Winter Interest 101
by Jeff Shea, ASLA

Landscape architects and designers often tell clients that the landscapes designed for them will provide year-round interest. Too often, that means that the design will include a few junipers or spruces, and maybe some lighting to accentuate the bark of a tree here and there.

However, winter interest can and should mean much more than that. Here are a few ways to provide true year-round interest in the landscape.

Remember the other evergreens

Evergreen doesn’t mean “ever the same.” Make use of the evergreen shrubs that are often forgotten. These include Boxwood (Buxus spp.), Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.), Broom (Cytisus spp.), Euonymus (Euonymus spp.),Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), and Yucca (Yucca spp.).

Consider using plants that will change throughout the year. There are more than enough varieties of needle-leafed and broadleaved evergreens available. For example, try using only evergreen shrubs, with a few well-placed perennials or ornamental grasses for color. You’ll be surprised at the variety and interest that can be achieved.
Remember that many perennials have evergreen foliage (although “evergreen” in some cases can mean more red or purple than green). These include Hardy yellow iceplant (Delosperma nubigenum), Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), Pine-leaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius), Fleeceflower (Polygonum affine), Lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), Stonecrop (Sedum spurium), and Partridge feather (Tanacetum densum). The following images reflect thoughtful plant choices that provide a variety of color and textures.

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Example of a mix of winter color at Denver Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

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Example of contrast between adjacent plants. Steam Plant Lofts Condominiums in Denver, Colorado; designed by Jim Hartman and John Keith of Hartman Ely Investments. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

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General winter interest. Steam Plant Lofts Condominiums in Denver, Colorado; designed by Jim Hartman and John Keith of Hartman Ely Investments. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

In addition, non-evergreen perennials with flower heads and seeds that persist in winter can be an attractive element in a winter landscape. Among these are Yarrow (Alchemilla millefolium), Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Sulphur Flower (Eriogonum umbellatrum), Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), and Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida). A word of warning – what some people see as a welcome reminder of warmer times, others see as a graveyard of dead flowers. Be sure to know your client’s views on this.

And don’t forget the ornamental grasses. They provide movement and can be radiant against a backdrop of snow, especially with the low winter sun behind them. Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis spp.) (except invasives), Maiden hair grass (Miscanthus spp.) (except invasives), and Blue avena grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) are a few hardy options that will provide reliable all-season interest.

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Placement of light colored grass where they can be viewed against a dark background (and the setting sun) for maximum impact. Denver Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

Finally—and this is true of all plantings—be careful not to introduce any invasive varieties into the landscape. While they can be beautiful, they can also be deadly to native flora and fauna.

Use contrast to your advantage

When specifying deciduous plants with winter interest, we typically choose them for their colorful bark or persistent berries. Too often, however, a shrub with red bark or berries is planted against a red brick wall and becomes practically invisible in the winter. When possible, know what the background colors will be in all the planting areas, and adjust your plant color choices accordingly. Do the same with your hardscape choices. For instance, it is said that cherry trees bloom twice: once on the tree and once on the ground. When the blossoms fall, they create a blanket of petals beneath the tree. These pink or white blossoms are much more striking, for example, on dark grey gravel than on white concrete. Make the most of the plant’s features (even the short-lived features) through your choice and placement of hardscape. The following images demonstrate use of contrasting colors to emphasize both the foreground and background.

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Contrast of grass and hardscape at Denver Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

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Contrast of deciduous perennials against an evergreen background. Denver Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

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Contrast of yellow tipped shrubs and red brick. Steam Plant Lofts Condominiums in Denver, Colorado; designed by Jim Hartman and John Keith of Hartman Ely Investments. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

Expose the hidden features of the hardscape

Many designers use plants to “soften” the hard edges created by walls, steps, and walkways. We often forget that in the winter, these edges may be completely exposed, creating the severe appearance that we were trying to avoid. But the hardscape can gain an ornamental edge with the creation of a decorative profile or installation of a different material along the perimeter. The feature can best be enjoyed only in the winter, providing true “winter interest.”

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A variety of plants and mulch, as well as the use of pots adds to the winter interest. Officers Row Lofts in Denver, Colorado; designed by Kerry Smeester, ASLA of Meuran Design Groups. Image courtesy of Jeff Shea.

Adjust your landscape lighting in the winter

The days are shorter, the sun is lower in the sky, and the ground may be white with snow in colder climates. So, the lights that were illuminating perennials in warmer months are now highlighting mulch, and the fixtures that were uplighting the ornamental trees are now shining up into the client’s bedroom window. The lighting needs have changed, and your lighting plan should be adjusted accordingly.

Make sure your lighting emphasizes the landscape’s best features all year round. Many designers choose to hide the lighting fixtures from view. If that’s the intent, make sure they stay hidden in the winter as well as the summer. On the other hand, you may want to choose fixtures that are attractive, but place them so that they are hidden only in the summer. This provides another example of true winter interest by giving the client something that’s only meant to be seen and enjoyed during the colder months.

Control the elements as much as you can

Enjoying the outdoors is impossible when your patio is a sheet of ice. Don’t plant evergreens where they’ll cast winter shade on outdoor sitting areas, or your client will be salting and shoveling all winter. Let the sun do the work, whenever possible.

Although we may bring interior elements such as cooktops and televisions into the outdoor landscape, we often overlook one of the best things about the indoors—room temperature. Providing heaters will allow your clients to spend more time outside on those clear, cold days when the temperature is just below their comfort level.
Create windbreaks (either living or artificial) where needed. Attractive, good quality outdoor fabric temporarily installed between two trees can make the difference between “a lovely evening except for the wind” and “a lovely evening.”

Keep the water running

Water is always welcome in the landscape. Let your clients enjoy it all year round by specifying pumps and heaters that can keep the water flowing even on the coldest days. Clients will find themselves spending more time outside, and the ice and steam that’s created will add a new dimension to the landscape.

Show, don’t just tell

We typically show clients what their landscape will look like in spring, summer, and fall. A realistic rendering of the client’s landscape as it will look in mid-February will show them that you’ve provided true year-round interest. Let them know from the beginning that you are giving them a landscape they’ll be able to enjoy every day of the year.

Jeff Shea, ASLA, is the owner of Shea Designs, a landscape design company in Denver, Colorado. In addition to ASLA, he is also a member of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. He can be reached at: 

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