The Winter Garden

How to make your outdoor space light, bright and welcoming on even the darkest of days.

The Winter Garden - YAM Nov/Dec 2023
Photo By: Joaquim Bel/stocksy.

By Wendy McLellan

Heavy grey skies looming over drooping wet conifers. Dark, uninviting spaces. Leafless trees. It’s November in the garden and even southern Vancouver Island can’t escape dreary winter days when spring already seems like it will never come again.

Bringing life to a garden during the winter months takes some creative planning, but the reward is a landscape that looks beautiful year-round and increases your living space to include some of the outdoors.

Hello, Hellebores!

“To me, winter gardens are all about the details — the colour, bark, textures, sounds. Things that are really going to stand out in winter months,” says Victoria landscape designer Lorraine Locherty, owner of Urban Habitats Landscape Studio.

“When I’m choosing plants, I’m always thinking, ‘What are you going to do in winter?’ ”

Locherty, who is also a Red Seal horticulturist who works part-time at Russell Nursery in North Saanich, works with customers as well as her landscape design clients to create gardens that will be interesting in every season. From her perspective, Greater Victoria gardeners choose too many dark evergreens (what she calls “the Big Three of Victoria gardens” — camellias, evergreen azaleas and rhododendrons) that absorb the light rather than light up grey winter days.

“Think about deciduous trees, shrubs and perennials for their changing colours. Stay away from dark green — it doesn’t have to be the definition of a winter garden,” Locherty says. “We rely too heavily on rhodos with their very dark foliage.”

For her clients, Locherty chooses plants that stand out from the dark green of our West Coast landscape and recommends yellow or grey-blue foliage to break up the gloom.

The Winter Garden - YAM Nov/Dec 2023
Hellebores can add colour and brightness all winter long.

And hellebores. Lots of hellebores.

“Hellebores are the jewels of the winter garden. You would be crazy not to have tons of them,” she says. Hellebores come in many colours; some bloom earlier than others and, with a little planning, these plants will add colour to the garden all winter long and well into spring.

In her own garden, Locherty underplants hellebores with spring bulbs such as dwarf daffodils.

Simplify with Shrubs

There are loads of trees and shrubs that light up a landscape and provide textural interest
and a sense of permanence in the garden.

Larry Myers, proprietor of Alfresco Living Design in Victoria, weaves evergreen plants through the landscape to create gardens that are colourful even when the flowers have disappeared.

“One of the most beautiful colours in the garden is green, and there are so many shades,” Myers says. “It makes gardens very beautiful, natural, serene and relaxing. Your garden should look wonderful all year round.”

Using a mix of broadleaf evergreens and conifers gives structure to a landscape. In sunny spots, Myers chooses plants from the Southern Hemisphere that grow well in this climate. Olearia and pittosporum are two of the broadleaf evergreens he often mixes with boxwoods.

People love flowering plants, but they also want low-maintenance gardens, he says. Perennials provide lots of colour, but they can be quite high maintenance. Gardeners looking for a less work-intensive option should consider flowering shrubs instead.

Broadleaf evergreen shrubs such as choisya are deer-resistant and flower profusely. Dwarf Japanese white and black pines are also favourites.

“People often pick up a plant they like, but a lot of times it’s not appropriate for the site, or it won’t work with the site or the style of the garden,” Myers says. “Look at the overall esthetic of the garden rather than particular plants.”

He adds: “I like to use a lot of plants in a garden — plants stand out individually, with airspace and separation, but close and very full. Texture, volume, depth — that is very important. And maintaining that context and scale.”

Besides, he says, “It gives an opportunity to play more with lighting.”

The Magic of Lighting

Adding lighting is the perfect way to make the best of winter in the garden. It means more hours to enjoy the view from indoors, and also increases the hours the outdoors is accessible.

Both Myers and Locherty include lighting in their garden designs, whether for a huge property or a patio.

The Winter Garden - YAM Nov/Dec 2023
Expand the usability of your garden with a creative lighting display like this one from Victoria’s WES-TECH.

