Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: The winter garden is a sleeping beauty

A SMALL CRABAPPLE provides a resting place for the chickadee on his way to the nearby bird feeder. Photo by Dick Conrad

GOSHEN — Feb. 2 — Groundhog Day — has come and gone, meaning that we have passed the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. And certainly the days are noticeably longer — a sure sign that spring is on its way.
Actually in South Carolina, where my son and daughter-in-law live, spring seems to have arrived already. They love sending me pictures of camellias blooming in their front garden and leafy veggies growing in their community garden plot.
Here in Vermont I also have camellias blooming — but these are tucked up inside my heated greenhouse.
And, although this winter has been unusually mild, it is by no means over. Just this past week we were treated to the biggest snow storm of the season, which once again transformed my garden into a “sleeping beauty.”
The garden benches, each adorned with a puffy cushion of snow, became the “ghosts of summer.” And a thin layer of ice coated the branches of every tree and shrub, making the whole garden sparkle like thousands of diamonds.
Of course I love the summer garden, with its abundance of colorful flowers to delight the eye. But, by contrast, the winter garden offers an abstract beauty that, in its own way, can be just as special.
All it takes is a little advance planning to make this happen. So, with the season of digging and planting just around the corner, let’s take a look at how we can make our gardens lovely in every season.
“All gardening is landscape painting.”
This is one of my favorite quotations, and it was penned about 300 years ago by William Kent, a well-known English architect and landscape designer.
Certainly, for me, designing a gorgeous garden is all about creating beautiful pictures, incorporating both living plants like trees and flowers, as well as non-living elements such as arbors and benches to create a pleasing whole.
And this is as true for winter as it is for summer. In summer we are drawn to the ever-changing palette of colorful flowers. By contrast our winter garden pictures tend to be more enduring and essentially monochromatic — akin to a series of beautiful black and white photographs.

On a clear winter morning I like nothing better than looking out of my kitchen window, absorbing the image of my snow-covered garden backed by a stand of tall spruce and, off in the distance, Mount Moosalamoo highlighted in the sunshine. Close at hand several chickadees shelter in the trio of Miss Kim lilacs, pecking open the sunflower seeds they have just foraged at our feeders.
If you want to visualize different ways of making your garden more appealing in winter, start by standing in front your favorite window and make a sketch of what you see. Then cover your sketch with a piece of trace paper, and experiment with different ways you might enhance the picture.
Perhaps something as easy as adding a small tree and a bench would complete the image. Or maybe planting a cluster of shrubs near the house that would not only be silhouetted in the snow, but also provide a safe place for small birds to congregate when they visit your feeders.

Winter is when the garden’s underlying structure and design — sometimes called the “bones of the garden” — is most apparent.
Over two decades ago now, as I initially laid out a design for my new garden on paper, first I drew an imaginary axis at 45 degrees to the house. Then, aligned along this axis, I added in a circular patio and a tall arbor, plus a simple gazebo surrounded by summer-flowering azaleas and three crab apples.
Finally, to frame the garden’s entry point, I added four Shadblow Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis). These small native trees have lovely white flowers in April followed in June by lots of small edible fruit beloved by the cedar waxwings. Furthermore, their delicate silhouette looks especially lovely in winter.
Over the next few years, as I actually installed the garden, I used my drawing to accurately position these main features on the ground.
Now, 20 years later, I do not give much thought to all of this when I look at my garden in the busyness of summer. But in the winter the underlying design really stands out — and it always puts smile on my face.
So, as you contemplate your own garden in the quiet of winter, give some thought to its underlying structure and then ask yourself whether there are enhancements you could make that would define it more explicitly.

Trees and shrubs are the backbone of your garden. Start with your existing woody plants since, at this time of year, any design gaps will be especially noticeable, suggesting possible additions for when spring arrives.
First visualize adding one or two dwarf evergreens with a good form that will stand out in the winter. Rockydale Gardens in Bristol has a wonderful selection as well as knowledgeable staff to help you choose one that will not outgrow your garden space.
Winter also shows off the inner skeletons of the leafless trees and shrubs which look especially attractive when outlined by fresh snow. So consider whether the addition of one or more deciduous trees or perhaps a grouping of shrubs would enhance your overall design and also create a graceful winter presence.
Here are some shrubs and small trees I particularly like for their year-round presence and that can be pruned to create an open structure: our native Winterberries (Ilex verticillata); Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis); Donald Wyman and Royal Raindrops Crabapples; and the Korean Maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum).
And finally, if you spy a messy-looking dead or crossing branch in one of your existing shrubs or trees, winter is an excellent time to pull out your clippers and do some careful pruning to create a more pleasing aesthetic. (More on winter pruning in my next article.)

All gardens benefit from a few ornaments with a simple profile that are also large enough to stand above the snow.
So, next spring as you seek out some special items to enhance your garden, make sure they can be left outside all winter long.
Not only will this save you considerable effort at either end of the season, but it will also contribute greatly to your winter garden pictures.
For many years now I have enjoyed four whimsical sculptures created entirely from scrap metal by Bill Heise, an extremely talented Burlington artist who sadly is no longer living.
Three of these represent birds, including the six-foot tall “Great Blue Heron” who stands near our pond, a four-foot high bird with an imperious-looking beak, and a whimsical robin who is busy drinking at his birdbath. There is also the mythical “Spirit Keeper” with outstretched wings, who guards the way up to our barn.
While I love these creations in every season, they look especially elegant in winter.
For another kind of garden ornamentation about 10 years ago I installed a series of free-standing iron trellises about 10 feet out from the back wall of our house. In addition to providing support for clematis during the summer, they also create a stylish fence in the winter, when the sight of their long shadows across the snow is especially pleasing.
I also have several large hand-made ceramic pots that make great focal points in my summer garden. However, since they cannot remain outside during freezing temperatures, each fall I must move them into the greenhouse.
For a while now, I have been planning a trip down to Brattleboro to see Stephen Procter (, a skilled potter who creates beautiful hand-crafted pots that are winter-hardy.  I am hoping to find the perfect pot to set up on our barn slope where it will be readily visible when we enjoy our morning coffee and tea.

While the pictures we see will change throughout the year, we can all have a garden that is beautiful in every season. The quiet of winter is the perfect time to contemplate the myriad ways that can turn that dream into reality.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at
Judith will be teaching two hands-on “Design your own Garden” workshops at the Middlebury Studio School again this spring. The workshops run for three Saturdays. Check out for more info about the classes.

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