Creating Winter Interest in Your Garden

The long, cold winters of the Chicagoland area can bring aching desires for the warmer temperatures and sunshine.

The window of seasonal ornamental plant growth isn’t incredibly long, with the majority of most significant plant displays occurring from the months of May to October, which is half of the calendar year.

So how do we extend the enjoyment of our gardens and the life they support?

With the rise in popularity of houseplants and indoor gardening, bringing the summer inside is possible. However, indoor gardening and plant care is often difficult and costly depending on the environments we are trying to replicate.

With proper design, care, and appreciation of our gardens and outdoor landscapes, we can extend the window of their performance to a year-round schedule.

Winter interest in landscape design can often carry just as much value as the design throughout the growing season.

A classic and very popular practice in landscape maintenance is to cutback and remove plant material during the fall in preparation for winter.

In a region that so desperately clings to manicured and precise lawns, the neat and tidy appearance of a cutback and cleaned garden bed appeals to many a homeowner.

While this practice may bring a sense of completion of a garden’s care for the season, the idea that it should continue to be the default should not remain a base line.

A landscape is a living, dynamic community. Just as we appreciate our natural woodlands, mountains, and prairies in every season of life, our planned and designed home landscapes deserve the same appreciation.

Learning to view and admire our home gardens in the winter is the first step to understanding the appeal of winter interest in landscape design.

It’s easy to view a dormant plant in the winter, see a collection of brown stems, and form the opinion that it looks dead and ugly. By taking in the larger vignette of a winter landscape, the true beauty of what may be seen as ugly to some can be appreciated by all. Layers of brown, black, white, and gray still create a palette of color that is carefully curated by nature.

The bright tan of dormant grasses, the deep brown of perennial stems, and the kiss of silver frost brought by a cold December morning creates a combination just as moving as a collection of summer blooms.

Our plants are still alive, and finding the beauty of their forms in every stage of their existence is akin to finding beauty in the pride and turmoil of our own lives.

Fresh snow perched upon the seed head of a Beebalm, the shock of yellow from a Goldfinch feeding on the seeds of a Purple Coneflower, the sway of Switchgrass in a frigid January breeze: these are welcome sights from the comfort of our winter refuge while we await the spring, and they are all proof that our landscapes still have life throughout the year.

Life in our landscapes still exists beyond the sights that we can easily view. Plant material during the winter is vital in providing habitat for native insects. The hollow pith of many plants provide homes for native bees, larvae of native butterflies may be overwintering at the base of their host plants and leaf litter and plant debris provides nesting material for birds.

Even as our plants go to sleep for the cold winter months, they are still providing necessary resources and habitat for Illinois wildlife. By leaving plant material up in the winter, we can collectively offset a small portion of habitat loss and encourage the full ecological functioning of our home landscapes.

There are multiple plants that have an equally stunning display in winter as they do during the growing season. For winter color in Chicago landscape design we love:

  • Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea) is unmatched in this region. When the shrub defoliates in fall, the brightly colored stems standout in stark contrast to a snow-covered backdrop. Countless varieties have stems ranging in color from deep red to coral to yellow.
  • Grasses such as Panicum ‘Northwind’ and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ provide elegant structure and movement with winter winds, and the rich browned-butter color is an added bonus.
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) become stalks of spiked obsidian in winter, offering their seed to finches and to the ground below in hopes of multiplying in spring.
  • Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica) and Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) hold on to stunning, long lasting seed pods that are tough, durable, and complimentary to winter garlands or greens in containers.

While the long and windy winters of Chicagoland often have us longing for the spring when our gardens and flowerbeds will finally awaken for the season, there is much to appreciate in a thoughtfully planned winter landscape.

As Chicago landscape designers, we appreciate gardens year round and encourage you to grab a cup of coffee, a blanket, and the best vantage point in the house to view your perennial beds and take in the life and beauty that exists even in the winter.

Like viewing a painting at a museum, we often find there is much more to discover when we are open to artistry and creation in all its forms and iterations.