Forcing Winter Interest


I have been thinking about Elizabeth’s post on The Myth of Winter Interest. Having spent 25+ years in Minnesota, and recently moved halfway across the country to (among other things) escape the relentless northern winter, I do identify with the urge to focus only on the indoor world during the harshest season.

But I remember, too, the exquisite texture and salmon coloring of a river birch trunk rising from a snowy lawn, a chittering flock of lively waxwings divesting the tall juniper of its berries, a downy woodpecker gleaning seeds from a defunct mullein stem, the cream-and-green plumpness of a variegated holly (in a warmer-climate garden than mine), among many other cherished winter garden experiences. And I feel compelled to argue that hating winter is an excellent reason to plan a winter garden.

Willow, sumac, and wild geese: three of my favorite elements for winter interest.

What constitutes winter interest? Obviously not just a few plants that show some sign of color or life during winter. A landscape might need more to entice the reluctant gardener.

I recently spent a weekend in the mountains of Idaho. The snow-cloaked evergreens displayed contrasting colors of needles and snow, textural variety, dramatic columnar shapes of the trees, and then there were texture, color, and contrast contributed by built elements from fences to lampposts to gazebos.

Though it didn’t deliver loads of color, the landscape offered ample scope for sensory exploration, natural and manmade beauty, plants and wildlife, and outdoor activities for people. I spent hours appreciating it while hiking, sitting on the deck, poking my head out to survey the night sky, and soaking up the view from indoors.

This scene definitely rings my bell for winter interest.

Obviously, we can’t all have (and wouldn’t all want) a landscape of this scope or character. But there are plenty of ways to make a more interesting winter landscape, whatever your location. If you find your garden drab at this season, why not add color and texture with hardscape, art, and lights? Why not add life with berries, bark, evergreens, and the winter birds they attract? Bring these elements close to the house, so you can appreciate them from indoors if you don’t plan on going outside much.

Lights not only add visual excitement to the garden at night, they also accentuate the contrasting textures and tones of wispy grasses and velvety viburnum.

Like bulbs, we may benefit from forcing. Your winter garden might become more interesting the more time you spend in it. Gardens gain life through our interaction with them, our presence in them, our attention to them.

Wrap yourself in a blanket and sit out there with a mug of something warm. Catch snowflakes on your tongue. Note the pattern of bright green moss in the cracks between the bricks. Listen for sounds like the occasional slump of snow off a high branch, or the shrill cry of a winter bird. Admire the dead leaves skittering across the patio, the remaining parts of whatever plants are showing aboveground.

I’m not saying winter is the best season. Still… the unique pleasures of a winter garden can make the season more bearable and perhaps even enjoyable.

Like living ornaments, winter birds decorate an evergreen just outside the kitchen window.


  1. You mentioned hardscape? That’s what Eliz has in spades, in the form of fabulous architecture on all sides, esp her own house.
    It’s important to me to see something pretty when I look out my windows in the winter, so I try-try-try to hide the ugly with conifers, and whatever else might work. Susan

  2. Enjoyed reading your article on winter. As one who endured 45 of them in Chicago I believe it’s really what you grow up with and love from your youth. Now that I’ve returned to the South I realized that I’ve missed being able to garden year around and enjoy the relative absence of snow and not having to shovel it . Like you I admire the landscape of winter and have captured many of them on canvas but Spring, Summer and Fall remain my favorite seasons.
    In my new garden I am planting shrubs with winter interest, such as the winterberry holly, nandina, and grasses with seeds to attract the birds .
    Snow is a big occasion here and everything grinds to a stop. The landscape is a wondrous sight with children delighting in the snow but then it disappears as squickly as it came. And that’s about as much winter as I want.

  3. Nice reply, Evelyn! I think if I had a bigger garden, I might focus on more trees and shrubs that look great in winter, but I don’t. I do get that kind of winter interest in spades, when I take walks in the many beautiful parks and preserves throughout Western New York, and I agree that nature in winter can be amazing, even if my personal garden can’t be.

  4. “Like bulbs, we may benefit from forcing. Your winter garden might become more interesting the more time you spend in it. Gardens gain life through our interaction with them, our presence in them, our attention to them.”…
    I’m going to be thinking on that one for awhile. You are a fabulous writer Ms. Hadden.

