Winter is definitely a gardening challenge in the Pacific Northwest, right up there with growing delphiniums and fighting slugs. Grass turns to mud, leaves clutter everything, those gorgeous perennials look sad and brown, and there’s not even snow to cover up all the mess.
But here’s the good news: There’s a lot you can do to make a winter garden look beautiful, both right away and in the future — and now is the very best time to get out there and do it.
We asked for tips from a master gardener, a landscape designer and a Tacoma resident with a stunning woodland garden, and came up with a guide to transforming your winter garden.
Here’s the first thing you can do, and it’s free (or cheap): Tidy up your garden.
“I know a lot of master gardeners, but I’m unusual among them in that my garden is extremely neat,” says University Place master gardener Stephen Johnson. “It’s nicely organized. People comment on it a lot.”
While Johnson has a lot of summer plants, including peonies and 35 kinds of roses, he also fills out his garden with evergreens — 85 types of rhododendrons, to be precise. The secret to making it look good in any season, he says, is to keep it neat by pruning, edging and above all, weeding.
“Every time there’s a clear day, I get out there and do (the weeds),” he says.
It’s a good strategy. Neat edges — whether of plants, lawn or beds — offer a restful place for the eye and an uncluttered background to set off the shape and color of your plants. Think of how an art gallery sets off paintings with white walls and clean floor.
The other thing that will neaten up your yard is mulch. You don’t have to wait until spring, says landscape designer Sue Goetz. Any time is a good time to lay down mulch, which suppresses weeds — less weeding! — and holds in water and warmth for plants. But the other big thing it does is cover your non-plant spaces with a unified background color and texture — another beautifying trick. The best color for this is dark brown or black — Johnson uses fine dark beauty bark — but even fallen leaves can look good if shredded with a lawnmower and placed intentionally en masse. Make sure you pull weeds first.
Finally, get snippy with faded plants. Johnson prunes everything he can: perennials and messy foliage (iris, lilies, Japanese anemone, even frozen hostas) right down to the ground, and selective cane pruning for hydrangeas. Now’s a good time to cut out dead, damaged or diseased branches, especially from roses and trees. And to prune for shape, since that’s visible without leaves.
In other words, a bit of effort will go a long way.
“To have a nice garden, you have to keep at it,” Johnson says.
Your To-Do List:
Pruning, raking, edging, weeding, mulching.
When Nancy Neil cleared her steeply sloping, Northeast Tacoma back yard of blackberry and ivy, she knew she wanted to create a landscape she could enjoy all year round — especially from her back rooms in winter. Two years ago, with the help of Goetz and yard crew Father Nature, she transformed a brambly mess into a pretty woodland, complete with native plants, meandering paths and rocks.
Now, it offers both stark winter structure and vibrant color: red vine maple and white paperbark birch trunks contrast with deep green salal and ferns, with yellow mahonia flowers reaching upward. Lime-green liriope grass arches gracefully and lights up the darkness, while a pale-bark path wanders around tree stumps and a sitting area of dark gray rock and pavers leads the eye up the red-paved steps and onto the row of Leyland cypress that frame the whole scene. Dark mulch gives visual contrast to green candytuft, rhododendron, huckleberries and azaleas, and birds flock noisily, reveling in their food-filled forest.
“I love looking out at it,” Neil says. While she’s learning gardening as she goes, she says the woodland doesn’t need a lot of maintenance beyond a yearly clean-up.
The lesson? Northwest native plants offer year-round greenery and flowers, attract birds, and thrive in our winter climate without much help.
Your To-Do List:
Add native plants, paying attention to growing conditions — most like a little shade and moisture. They’ll be fine if you plant them when temperatures are above freezing. Choose from evergreen huckleberry, salal, mahonia, ferns or rhododendrons. Add natural elements for color and interest: bark paths, logs and rocks.
When you don’t have leaves and flowers, you can really see what kind of structure your garden has, both horizontal and vertical — and just a little can really transform a boring winter landscape.
“I look at the bone structure,” says Goetz. “Trees, paths, stone — things that don’t disappear in winter. Invest in these.”
Formal European gardens are a good inspiration: Look through a book or Internet images and see how English, French and Italian gardens use both natural and man-made structural elements like arbors, pergolas, conifers, topiary, pots, birdbaths, fences, hedges and paths to give visual interest and vertical balance.
If you have space to add something like this, go for it. Also consider adding trees with interesting “bones”: twisted filbert, dogwood, paperbark birch, espaliered fruit trees. Think about adding strategic big rocks or even a sculpture.
You also can improve your existing structure. Trim trees and tall shrubs of short twigs that stick out from the lower trunk to get a cleaner line. Prune to highlight branch shape. Trim your paths, and think about edging them with a single element: pebbles, bricks, boxwood or a colored ornamental grass.
Your To-Do List:
Get out in your garden and really look at the architecture. Note any vertical “blank spots.” Also look from inside: Where can you add something that will improve the view from there? Add something from the above list, if you can, or tidy up what you have now.
“Usually when people ask me for a winter garden, it’s because they have a fabulous summer garden,” Goetz says.
There’s no doubt that in the Pacific Northwest, a spring/summer garden, with all those flowering perennials, is very rewarding. But if that’s all you have, it gets bleak in winter. Now’s a wonderful time to look around nurseries and see what’s colorful in winter, so you can add it to your garden to shine while the summer flowers sleep, Goetz says.
It also helps to decide what winter color scheme you’d like. For white, try hellebores, heathers (Erica), snowberry or any brightly variegated evergreen. For red, there’s nandina, heuchera, red heathers, bergenia ‘Winter Glow’ and ‘Bressingham Ruby,’ cranberry viburnum or wintergreen. Camellia sasanqua offers early splashes of pink or white. Beautyberry, hebe anomala and PJM rhododendron are tinged purple, and for gold you have many choices: lonicera ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ or ‘Lemon Beauty,’ yucca ‘Color Guard,’ mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Charity,’ even Scotch moss, mop cypress or grasses like fountain or pampas.
Contrast colorful foliage with nearby structural elements in dark or light colors for maximum effect: paint a fence, lay gray pavers or rocks, put down dark mulch.
And for simple and instant color, add a bright piece of pottery or art.
Your To-Do List:
Look at the barest parts of your garden and figure out what colors would work well. Cruise a nursery or garden store for plants or pottery, and set them out. Plant next to dark evergreens, lay dark mulch or invest in structural elements for even more color contrast.
The final piece to the winter garden puzzle is adding movement and life to brighten up the bare stillness. The easiest way to do this? Create a bird-friendly garden by planting food plants and enriching your soil.
Shrubs with berries for forage and twigs for nests, along with a few tall trees, will bring birds, as Nancy Neil has found: Try mahonia, snowberry, serviceberry or viburnum. Neil also composts extensively, using a worm bin to make compost tea for her plants and three compost barrels for mulch to encourage insect life in the soil — another way to support bird life.
Finally, even if the weather stops you from being in the garden yourself, at least you can imagine it: Add weather-proof seating. Bright resin deck chairs, a stone bench, or a casual circle of rocks or pavers will remind you of living outdoors even when you’re stuck inside.
Your To-Do List:
Buy a bird-friendly plant, or plants, and place it where you can see it from inside. Start a compost pile. Stop using pesticides, and feel free to ignore a few corners to encourage insect life via leaves, twigs and debris. Set out a rock or weatherproof chair where you can see it from inside to remind you of why you love your garden — and that winter will end, eventually.