Winter Landscape Tips from the Test Garden

Is your garden as attractive in the snow as it is in the summer? If not, follow these ideas and examples from our Test Garden manager Sandra Gerdes.

Evergreens Reign Supreme

Evergreens are the backbone of any cold-climate winter garden. Evergreen trees and shrubs, like the compact Colorado spruce shown here (grown as a standard), contribute color, texture, and form regardless of snow cover.

Many Shades of Evergreen

Consider using evergreens in a variety of colors to add an extra dimension to the winter landscape. Here, the medium green of Serbian spruce (Picea omorika 'Pendula') contrasts with the steely blue foliage of Colorado spruce (Picea pungens 'Glauca Procumbens').

Greatness of Grass

Ornamental grasses left unsheared are a vital part of the winter landscape in the Test Garden. Here, dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln') provides delicate texture and color against a stark white blanket of snow.

Swinging and Swaying

In addition to their color and texture, taller ornamental grasses add movement to the winter garden. In the Test Garden, the tall fronds of maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) sway gracefully in the gentlest of breezes.

Fruit and Berries

Many trees and shrubs color the landscape with fruit during the winter. The 'Donald Wyman' crabapples that circle the Test Garden's central plaza hold their fruit until spring, when they erupt in a spectacular display of flowers. Other plants with colorful winter fruit include holly, snowberry, bittersweet, and viburnum.

The Other Evergreens

Evergreen perennials are a mainstay in the winter garden. Yucca (shown here) along with hellebores, pachysandra, euonymus, and waldsteinia are some of the best in our Test Garden.

Clinging Leaves

Not all deciduous trees drop their leaves when fall comes. This young red oak (Quercus rubra) retains its dry leaves throughout most of the winter, creating a tan accent in the garden.

Vines in Winter

In summer, vines like this sweet autumn clematis help soften the sharp lines of a fence top. They can provide the same service in winter. The effect is particularly striking after a heavy snowfall.

Easy Eye Appeal

Structures of all sorts can offer eye-appeal in the winter garden. They can be as complex as this obelisk or as simple as a tepee constructed with bamboo poles.

Good-Looking Shed

The Test Garden shed is a good example of making utilitarian garden structures as attractive as possible. Although you might not have the means to create something as elaborate as this one, consider how a new coat of paint might turn your own garden shed into a contributing part of the winter landscape.

Snow-Covered Limbs

Trees and shrubs that hold their bare limbs horizontally, such as pagoda dogwood, will catch the snow and form striking designs in black and white. Trees with cascading branches, like our weeping crabapple 'Louisa', also provide interesting winter silhouettes.


If you don't have trees and shrubs with snow-catching elements, you can add them in the structures of your garden. Here, a horizontal framing element from an arbor serves the purpose. Rail fences are also especially adept at catching an armload of snow.

Wall of Delight

Retaining walls can be decorative in the winter landscape, even if they aren't dusted with snow. The key is to select materials that offer attractive colors or textures in their own right.

Bark with Some Bite

When trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, other portions of their anatomy come into better view. Trees with highly textured bark, like this Eastern redbud, should be a part of every garden, but especially one where winters are dark and cold. Other plants noted for their attractive bark include paperbark maple, redosier dogwood, and river birch.

Ornamental Beauty

There are many ways to add year-round beauty to a garden. One of the easiest is simply to use decorative garden ornaments designed to be left outdoors. Here, a tile set into a retaining wall reminds visitors of what this garden will be like in a few short months when the warmth return. Statues, fountains, and architectural elements like pedestals can help bring life to a dormant garden.

Shed Some Light

Even on the bleakest winter evening, there is something magical about pools of illumination from a well-placed light fixture, especially if it is also attractive during the day. This simple custom-designed fixture is one of several that light the path that meanders around the Test Garden.

Path to Glory

You can encourage winter walks in the garden if you include paths that can take the traffic in any weather. This crushed rock path, outlined with limestone, invites visitors to explore the garden in every season.

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