  5. While I agree with a few of Evelyn’s points, I found both posts regarding winter interest to be extremely self indulgent and also reeking of narrow world view. What about sustainability? Ecology? The idea of a garden simply functioning as novel ornamentation to entertain us as we watch with glazed over eyes from our heated homes in this day and age is borderline disgusting to me (living birds compared to ornaments?!). My garden was created to heal the land and to sustain the creatures that we humans impact so horrifically. Sure, I try to execute good design practices; I (and my neighbors) do have to look at it all year long (and in all different seasons). Why is it that we can’t we have a perspective that is bigger than our own immediate needs when it comes to our landscaping practices? God forbid we grow some native plants whose seedheads sustain a few birds when it’s -20 f, or give some insects a hibernation space. You can’t have the “good” without the “bad”. I wish there could be a paradigm shift within the gardening community; to figure out the real reason why some of us are gardening at all.

    • Andy, while I don’t include my views on nature-friendly gardening in every post, I do believe humans are a part of nature, and my work is devoted to redefining our role. I meant no disrespect to the birds.

      Gardens are many-layered endeavors. If we are discussing aesthetics, it doesn’t mean we don’t have other reasons for gardening.

  6. Evelyn, but you got out of Dodge to escape winters, which says it all. (I envy you!)

    Andy, it must be nice to know that you are superior to everyone else. I admit that I (like 99.9% of gardeners) garden to surround myself with beauty, not because I’m deluding myself that my garden will save the earth (for what, I’m not sure).

    Here’s my own, only mildly-ranting, take on the concept of “winter interest” in the garden:

    Thanks to both Evelyn and Elizabeth for the thoughtful posts on this topic.

    • …what a disappointing and dire response! I have never claimed to be superior to anyone in my life, but I thank you for putting words in my mouth. That said, I think your 99.9% estimation is a vast, vast generalization. Any searching will show that there are an increasingly large number of gardeners and landscape enthusiasts passionate about permaculture, sustainability, native landscape, etc., all while creating beautiful spaces. Form, meet function! These avant garde practices can help to correct ecological imbalances on all levels. “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”, as they say. If we all did a little something here and there to better our gardens, we may begin to see a difference. Please, at the very least, make sure your pretty flowers are neonicotinoid free. Enjoy our beautiful winter; might I suggest a hot toddy to get you through? 😉

      • Superior, I think not. Rude and intolerant is more like it. Of course, this is garden rant, so even the intolerant are allowed.

    • How fun that you chimed in on your blog, Beth! Loved your post and can totally relate to the days where it is fatal to go for a walk outside, the paucity of plant life (or visible plant parts) for 5 months of the year, and the life-saving list of indoor winter activities. Gorgeous garden/nature photo books & catalogs seem as necessary as food during those weeks of gloom.

      I think your garden is beautiful, even in winter. But I admit that glimpsing your landscape brought back vivid memories of why I planted shrubs outside all the windows (birds and berries and branches without impeding the precious sunlight!) and dreamt fervently of courtyards and mature copses.

      Thanks so much for sharing your post.

  7. “The idea of a garden simply functioning as novel ornamentation to entertain us as we watch with glazed over eyes from our heated homes in this day and age is borderline disgusting to me.” Wow…borderline disgusting. Sounds like Andy might need a hot toddy too.

  8. My winter interest includes my grasses whipping in this -35 below wind chill and my evergreens and the stalks of joe pye and coneflowers. I am heartened by all the footprints in my garden, of deer and squirrels and rabbits, and all the birds at the seedheads and feeders. But I don’t think Andy knows Evelyn’s work on sustainable plantings, or her commitment to wildlife gardening. I think Andy needs more than a hot toddy.

  9. I don’t plant for winter interest but I do enjoy seeing things like snow caps on sedum. The ornamental grasses positively glow when dusted with snow. I do plant for the birds, and they add a liveliness to the winter landscape. When there is no snow, though, the brown and gray are pretty relentless.

    In the winter, I can see the “bones” of the yard and garden. Nothing like curling up by a window with a mug of cocoa and a pile of nursery catalogs to enjoy this season of dormancy. And, quite frankly, I need a winter break from the garden, a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of my labor.

    • Ha ha, no way, Patricia! I was not talking only about my garden, but about other gardens I’ve visited and admired in winter. Sorry for the confusing way I worded that.

  10. Lovely post, Evelyn, and wonderful writing. I love my winter garden for its own special qualities, including the stark architecture of the bare trees, the beauty of the river birch’s bark, and the pop of color from the red-twig dogwood and Britzensis willows against the spruce trees behind them. The robins strip some of the berries from the winterberry hollies in late fall but most years leave plenty for me to enjoy and for the %!!#X! rabbits to eat on their way to my raspberry canes and curly willows. Winter gives me the chance to notice the gaps in my conifer plantings and to see how the grasses have outgrown their place in the bed. Yes, I’m not really enjoying it this week with our -8 degree temps plus wind chill, but I can admire it in my quick trips outside to fill the bird feeders and walk dogs. And I think spring is all the sweeter for having this time of frozen anticipation.

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