Top navigation


Designing Winter Landscapes

by Scott LaFleur

Tired of a bleak view of winter out the window? This first article in a three-part series starts you planning this spring for a garden with interest all winter long by providing a framework and theory for Scott’s vision of winter garden design. Future articles put theory into more practicable terms, providing hands-on advice as well as plant suggestions for winter interest, and discuss the best plants for winter food and foraging – not only for animals but humans as well.

When the last of the colored autumn leaves hit the ground and those first few flakes of snow start falling, most gardeners feel the season has come to an end. I say not so fast, because all good design should start with the structure and bones of a garden and when better too see them than winter. Many gardeners will agree winter is the best time to design because we are inside and have more available time. However, I find the problem is when people start to design a garden in winter they, understandably, turn their attention to spring as they are dreaming of what is to come.

Winter is the best time to see the "bones" of the garden.

In order to design a garden with all-season interest you must start with the winter garden, and when you start with the winter garden the first thing you must understand is winter’s rhythm. Think about how your garden looks and feels as the different types of snow come and go, like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides. Early snow will start off light and fluffy with only a little accumulation. It may even melt away if it comes early. Then it will snow and snow until the January thaw arrives, but the melting provides only a brief tease until it snows again. Then, it melts a little more; snows and melts; melts and snows and finally all the snow melts away.

When I think about winter’s rhythms I immediately start to think of the types of snow and ice that will cling to, coat, and cover my garden. An early season frosty morning will soon turn to a light dusting followed by the first snow, heavy snow, the thaw, a “not again” snow, and finally some springtime sugarin’ snow. Planning with a sense of the rhythm of winter and of the types of snow we get has an impact on your view of the garden. Winter snows can accent shapes and highlight garden structure or completely whitewash your surroundings.

Early Winter Frostings

An early autumn snow at Garden in the Woods.

Frosty mornings offer a lightly sugarcoated landscape. It is during these early frosts that the details of a fading garden can be appreciated. I find the subtle beauty of perennials such as rubecki, Actaea racemosa, solidagos, and veronicastrums really stand out when their frosted silhouettes glisten in the morning sun. Seed pods, cones, and ornamental grasses offer texture and beauty long into the autumn season. The understated subtle beauty of ornamental grass cannot be overlooked. Their whimsical free form and wispy seed heads can punctuate a cold November morning like an exclamation point awaiting winter’s arrival.

Light snow and melt reveal patterns in the landscape.

Winter’s arrival can sometimes be fierce and heavy-handed, but more likely we will have a precursor to the frozen tundra that the dead of winter brings. A dusting of snow is winter’s early calling card and, in my opinion, offers one of the prettiest times of the winter season. As the landscape becomes lightly sugarcoated in snow, the powder clings to branches and accents form – form not only of trees and shrubs but hardscapes as well. The first early snow tends to cling to the lawn, but quickly melts off walks, stones, and patios and reveals many geometric shapes and patterns in the landscape. The patterns of snow and melt outline and paint the landscape to reveal the structure of your garden. With the grey and white tones of winter set against the dark grey backdrop of the sky you can clearly see nature’s x-ray revealing the bones, or lack thereof, in your garden.

Mid-Winter Blankets

The bones of the garden soon turn to blobs as measurable snow blankets them. This white blanket erases the outlines and accents the shapes. Perennials, grasses, and other weak-stemmed garden actors will lay down to sleep, collectively creating forms and masses with no individual identity. This background gives rise to the need for evergreens and bark which provide colored and textured offsets to the blanket of white.

Heavy mid-winter snows smooth out the ground plane.

The heart of winter can be cold and unforgiving, forcing us to grab for those extra blankets as we hibernate in the warmth of our dens. Old man winter also continues to pile on the blankets of snow. This period of heavy snow covers everything and erases the forms and shapes of our garden. The blank, white blanket of uniformity forces our perspective from the ground plane to the wide open leafless views of our surroundings. With little detail and interest to look down at, we lift our gaze and take in the breadth and depth of the landscape around us. Our view turns outward and it becomes evident how closely we are connected to our neighbors and our surroundings.

Late Winter Teasing

Evidence of winter’s temporary hold usually becomes clear as we enter the “January thaw.” Those little teases of spring we so long for also remind us that more of winter remains. This thaw also redefines the landscape as snow melts and structures and shapes in the landscape reappear. Again our attention turns to details and minutia as we scour every plant for any sign of life. It is also during these times that I am reminded how important hardy regional native plants can be to my gardens. Not tricked by these glimpses of a warm future, our hardy natives hold tight with patience and Yankee intuition.

Not again! As the teases of spring give way to the reality of the season our gardens and landscapes will again become subject to the rhythms of winter. You can feel that rhythm change as the ferocious lion of March warms to a cuddly lamb. Any snow at this point is what I call sugarin’ snow. These late spring snows are the perfect companion to the maple syrup season and provide cool temps and ample moisture to let Mother Nature produce her sweet reward of maple syrup.

Blossoms of Anemone Americana (formerly Hepatica Americana) pop against a snowy backdrop.

These sugarin’ snows also provide a last magical kiss of winter. All who witness Anemone Americana (formerly Hepatica Americana) proudly displaying its charming petite flower against a fleeting white backdrop take a tender moment to say goodbye to old man winter until next year.

About the Author

Scott LaFleur is the Horticulture Director and Curator for New England Wild Flower Society’s botanic garden, Garden in the Woods, and for Nasami Farm, a native plant nursery. An accomplished and accessible advocate for native plants and conservation, he brings to his work and public presentations a deep and intimate knowledge of the beauty, hardiness, and versatility of native plants and a deep commitment to organic and ecological gardening. Scott can be reached at