The myth of winter interest

Snowy garden courtesy of Shutterstock
Snowy garden courtesy of Shutterstock

Winter gardening? Yes. Winter garden? Not so much. We hear a lot about “winter interest”—which has to be one of the saddest phrases of the gardening lexicon—in plant descriptions and recommendations. And while it’s true that there are plants that look fabulous in snow and freezing weather—red twig dogwood, most big grasses, hollies, birches, and evergreens, to name a few—I can’t really see that they add up to a garden, at least not how I define the term. For me, a garden needs flowers, buzzing insects, leaves falling or unfolding, or any of the other activities typical of spring, summer, or fall. My garden stops in winter, which is just fine with me. I’m pretty much ignoring whatever winter interest it may have.

A few of the pots I'm forcing
A few of the pots I’m forcing

Ideally, my garden would be coated in snow from the beginning of December to the beginning of March, which would be pretty, but that rarely happens. Instead, in between snowcovers, I avert my eyes from the bare ground studded with shrubs and stubborn perennial foliage. Instead, I turn my attention to my indoor plants and the many, many bulbs I’m forcing.

Snowy garden images courtesy of Shutterstock

This year, I have a weird, tender one from Longfield Gardens— Scilla maderensis, which presumably will emerge without a chilling period. We’ll see. I like the spots.

The outdoors intrudes, somewhat, in the form of a continual Hitchcockian feeding frenzy around the bird feeder, and the weirdly active pond fish, who are supposed to be dormant, but pretty much swim about happily (one assumes) all winter.

But all I expect of the plants is that they return, robust and floriferous (if called for), from their winter’s sleep. They don’t have to be interesting. I’m OK with winter, as long as I don’t have to spend too much time out in it.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Meh, I don’t think winter interest is a myth or a sad phrase at all, but I live in the Southeast. If I still lived in PA my feelings might be in accord with yours.

  2. As a California transplant to the Mid-Atlantic, I am less than thrilled with January highs in the 8 degree range and find it hard to get excited by a solitary hellebore blossom poking through four inches of dead leaves on my front doorstep – especially when I’ve just discovered that my Jack Russell has knocked off fifteen of thirty buds on a beloved Edgeworthia chrysantha. I feel your desire to turn one’s back and ignore the damn thing completely, but I do try to work outside as much as possible during these winter months to retain my sanity and some semblance of order out there. Regardless of how few people are actually looking at my garden, there’s still work to be done – sort of like shaving my legs in January: fairly pointless on the aesthetics front, but necessary if I don’t want to blunt the razor in March.

  3. I’m with you: when I read about “winter interest” in a garden, I assume the writer either lives somewhere without terrible winters (often England, the south or the west coast), or they are are desperately deluding themselves that a few evergreen shrubs under all that snow constitutes a real “garden” and I should be extra nice to them until spring and help them maintain their sad delusions. I myself just hole up by the wood burning stove, read garden books full of glorious photos of spring, review my own glorious garden days by re-posting photos on my blog, and buy a few cut flowers to try to make it to May. I’m glad to see that someone else isn’t buying the delusion. Thanks! -Beth

  4. Personally, I’d be happy if more of my neighbors in Des Moines, Iowa, would actually plant anything beyond a shade tree, a lawn, and herbaceous perennials. Anything to poke up out if the snow would be provide more winter interest.

  5. The bulk of the inhabited world experiences and gardens for and during “winter interest” season (December – March, or June -September).

  6. Reading this from the relative balminess of Zone 7, I smugly want to go outside and find “winter interest” stuff to photograph and post. But that would be mean, wouldn’t it? Like those Texans and Californians who go on about their lack of snow, etc etc.
    Speaking of which, we’re getting an inch or two tomorrow and everything will look much prettier.

  7. I am happy to say that we are in NC where the winters are milder, so I can garden most of the year. I do enjoy creating groupings of plants inside when I bring my container gardens inside, that is the only winter interest I have:) I do think, however that there are many plants that give us SOME enjoyment in the winter, like the Coral Bark Japanese Maple. I love those, as well as, when the Hellebores poke their flower heads out of the snow. Thanks for your article, I enjoyed it!

