Winter in Minnesota may be cold, but at least it’s sunny. That’s something gardeners can take comfort in and use to create a more interesting winter garden. As I am writing this, the temperature is hovering around 0 degrees F but the sun is bright as can be, reflecting off the snow. Cathy Rees, who I interviewed for the latest episode of Grow it, Minnesota, encourages gardeners to observe the light and find ways to play with it.
Here the sun is at a 22 degree angle from the horizon in late December/early January. It rises low in the eastern sky and sets low in the western sky. That deep angle plays with light and shadow, Rees says in her book, Winterland: Creating a Beautiful Garden for Every Season. It creates long, sometimes distorted shadows from deciduous trees and garden elements, such as pergolas, trellises, even fences. “On the snow, those shadows can be especially graphic in black (or blue) on white composition that changes perceptibly almost by the minute,” she writes in her book.
Light as a Design Element
To employ winter light as a design element, Rees suggest gardeners first spend time observing their landscape from indoors and consider their day-to-day activities in winter. Which windows do you look out every day? Where do you walk every day?
For me, the window over my kitchen sink is one I look out of multiple times each day. When we first moved into this house, I viewed my neighbor’s yard and creating a better view winter and summer became a priority. Over the past few years, we’ve added a gray 6-foot-tall fence and planted in front of it birch trees, a spruce and a variety of perennials, most of which are left standing over the winter. It’s become a wonderful view—I can judge how much snow has fallen by the piles on top of the fence posts, watch birds nipping in and out of the spruce and even determine how many rabbits have been in the backyard!
Shadows can also be fascinating in the winter garden when created by trellises and other garden art. A pair of trellises salvaged by my niece hold clematis vines in warm seasons. In winter, the shadows from the curly iron of one trellis creates patterns on the garage wall behind it. (See the photo at right and at the bottom of this post to see how.) Adding elements like these to your garden (and putting them where you can see them from indoors as well as out) make your winter garden a place your want to step into.
More Design and Care Tips
The podcast (and of course, the book) contain dozens of tips for designing and caring for a winter landscape. But here are a few that stood out to me:
- Think about the birds! Cathy’s business as a landscape designer focuses on native plants, and she encourages gardeners to plant for birds and wildlife. Native shrubs and trees provide food and shelter for birds that overwinter or migrate through our gardens.
- Prune dogwoods and willows for winter color. Red or yellow-twig dogwoods are a Minnesota must. Prune them regularly because the best color is on young branches.
- For brilliant design winter or summer, layer a variety of plants to provide color, texture and interesting foliage.
- Where do you walk? If you walk to a garage, wood pile or other place during the winter, consider safety first, then add something interesting to look at on your journey.