The winter landscape has subtle beauty that we can all enjoy. I have observed this year that the flowering crabapple trees are especially laden with their red fruits. I was admiring a row of them against the white snow and the blue sky on New Year's Eve afternoon. There was some fluttering among the branches of one tree, and lo and behold a robin! I wonder if that is a sign of a mild winter yet to come. One can only hope so.
Several varieties of crabapples are covered with fruit all winter, but 'Donald Wyman' keeps them well into spring. Other trees can be appreciated for their lovely branching patterns and their bark texture. One of the best trees for ornamental bark is Amur chokecherry (P.maakii). It has copper-colored exfoliating bark that is almost metallic looking. This small tree is very hardy and blooms in spring along with the crabapples. The shaggy white bark of birch trees is very attractive in winter, especially with an evergreen spruce or pine background.
Many shrubs add color to the white of winter. Red-stemmed or yellow-stemmed dogwoods and shrub willows such as the flame willow (Salix Flame') are good winter plants. To keep the stem colors their brightest, trim a third of the oldest stems down to 3-4 inches each spring. Other shrubs, such as American cranberry (Virburnum trilobum) bear bright red fruits that the birds eat when food is scarce. Some shrub roses have ornamental rose hips and red canes.
Seed heads of perennials and ornamental grasses add winter interest, but of course, everything must be planted when the ground is not frozen and the air is warm. Now is the time to dream and plan for the time when we can get into the garden and create a place to enjoy year-round.
If you are in a new house or just want to renovate the old place, you need to do some planning. The seed catalogues have been arriving since before Christmas. They are full of beautiful pictures, and good information. Study a garden book or magazine (the library has many) and start writing down your ideas. It is not necessary to have a scale drawing of your property. Just make a rough sketch and you can draw it out on the ground with hoses or ropes next spring.
According to landscape designer and writer, Don Engebretson, the first thing to consider is function. If you have children, design play areas that are visible from inside the house. Keep your lawn area to two-thirds lawn and one-third landscape plantings. Plan for walkways from the house to the garage and to the city sidewalk. They should be wide enough for two people to walk, side-by-side, and wider if your house is a two-story and the sidewalk runs more that 50 feet. The patio is usually sited in the backyard for peace and privacy and nearness to the kitchen.
The next question you need to answer is how much time you want to spend maintaining your landscape. You will need to water, mow, and deadhead the flowers weekly, and fertilize, prune, shear and rake monthly or at least once a season. If you are busy or are often gone during the growing season, you will need to select trees and shrubs that need little pruning and flowers that need little mulching or deadheading. Consider a drip irrigation system among your trees, shrubs and perennials to shorten the watering chore time.
Cost is a major factor in your garden plan. You can complete the project over a number of years, but it is a mistake not to have an overall plan. With a plan you can work on each area as your time and budget allow, and everything will flow together in the end.
After these considerations, it is time to make a design following the main lines of your landscape. Curving lines seem to give the best visual impact in residential landscapes, although straight lines could be used if you want a formal garden. Nestle your house in with small trees, shrubs and perennials. In an older home you may need to remove overgrown plants or those that do not work with your design. Keep in mind the mature height and width of the plants that will fill the area that you have determined.
Breathe life into your landscape with contrasting textures and colors. Use shades of dark red to add punches of boldness and weight. Accent with ornamental grasses, as either a tall vertical interest or a short border edge. The green of your lawn is an important restful space. Be sure to add seating areas to stop and enjoy the view.