  8. I hope you are right, Elizabeth, because I like the idea of living in a mythological place. I’m currently enjoying a garden filled with “winter interest” in Atlanta… I know – it’s the South – but it still gets ugly in the wintertime and we are expecting 14 degrees tonight…
    Out my windows I see Chimonanthus praecox, Helleborus foetidus, Prunus mume in glorious flower (I will have to cut some branches soon because they’ll be gone tomorrow), assorted Camellias, Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ – really stunning right now, Arum italicum, Jasminum nudiflorum, Iris unguincularis and paper-white narcissus in full flower. There’s also Danae and Ruscus with berries as well as yellow and red berried Nandina, some pretty Viburnum dilitatum, and, of course dogwoods covered with fruit. For foliage there are dozens of good conifers and many broadleaf evergreens, which we do well here, and the texture of Aspidistra, Rhodea and palms is really stunning now, especially with a little snow. In the borders I’m enjoying reseeded Corydalis and spreading Alstroemeria – both with lush, fresh green foliage – and the dried parts and pieces of the season past, especially Aster horizontalis. Top it all off with evergreen ferns and carex, orchids and Asarum, Heucheras and Iris japonica and bunches of other things and, really, my garden is a winter garden and the sum of the parts does really add up to a full, luscious whole.
    In the summer the whole thing turns tropical but its too hot to go outside so who cares!
    I’m not bragging here – just saying its really possible to have a winter garden in alot of places. All you have to do is make one.

  9. We are in the middle of a deep freeze and snow squalls right now, so winter interest? My heart sings in late March when I can finally find the hellebores poking their noses through the rest of the snow. It can be a long haul. Sometimes I think that some clipped topiary might give me something to look at in the winter, but with my clay waterlogged soil and walnut trees I struggle to find winter interest shrubs that will survive.

  10. My winter interest garden is all INSIDE. It doesn’t matter how nice the hollies look dusted with snow, I don’t want to go outside to look at them when it’s 20 degrees! Instead, I’ll look at the plant catalogs and my growing collection of houseplants and keep checking the long range climate forecast, hoping for an early spring!

  11. Oh no, how sad to put your garden to bed for for so many months and to have nothing to excite you. Perhaps we are lucky with the climate here in the UK, but there are so many lovely winter flowering plants and many of them are fragrant too. Winter flowering Honeysuckle, Sarcococca, Daphne, Viburnum bodnantense, Hamamelis, Chimananthus all smell divine. And for flowering trees there are Prunus subhirtella ‘ Autumnalis’ or Prunus davidiana. And the Hellebores and snowdrops with early bulbs and winter flowering bulbs. And then the bright coloured stems of Cornus or Salix and the lovely white trunks of Birch. Winter gardens aren’ t a myth. Really.

    • Thanks, Chloris, but I’m not a bit sad. England is a very different climate. It’s fine. I may have a winter hiatus, but I rarely have to garden with an umbrella and never have to wear a jacket in August, as I did when we were there a few years back.

      Every climate has its weather quirks. In Buffalo, we hate to be outside in February; in Texas, they hate to be outside in July. But we all love where we garden.

  12. Yesterday at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the silver-budded Edgeworthia chrysantha made my heart leap with joy.

  13. Being a designer living in a zone 4 climate in the Catskills, I find this post very weird and disturbing. I am an avid follower of Garden Rant but have never felt compelled to get involved before. Winter interest does not mean that one has to go out and “garden” in the winter but adding visible structure, evergreens, grasses, interesting bark (all things you mention) and native plants with seed heads for the wildlife make the winter landscape around our abodes much more tolerable and beautiful. My walkway from the parking court to my front door is designed to be welcoming and beautiful year round and that is something I encourage for my clients as well. I consider good design with beautiful lines, vertical structure, stone and bones a year round contribution but it is certainly important to have the winter and fall garden something other than a brown and sometimes white mono-palette.

    • I agree. I tend to not think of adding winter interest to a ‘garden’ but rather to a yard, which, to me at least, connotes a larger perspective than what I might normally look at in the growing season.

    • I enjoy looking at parks and preserves in winter for the reasons you mention, but, given my small urban garden, it’s simply not important to me that I have structural elements that are meant to provide winter interest. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m not interested in winter interest.

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