“I look at the gardens as being as important as my living room,” Myers says. “It’s the holistic view — how they relate. I think they should support one another and be enjoyable year-round. I have a 1,330-square-foot home, and the garden expands our world tremendously. In the evenings, the space is seemingly infinite because of the garden and how it’s lit.”

Illuminating the garden is an opportunity to showcase a sculptural element, or a planter, or an interesting plant. Lights create depth and highlight a focal point or sightline.

“It doesn’t matter where I am in my house, I’m always looking at the garden — day and night,” Myers says. “And shadows are just as important as light, and what you are actually focusing on. The contrast is what makes it magical. It’s a balance.”

Locherty always adds garden lights “unless people tell me not to. Lighting adds so much —
I start with four, but clients always want more.”

Uplighting a lacy Japanese maple, such as Crimson Queen, by placing a spotlight close to the trunk illuminates its gnarly branches and creates shadows and patterns on walkways.

Locherty also creates “washes” of light by using a wall of the house or garage as a screen, then projecting the shadow of a tree onto the wall with a wide-angle spotlight or floodlight.

“A twisted Salix [willow] looks like something out of a silent movie,” she says.

Occasionally, she places a downward-facing spotlight in a tree in order to mimic moonlight. “Try not to do runway lights — there are no straight lines in nature. Instead, make pools of light that still clearly show the way.”

When it comes to what types of lights to choose, Jen Lasko, owner of Victoria-based Modpots, prefers solar lighting, but admits that the shorter days mean dimmer lights. She also uses battery-operated candles in tall hurricane lanterns or rope lighting to build a display on a balcony or patio. Locherty and Myers choose LED lights, and Locherty often includes fairy lights in her garden designs, especially around an entrance.

Consider Containers

Finally, don’t think container gardening is just for summer, especially if your space is on the smaller side.

At Modpots, Lasko creates planters for every season. For a patio or balcony planter garden, she chooses large pots — 30 inches across and at least 25 inches tall. She then adds a strong element as the tallest point, preferably an interesting conifer in a blue or yellow tone.

“Something with a little bit of personality,” Lasko says. “For instance, lemon cypress [Chamaecyparis Wilma] is bright in the winter darkness. Or one of the different spruces with interesting foliage. Or a Japanese plum yew, aurea variety. Yellow always brightens a dark spot.”

For a modern, Nordic-influenced planter, she might use pampas grass as the focal point, or birch poles, and then add some magnolia leaves or curly willow branches, but limit the colour palette to whites, greens and blacks with simple white fairy lights to illuminate the display.

“If you use a spruce, it could be converted into a live Christmas tree with ball ornaments at the base, and bows and holly and cedar boughs,” she says. “And fairy lights.”

Myers says his clients who are downsizing and moving from a house with a big garden to a condo want to feel as though they still have a garden space.

“You can give that sense with seating arrangements and containers. You want a sense of permanence,” he says. “You can still use the area in the shoulder seasons and year-round. 

“You are fighting for every square inch for balance between lifestyle and atmosphere. I like to be enveloped, enclosed, things to be soft with as much greenery as possible.”

“To me, winter gardens are all about the details — the colour, bark, textures, sounds. Things that are really going to stand out in winter months.”

Plants to Make Your Garden Glow

There are so many great plants to make your garden beautiful in winter, it’s impossible to list them all. Here are a few favourites from Lorraine Locherty, Larry Myers and Jen Lasko.

Trees
Betula nigra (river birch)
Acer griseum (paperbark maple)
Magnolia ‘Little Gem’
Chaenomeles speciosa (Chinese quince)

Shrubs
Corylus ‘Red Majestic’ (corkscrew hazel)
Callicarpa (beautyberry)
Berberis (Japanese barberry)
Salix ‘Flame’ (flame willow)
Ilex verticillata (winterberry)
Pyracantha (firethorn)
Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood)
Mahonia Charity, or Bealei (Oregon grape)
Lonicera Thunderbolt (box honeysuckle)
Grevillia paradoxa (bottle brush)
Drimys lanceolata (mountain pepper)
Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’ (dwarf myrtle)

