Winter wonderland—Landscaping for Colorado winters

(Photo: Denver Botanic Gardens; Scott Dressel-Martin)


A winter garden could be a dismal sight—bare trees, empty plots and snowdrifts replace the lush and verdant gardens of the spring and summer.

It could also be a blank canvas for landscape designers to create a unique space for clients hunkering down over the winter. Without attention-grabbing colors, the layout of the space and the structure of the plants therein become the main focal point—instead of color, think texture and shape.

“Obviously the whole concept of winter gardens is a little challenging in our climate,” Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens, said in an interview.

He noted that the landscape architects who have most successfully designed year-round gardens have done so by integrating shape, texture and contrast.

“What I find most pleasing is to combine different textures,” Kelaidis said. “If you have a finely textured plant, put one that’s a little more bold next to it and has a different color. Contrast is a powerful tool that people don’t use nearly enough.”

When selecting plants for a client’s garden, Kelaidis recommends that landscapers look at leaf color and foliage shape, and then fill in the rest of the landscape with color.

[Related: Cold-hardy color for Colorado landscapes]

Donn Vidosh, owner-operator of landscape design and maintenance firm Vidosh North in Petoskey, Michigan, believes that designers who don’t include winter interest in their designs aren’t fully serving their clients.

“Our winter, or let’s say our non-colorful or non-growing season, is almost as long as our spring-summer-fall colorful season. If we’re not planning and planting for winter interest,” he said, “we’re doing our customers a disservice.”

Petoskey is a resort community on the northwest coast of Michigan, and many of Vidosh’s clients only live in their homes for part of the year. Vacation homes are maintained a little bit differently from homes that are occupied year-round, which designers need to take into consideration when they’re planning with their clients.

For clients willing to brave the long winters, either in Michigan or in some of our mountain towns here in Colorado, designers need to envision how customers will get around their property in the winter when they’re deciding what to plant and where. Salt on sidewalks or pathways, and snow shoveled into borders, could negatively impact what’s planted nearby, Vidosh pointed out.

Even so, you can still find “a plant to work within the restrictions of the site,” he said.

Color, structure and scale

Despite what a lot of people think, Vidosh said, winter interest can include color. “It can be form. It can be structure. It can be movement. It can be a lot of different things, and it can come in a lot of different ways.”

He looks for plants with specific characteristics, like trees with exfoliating bark, berries or cherries, and a unique branch structure. He likes using crabapples for their color and form, but also because they begin attracting a lot of birds in late winter. Yellow- and red-twig dogwoods layered in front of a client’s evergreens provide a “nice winter color pop,” he said. Grasses are a good source of texture and color as well. Longer grasses need to be cut back to protect them from heavy snows, but more compact varieties, like blue fescue, do well and keep their color through the cold season.

[Related: Late winter: The best time to prune trees]

Denver Botanic Gardens uses little bluestem grass, which turns a deep pinky red through the winter and grows to about a foot and half, Kelaidis said. “Some of our native grasses tend to be particularly nice,” he said. “There’s one called Blonde Ambition, which has become a hugely popular grass.” Blonde Ambition is a variety of Bouteloua gracilis, the state grass of Colorado, Kelaidis said, and “retains its substance over the winter.” The nice thing about grasses is that “they also wave a bit in the wind, so they add that extra bit of motion to a landscape.”

Vidosh is fond of ornamental grasses to bring movement and structure to a landscape, calling them a “three-season punch.”

“I can’t say enough good things about ornamental grasses,” he said. “We can find things to fill that spring void when our grasses aren’t up yet. … When you get those fresh snows, those lighter snows, and the snow is just kind of peaked up on the blooms and tassels of the ornamental grasses, that’s really a great look.”

Astilbe and upright varieties of Sedum are also valuable additions to a garden for winter interest, Vidosh said. Hydrangeas, which are “so popular right now for their summer interest,” he said, can be valuable in the cold months, too. In fact, “so many maintenance professionals or contractors make a huge mistake by cutting back their hydrangea in the fall,” he said. “Those dry blooms can be so appealing and attractive all the way throughout [the winter], and provide some great structure and interest in those off months.”

Panicled hydrangeas are a good choice, he recommends, like the Limelight or Little Lime varieties. “That foliage all falls off, but it’s almost like those dried blooms become its winter foliage.”

Evergreens, as always

The real workhorse for winter gardens, of course, is the evergreen. Conifers and broadleaf evergreens are important elements in a winter garden, according to Kelaidis. “For most people, conifers consist of Austrian pines and blue spruce and maybe a juniper; that’s what they think of. But in fact, there are hundreds of different kinds of conifers, and many of them are [available at a] much smaller scale that you can use in a home landscape.”

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