Winter Garden Design

– Posted in: Design
15 comments

I just read an interview with Piet Oudolf in the New York Times about designing a garden for winter. I was glad to see he was asked, “What do you do if you live in an area with much snow?” His answer was less than satisfying.

When the snow comes down dry, it doesn’t flatten your plants; perennials that are more than 2 or 3 feet tall will stick out of the snow and still look good. But sometimes the plants will break. This is the moment to remember that spring is coming.

I don’t know about you, but we rarely get dry snow. And when we do, it’s usually after a month or two of wet snows. Somehow remembering that spring is coming is not much consolation. It is true, as he says, you need good structure in a garden, substantial shapes and sinuous curves that will only be made more beautiful by a layer of snow accenting their forms. But saying that snow won’t knock down the dried remains of perennials is just wishful thinking in my climate.

If you want to read a book that really understands what a snowy winter is like, get yourself a copy of Prairie Winterscape: Creative Gardening for the Forgotten Season. I reviewed Prairie Winterscapes here. It may be too late to design your garden for this winter, but it’s the perfect time to plan changes for next winter’s garden.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

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Conrad March 5, 2011, 11:05 am

I have to design for winter. In Minnesota the landscape is winter for 1/2 the year.

garden designers Manchester February 23, 2011, 8:52 am

I have done some of my best work designing gardens in the winter, and to see it blossom in the summer is a sight to behold

Helen at Toronto Gardens February 14, 2011, 11:46 pm

Well, Kathy, you can imagine I don’t live in a prairie, nor do we always get a ton of snow in the city — though we almost always have frigid weather. But when we do get snow, like this winter, it is definitely of the flattening kind. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll look into it.

Bonnie February 12, 2011, 7:06 pm

I don’t even attempt a winterscape. I plan to take out my ornamental grass. By the time it develops plumes in the fall, the snow is falling and so is the grass.

Monique February 12, 2011, 1:20 pm

Well said! I totally appreciate your point of view. It can be a drag to listen to or read overly romanticized notions about snow when you have three feet packed on the ground. Oudolf’s ideas work well when thinking about extending the garden into that brief seasonal transition that sport dustings of snow and slim ice coverings. Being burried calls for an entirely different discussion – like designing for snow storage, protecting garden elements and plants from heavy wet snow, and tips to keep the northern gardener from throwing in the towel and moving to Hawaii! Thanks for a totally spot on post. I will check out the book recommendation.

Donna February 12, 2011, 9:54 am

Well Kathy you know where I live so nothing much is seen above the snow for months but I will take a gander at the book…I have a few bushes above 4 feet that are showing but that is it..oh and the trees…I cannot ever remember a dry snow here…lake snows are generally icy and wet…and I am with you..can’t stand really hot, humid weather…guess that is why we live here..

Kathy Purdy February 12, 2011, 10:39 am

Check the book out of the library first, then buy it if you think it is worthwhile. That is what I did.

Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence February 12, 2011, 7:30 am

We don’t have to worry about snow here in Raleigh, not often anyway. But we still benefit from good structure. Most of my design aesthetics were learned while working in London, so while I like curvilinear bed designs, I gravitate more towards crisp, straight lines. They look very nice in the winter landscape. H.

Kathy Purdy February 12, 2011, 10:37 am

I was thinking more of the curve of tree branches. I like my hedges straight, too.

Craig @ Ellis Hollow February 11, 2011, 9:33 pm

I’ve always been a big fan of Oudolf’s principles, but understood that they were forged in the Netherland, which is a world away from us here in Upstate New York.

That said, there are plants that stand up in the snows. My various miscanthis are still standing. And I’ll add sedums, echinacea and especially Phlomis russeliana to the list if perennials that stand up to the wet snow. Anyone add some others?

Kathy Purdy February 11, 2011, 9:47 pm

Of the plants you mention, I only grow sedum and my sedum flops. Of course, it flops long before the snow flies, so I’m sure it is a cultural problem. The one time someone gave me a piece of echinacea it didn’t make it. But I meant no disrespect for Mr. Oudolf’s work. I wouldn’t call myself a “big fan” but I would say my garden has been subtly influenced by his books. I wanted more people to be aware of the Prairie Winterscape book and his comment in that interview was a springboard for my thought.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 11, 2011, 8:45 pm

I read that interview with chagrin too. I’m sorry, Mr. Oudolf, but those 3 foot perennials have all been buried under a 4 foot drift of snow now.

Linda Lehmusvirta February 11, 2011, 8:38 pm

Right on! We are total wimps in Texas. We dance for joy at our brief snowstorm, then cry for all the plants we’ve lost. I tried hard to think of that “design concept” in the snow, because it is valuable. Mainly, I was counting bodies and we’re not even as cold as you! Heck, if you were in Texas on snow day, you’d be wearing a t-shirt!

Kathy Purdy February 11, 2011, 9:42 pm

Linda, it isn’t fair to compare snow to snow. We really need to compare your snow to unusual heat and drought here. I’m a hot weather wimp myself.