quickie garden clean-up)”

  1. A wonderful presentation, Nancy! I was wondering about pruning the Hellebores in our garden and the best time to prune so you have given me a project for the coming weeks.
    Ann Marie

  2. Thanks for the quickie clean up tips. Like the idea of cutting back tall grasses and tall perennials now but not disturbing the ground level. I, too, have many hellebore and liriope to clean up and cut back. A NE Ohio gardener.

  3. Thanks Nancy!
    Reading your clean up tips motivates me to get out in the garden and prepare for the rebirth of earth in spring..
    And to appreciate the winter quietness and empty limbs:) love your blog!

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