Conifers
Junipers, in the lemon yellow or bluish shades
Dwarf spruce varieties with bluish needles
Perennials
Hellebore (Lenten rose)
Grasses, but especially Carex ‘Prairie Fire’; Carex ‘Evergold’; Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’; and Miscanthus ‘Silver Feather’

Bulbs
Allium
Dwarf Turkistani tulips
Short snowdrop varieties
Narcissus (daffodil, smaller-sized varieties)
Dwarf irises

Your Winter Garden Calendar

It may be cold out there, but there’s still plenty to do. 

The Winter Garden - YAM Nov/Dec 2023
Photo By: Spartan Media Group.

Think winter means a holiday from gardening? Not so fast — nothing may be blooming outside, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your garden chores. We checked in with our friends at The Farmer’s Almanac, and here’s what they suggest you should be doing over the next few months.

Winter garden maintenance starts with making sure everything is clean, cut back and tidy, as in this local yard designed by Victoria’s Alfresco Living Design.

All Winter

• Keep up with yard maintenance. Remove old and dead plants, fallen fruit, damaged branches and winter weeds to reduce weeds, diseases and pests in your garden. Dispose of any diseased materials and, above all, clean up any weeds before they go to seed or develop roots. 
• Regularly check your garden and lawn for any problems and treat them when necessary. 
• Water frequently from now through early spring to keep your garden from drying out.
• Check for rodent damage around bases of trees and shrubs. Use traps and bait as needed.
• Monitor your houseplants to make sure they are getting adequate water and nutrients, and are not developing diseases or insect infestations.

November

• Try seeding herbs (such as chives, sage, parsley) indoors near a sunny window. 
• Place a cold frame over your winter vegetables.
• Place mulch around berries and in flower beds, but remove mulch and tall weeds from around fruit trees and shrubs to discourage mice and other pests from hiding there.
• Cover rhubarb and asparagus beds with composted manure and straw.
• Protect tender evergreens from the winter winds; tie up any loose shrub branches to protect them from ice, snow and wind damage.
• This is a good time to plant trees and shrubs; just make sure to water new plants well.

The Winter Garden - YAM Nov/Dec 2023

December

• If you have poinsettias, keep them away from cold windows. Place them in sunlight and fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer.
• Check perennials and cut back overgrowth to encourage new growth.
• To avoid damage, do not let snow pile up on your shrubs or tree branches and limit foot traffic on your frozen lawn.
• During heavy rain, check your yard for any drainage problems. Consider any upgrades to your water systems, such as drip irrigation.
• Be careful when using salt to remove ice on driveways and walkways; it can damage lawns and plants. Sand might be a better choice.
• Consider the lessons you’ve learned from the past gardening season as you start thinking about next year.

January

• Order seed catalogs, and begin planning this year’s garden. Consider planting hardy, pest- and disease-resistant plants — especially deer-resistant ones.
• Before spring arrives, test your garden soil’s pH levels. Testing kits are available at many retailers. 
• This month and next, prune trees, berries and shrubs while they’re dormant. For trees and shrubs that bloom in summer, prune on the current year’s growth in winter. (For those that bloom in spring from buds on one-year-old wood, prune just after flowers fade.)
• Check your storage areas and get rid of unwanted household hazardous materials such as pesticides; discard them at Ellice Recycle in Victoria or GFL Environmental in Langford.
• If your mulch was blown or washed away, reapply it around your plants.

February

• Tune up your lawn mower, and sharpen and sterilize your garden tools.
• Spray lime sulfur on fruit and deciduous trees and shrubs.
• Start seeds indoors for brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage and most herbs; keep them in a warm place, but out of direct sunlight. Consider investing in a soil thermometer so you know when the soil is warm enough for seeds to germinate outdoors.
• Make a cold frame or hot bed to start your vegetable and flower plants early.
• As soon as the soil is workable, add in manure or compost to prepare your garden for planting.

And prepare for a beautiful, bountiful spring!