Embracing the Winter Garden

Learn to love the winter garden from the comfort of your living room.
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Snowy Garden

Snowy Garden

Photo by: Image courtesy of Lynn Coulter

Image courtesy of Lynn Coulter

Just because it's chilly outside doesn't mean gardening tasks come to a halt.

Unless you live where the weather is mild year-round, winter can mean a period of downtime in your garden. While you might bundle up for an occasional tramp through the yard to break the icicles off the tool shed or brush the snow from the evergreens, you’re probably tucked away inside where it’s warm most of the time. As long as the ground is frozen, you settle in to thumb through seed catalogs and wait for spring.

Not so fast, says Michael Buffin, author of Winter Flowering Shrubs. Buffin is the designer of the Winter Garden at The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, England. A former curator of its Living Collection, currently he serves as a National Trust advisor for 70 historic gardens and parks in Southern England.

Buffin doesn’t think gardening should end when the mercury plummets. If the sun’s out, he says, we should be out, too, walking around and looking for our gardens’ more subtle pleasures: the small but charming things we often overlook when the weather is pleasant and everything is green and growing.

But where do we start in a winter landscape that’s drab and dreary? Although the leaves have dropped from the trees and the garden is down to its bare bones, Buffin finds much to admire in what remains: stately trees silhouetted against a bright blue sky, clusters of purple berries on beauty bushes, and rose hips wearing small caps of snow.  

If the weather is too harsh to venture outside, Buffin says there’s really nothing wrong with window seat gardening—what he calls “sofa gardening”—after all. We can still look for the natural winter beauty in many plants and trees.

Watch for small, early flowering bulbs like snowdrops, Buffin suggests, which are attractive and unexpected when they open underneath dormant perennials or in a border of black Mondo grass. Look for shrubs that will flower during the cold months of November to March, providing welcome color and even fragrance. Buffin likes the yellow, fringy flowers of witch hazel, and the pinks, reds and creams of camellia blossoms. He also enjoys daphnes, which open petals of greenish white, pink, white or purple on winter days, and viburnums, which bear white or pinkish blooms followed by colorful fruits called drupes.

Pay attention to bare twigs and branches, Buffin adds, and use the “sofa gardening” season to admire the colors and sculptural forms in your stripped-down garden, You may see dried seed pods, colorful or twisted stems, frosted leaves or frozen fruits. Notice the texture of the peeling bark on tree trunks; the icy glaze on sharp thorns; and the fading plumes of ornamental grasses. Use your binoculars to spot nests of birds and squirrels that are usually hidden in summer’s greenery. 

Buffin also recommends watching the play of the winter sun over your garden. When the weather is warmer, you may want to plant or transplant to take advantage of the way the sun back lights certain trees and shrubs.

This is also an opportunity to survey your hardscaping. When spring comes back around, you may want to add a pergola, gazebo or walkway. Do you need weather-resistant spotlights, floodlights, solar lights or up-lighting to call attention to focal points in your landscape? Buffin notes that you get a better sense of scale when you observe your plants in the winter. You may want to add or remove trees, shrubs, vines or even groundcovers to give the area a sense of balance and proportion.

The work in the garden is never really done. For some of us, winter is an interlude, a time to sit by the window and sketch out plans for spring. But that’s not a bad thing at all, and gardening from the sofa is a great place to start.

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