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Coldly Cultivating Your Winter Garden

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A garden is only as good as its bones. Gardeners of a dark predilection can take joy in this landscaping term which refers to the “skeleton” (or permanent fixtures) of the garden. Unchanging through the seasons, it includes fences, statuary, and the bare trunks and branches of deciduous trees. After the splendor of fall foliage has past, a thoughtful arrangement of bones determines whether a garden remains a beautiful and welcoming sanctuary in the dark months of winter.

Winter Garden. Credit: BHL Photography.

Garden Design 101

It’s helpful to start with some basic taxonomy. Bones fall into one of two categories: the static or the living. Paths, benches, fences, and ornamental items like statuary are examples of static bones. Evergreens, deciduous trees with interesting trunks, and plants that offer color during the winter months are living features.

A formal garden often employs more static features, as well as some neatly trimmed hedges, or evergreen topiaries. A common choice for creating a fence-like barrier in this type of garden is the boxwood, which has a neat growing habit, and requires less pruning than most other evergreen shrubs.


Boxwood. Credit: Glasseyes View.

Formal or Informal?

Formal gardens rely on a symmetrical balance in their design, with the intention of giving the eye a restful experience. This requires that the layout have a visual center axis, and everything is mirrored from one side to the other. It’s the easiest way to create an appearance of unity, but it tends to lack interest and diversity of form. Most of the time, strict symmetry is better suited to institutional buildings, or very large estates.

Perhaps more appropriate to the home, informal gardens might use static features, but often include more organic forms. Tree trunks and vines that are left behind after their foliage has dropped away can provide an appealing framework from which to build the rest of the winter garden. The bare remains of ivy, clematis, or passionflower creeping over brick or stone like capillaries go a long way toward the atmosphere of pleasing disarray that many goth gardeners prefer to evoke.

viney wall winter garden

Viney Wall. Credit: Bradhoc.

Balanced Composition

Even if the design will be asymmetrical, it’s still necessary to bring balance. One way this can be achieved is to identify objects and plantings of interest, and arrange them around your space in a way that feels random, yet harmonious. This is not an exact science, and may require a little trial and error to achieve a pleasing effect.

A good place to begin is with a single, eye-catching feature that can be the centerpiece of your design. A tree with an interesting trunk shape or a stone birdbath could work, but I recommend a fire pit or fire bowl as a functional alternative. Fire features do for the winter months what water features do in the summer. Both are sources of motion, sound, and even scent to take enjoyment of the garden beyond the visual.

firebasket winter garden

A fire basket. 

Plant Selection

Among the best choices for living winter color is the red twig dogwood. This deciduous shrub provides a dramatic show after its unassuming flowers wither at summer’s end. Its leaves turn burgundy, and fall away to reveal a stand of blood red stems. It is just as stunning against a dark background as the white of snowfall. Red twig dogwood grows as tall as nine feet, will tolerate most soils, and is hardy in very cold zones. It can survive the toughest winters the United States has to offer, and is even happy in most parts of Canada.

reddogwood winter garden

Red Twig Dogwood. Credit: Plant Image Library.

The dogwood attracts birds, and its branches offer them cold weather shelter, but there are many plants that can help your local wildlife through the lean times, and bring their movement and vibrancy to your space. To add some extra darkness to your winter palette, consider the black chokeberry. Its fragrant flowers attract pollinators in the summer, and it bears ample clusters of black berries into the winter. The fruit is high in antioxidants for the species of birds that are drawn to it.


Black chokeberry. Credit: Plant Image Library.

At the opposite end of the color spectrum, we have the northern bayberry, whose winter fruit has a waxy coat. This covering gives the berries their distinctive, spectral white and makes them a striking contrast in an otherwise dark colored planting. While bayberry is tolerant of many environments, and is disease resistant, it is also dioecious. This means that the fruit is borne only on female trees, and you’ll also need at least one male in your planting. Just like your relationship status, it’s complicated. Be sure to ask the experts at your local nursery.

bayberry winter garden

Bayberry. Credit: Plant Image Library.

Get Comfortable

Those of us who prefer to inhabit the shadows might find the lure of our gardens to be strongest when the sun is at its weakest. Make your garden a place of comfort and ease, or at least an inspiring view to watch from your frosted window with a steaming mug.

Featured image courtesy of Liz West.

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About The Author

Rachel Goldsmith is a writer, artist, and avid gardener. She likes Victorian horror, has an unhealthy obsession with cats, and knows just enough about graphic design to be dangerous. Her personal motto is: “It's probably more complicated than that.”

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