Designing with Winter Interest Plants

In many areas of the country winter captures nearly four to six months of the year so designing with winter interest plants is a hugely important aspect of our designs. While the summer garden can be intricate and detailed, the winter landscape tends to need a bolder and more gestural consideration. We always ask the question….. will this garden also be compelling even in the winter months? We strive to consider all the aspects of garden design (form, flow, accent, figure/ ground, etc.) from a seasonal interest perspective. We look to accomplish four important goals in our winter landscapes.


  • Four-season interest in our plant selection. Structures and physical elements consider snowpack conditions and subtle winter colors. Outdoor spaces still seem warm and inviting. Materials can withstand harsh winter environments.
  • The beautiful, subtle and evocative landscapes that exists around us every day inspire our cultivated landscapes. A dark black perennial stream that cuts sharply through the stark white snow, the bright yellow and red of the willows and dogwoods in the spring when the sap flows but the snows still fall, soft rolling landforms covered in smooth buttery snow or the dark and light contrast of an evergreen against a snowy or subdued backdrop…. these are the inspiration behind our gardens.
  • Choosing winter interest plants for the garden is very similar in principle to our summer gardens, for example, uncut native grasses can provide soft texture and great movement even covered in snow. Large swaths of red twig dogwoods and the striking bark of a quaking aspen or birch grove can be a bold statement that is even more dramatic in the winter. Evergreens are easy choices to still have great structure in the garden, creating and maintaining spaces even in winter. Sizing winter interest plants to your average snow conditions so they will still stand out is an important consideration.
  • As winter conditions in many parts of the country vary greatly each year, desgning with winter interest plants can be even trickier. Winter resiliency (72 degrees in NY, NY on Christmas 2015, or 19 degrees in 2013) is important and plants that entertain all sorts of conditions are important.
  • Fire and water features, structures or sculptures often provide a focal point in our gardens because they can function well in both summer and winter. Place these features where the microclimate will be comfortable year-round…. Wind protected and south facing.


“Try to resist cutting anything down that doesn’t need it before the Spring. The seedheads of perennials and grasses such as veronicastrum, yarrows, showy stonecrop, prairie dropseed, oat grasses, switchgrasses and feather reed grasses are exceptional sculptural elements in harsh frosts and in early snows before they are completely inundated in deep late winter snow.”

“Winter watering is often forgotten in the dormant garden. Many shrubs and trees are lost to dry soil and drying winter winds than anything else. Consider your plant selections carefully and pay attention to those that still need some winter moisture to emerge healthy and thriving in the spring.”

“Contrast tends to be the most dramatic tool at our disposal in the winter garden. Consider a chartreuse Pfitzer Juniper or the yellow twigs of a Yellow Mountain Willow against a backdrop of deep green pines. These garden components will catch the eye even in the darkest months of winter.”

“Use deciduous trees and tall shrubs to protect south facing outdoor spaces. This will provide shade and cool temperatures in the summer and allow the warming sun in during the winter months.”



Cornus argenteo marginata – An excellent choice as it is one of the reddest of the red twig dogwoods in winter yet provides outstanding summer interest with attractive variegated foliage and the ability to thrive in full sun.

Ilex and other structural evergreens stand up well to heavy snows provide robust structure with or without snowy conditions.

Rosa rugosa – Large red rosehips in the winter provide great interest in natural gardens.

Japanese Maples –The twisted and contorted branches of Japanese maples provided an unprecedented living sculpture to gardens. Best placed on the north side of buildings where protected from winter sun and wind. There are many cultivars being grown by nurseries that combine Korean and Japanese Maples for a combination of hardiness and aesthetics.

Tsuga canadensis spp. – Canadian hemlock come in many shapes and forms and provide an excellent alternative to junipers.

Acer griseum – Paperbark maple. When grown in and amongst the white bark of aspen trees, this ornamental tree with a cinnamon colored peeling bark adds another dimension to a garden in the winter.

Polystichum and Polypodium –  (it’s called a Christmas fern, after all!) In broad swaths ferns can add tremendous texture and pair well when punctuated by the broad seed heads of a yarrow or a tall stonecrop.

Drumond, Coyote or Yellow Mountain Willow are good choices for nice yellow coloring on their new growth and early spring catkins. The Dwarf Arctic Willow with purplish branches and early spring catkins doesn’t have its counterparts yellow coloring but makes up for with it a very graceful arching habit.

Fruiting shrubs and trees have no rival to the color they bring in the winter garden as well as the year-round food for birds that are brave enough to stick out the winters (yew, crabapples, snowberry, etc.).

Hedra helix – English Ivy and other ivy while having been used for years for winter garden interest, we caution you to use tools such as The Plantium to verify noxious status in your area! These plants are often still commercially available even while state’s work to list them as noxious and invasive!

With nearly 2,000 plants showing with the ‘winter interest’ filter, The Plantium can help you with designing with winter interest plants in your garden!

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