The Sleeping Beauty

As we think about what constitutes a lovely garden, our thoughts usually turn to colorful blooms—perhaps a beautiful expanse of daffodils, a crab apple tree covered in pink blossoms, or a long meandering border brimming with colorful flowers in summer. 

But what about the garden in winter, when everything is sleeping under a blanket snow?  This can be equally beautiful.  It’s all about the contrast of the seasons—something I relish about living in the Green Mountain State!

In winter the landscape assumes the elegance of a black-and white photograph, and we become acutely conscious of its abstract shapes and textures.

As outside temperatures drop, distant views become crystal sharp in the dry air.  Sometimes it feels like we can see forever. The remote mountain feels almost touchable, and indirectly becomes part of the garden scene. 

Rosa virginiana Winter hips with Mount Moosalamoo behind

The low sun, streaking through the leafless trees, paints giant black-and-white stripes on the ground that could camouflage a zebra. Thus, in wintertime, both the trees and their shadows become an essential part of our garden pictures.

In winter our eyes are drawn to walls and steps, trees and shrubs, as well as the remains of perennials we left standing to feed the birds—all of which become part of the winter garden scene. 

So here are some suggestions to help you make your garden as lovely in winter as it is in summer.

The views from our windows

The main structural elements of the garden, like a beautiful stone wall or an elegant arbor, as well as the trees and shrubs, are often collectively referred to as the ‘bones of the garden’. 

The gazebo and arbor define the garden’s axis

And it is in wintertime, when the trees are bare and the flowers are dormant,  that we become especially aware of the garden’s structural elements. As I like to say—winter exposes the bones of the garden!

It also stands to reason that, in winter, much of the time we enjoy the view of the garden from the warmth of our house, looking out from our windows.  

The view from my study window

So, as you plan a new garden or contemplate proposed changes to your existing one,  start by thinking about how the bones of the garden will look from the important windows in your house in every season.  

It can also be helpful to take a photograph of what you see from the window, and then make a black and white print. Now use this to imagine the winter scene and sketch out potential ways to embellish it. 

Ask yourself whether the combined structural elements, including the ones you are contemplating, will create a balanced and cohesive picture even when the flowers are no longer there. 

Sometimes all it takes is the addition of one or two trees or perhaps a grouping of shrubs to provide a pleasing winter presence that will stand out in the snow. 

Sculptural pruning

Carefully pruned Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis) in the snow are like a living sculpture

As you look into the interior of older trees you will often observe a clutter of dead or crossing branches in the interior.  This is not a particularly attractive sight, especially in winter, when there are no leaves to hide the mess. It is also not the best for the overall health of the tree, since the dead wood provides an entrance point for disease and the crossing branches mean that some of the leaves cannot get enough light for effective photosynthesis.

But this same visibility makes mid-winter a great time to do some careful pruning.  

For pruning large trees it is always best to  bring in a professional arborist.  But many home owners enjoy pruning smaller trees like crab apples. Before you start ,check your local library for a good book on pruning, such as ‘Pruning and Training’ by Christopher Brickell or ‘Pruning Made Easy‘ by Vermont author Lewis Hill.  

Generally, you want to start by carefully removing any dead branches, followed by those that are rubbing directly on another branch.  And finally remove any branches that are growing inwards, towards the center of the tree.  (The pruning books I mention show how to do this correctly)

And, for trees that are prone to bleed sap—like maple and birch—be sure  to only prune them in December and January when they are fully dormant.

Also, to avoid stressing any tree, in a single year you should not remove any more branches than will produce 25% of the tree’s total leaf area.  Thus, if a tree requires a lot of pruning, to bring it back into shape, it may need to be done over multiple winters.  

Welcoming the birds to the winter garden

Like many of people, Dick and I love to welcome birds to our garden, especially during the winter months when their natural food is more scarce.

Chickadees are delightful little birds that happily visit the sunflower seed feeders we hang near our windows, and they are joined from time to time by nuthatches and titmice.  Other birds, including juncos that look for their food on the ground, appreciate a little seed scattered around in a sheltered spot which does not get too much snow and the woodpeckers like to visit our suet feeder. 

Indeed, in locations at lower altitudes you will probably see many other winter birds in your garden, even bluebirds!

To attract any birds to your feeders it is always helpful to plant some shrubs and small trees fairly close to the house. Not only will they provide a sheltered landing spot as the birds fly in across the garden, but also a safe place where they can peck open seed hulls. 

And for some birds, shrubs that keep their berries in the winter months also provide  an excellent source of food.  While the cedar waxwings and evening grosbeaks leave our mountainous locale in the winter months, in years past we have observed birds like pine grosbeaks in January, enjoying the bright red fruit on the winterberries—Ilex verticillata—that grow around our driveway.

Elegant ornaments for all seasons

To my eye nothing looks more special than the sight of a beloved garden ornament set against a white snowy backdrop.

Let me tell you about two unique Vermont artists who have specialized in creating elegant garden ornaments that can stay outside all season long. 

The first artist is Stephen Procter— who works out of his ceramics studio in Brattleboro, Vermont. And his specialty is creating large and very elegant pots that can stay out in all temperatures and all weathers. 

Here is one of his pots, completely hardy in all temperatures:


I urge you to visit his website  where you can see some of the other lovely designs he can make.

And it is many years ago since Dick and I were fortunate enough to discover Bill Heise, a wonderful sculptor in Burlington, who sadly is no longer living.  Bill’s speciality was creating all manner of whimsical creatures out of pieces of iron that he would carefully salvage.  And again,  all his pieces can remain outdoors in all weathers. 

At that time we were able to acquire four of his creations, all of which still have pride of place in our Goshen garden.  While they look superb all year long,  they are especially stunning in the snow. In this picture you can see one that Bill called  ‘The Spirit Keeper, who keeps a careful watch over the way up to our vegetable garden all winter long—until spring arrives once again to kiss the garden awake.


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