When you are designing your garden for winter interest, think of yourself as a set designer. Unlike spring and summer, when the garden goes through many scene changes, the winter stage does not change rapidly. The overall composition is a static one, but it will not be boring if you incorporate the basic principles of design: form, line, color, repetition and texture.
Texture is a sensory perception of our environment, much more subliminal than color or form. During the winter, the garden loses much of its bright color and leafy abundance, so the texture of winter plants becomes much more apparent. When skies are clear, the bright, glittering winter light accentuates the textures in the landscape. Because the angle of the winter sun is low, it reflects light on the glossy foliage of large-leaved evergreens like hollies and laurels, and the shining bark of ornamental trees.
Whether peeling, patchy, shiny or dull, bark is an asset. Botanists have classified bark into 18 different types, including scaly, peeling, flaking, fissured, corky, cracked, and spiny, to name a few. Trees with outstanding peeling bark include the Paperbark maple, River birch, Paper birch, and Shagbark hickory.
Sargent cherry (below) is a stunner with its glossy, burgundy striped bark. Other trees with shiny, colorful bark include Japanese maples and the Prairiefire crabapple.
Stewartias (below) and Kousa dogwoods display patchy bark in camouflage colors. These ornamental trees look best sited against a backdrop of evergreens, which will help to show off their interesting bark.
Evergreen trees and shrubs provide textures with their leaves and needles, and planting evergreens with contrasting textures creates interesting compositions. The large smooth leaves of a rhododendron can be set off with the ferny foliage of Siberian cypress and the fine texture of a boxwood. The soft long needles of an Austrian pine look great next to the shiny, spiky leaves of a blue holly.
Evergreen groundcovers add texture at ground level and perk up the garden when the lawn has turned to a depressing brown. Excellent groundcovers for winter interest include broadleaf evergreens such as pachysandra, vinca, euonymous, or gaultheria, and low-growing conifers such as ‘Nana’ or ‘Blue Star’ junipers.
Although many gardeners like to deadhead spent flowers in the fall, dried blooms and seedheads of sedums, astilbes, black-eyed susans and ornamental grasses enrich the winter landscape. The dried flowers of hydrangeas, pieris and leucothoe also add a nice texture to the garden, and look particularly beautiful when dusted with snow.
Berries, fruits and hips are like exclamation points in the landscape. The fruits of a hawthorn tree, the berries of cotoneasters, hollies and junipers, or the hips of a climbing rose add a delightful texture, especially when covered with frost.
Texture in the garden is most visible and effective when seen in contrast: lustrous with dull, prickly with smooth, ribbed with flat, feathery with broad, needled with flat. As the “set designer” of your garden, you can create a beautiful winter scene with the endless variety of textures exhibited by our trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.