Although it’s tempting, don’t rest on your laurels too much this winter, gardeners. This is the best time to make a better garden. Weeds are dormant, so they don’t need you, and your garden’s “bones” are exposed on bare limbs for you (and everyone else) to see. Gardeners say winter is the true test of a great garden, because if it looks good now, it will look great later.
Give your garden a once-over
Does your garden have plenty of greenery or winter interest to keep your color-starved eyes happy? Are unsightly views, like trash bins, still covered? If not, you have more plant options than you think. There are plenty of plants that look great at this time of year, flaunting a lovely structure, bodacious colored or boldly peeling bark, berries, and even flowers.
The easiest place to look is around your neighbors' gardens. Check out homes whose front yards you admire and not the plants used. You’ll see examples in professionally designed public plantings, in parks, botanical gardens, and in front of museums or restaurants.
Local nurseries of course are another choice, if they are big enough to stay open through the winter.
Make a plan
You don't need to make a complete overhaul. You can start small with a winter vignette, ideally one passed often in season, or viewed from a window. Once you’ve scoped out the situation, make a wish list, i.e., “low boxwood hedge here, “coral-bark maple there.” No need to shop yet, but having a plan is half the battle. (Sticking to it and amending as necessary is the other.)
Here are some winter garden superstars to get you started.
Seattle gardeners are spoiled for evergreen options; hedges can be made from anything from boxwood (Buxus sp.) to edible evergreen blueberries (like Vaccinum hybrid “Sunshine Blue” or native huckleberry (V. ovatum) or swoon-worthy lavender. For specimens, consider pieris, rhododendrons, camellias, sweet bay, or southern magnolia.
These shrubs hide a surprise under their leaves and flowers until leaf fall, when – bang! Suddenly you have a yellow, orange, cranberry plum or burgundy sculpture of sticks reaching to the sky. These can be shrubby dogwood or willow species, or one of the flashy maple trees like popular “coral-bark” Acer p. ‘Sango Kaku, ’ or the native vine maple Acer circinatum,‘Pacific Fire.’
Stubborn seed heads for structure:
These are a lazy gardener’s best friends. No need to cut them back if you’re willing to let the seed heads stand. Echinacea, sedum, and salvias will keep their posture if not their youthful glow through the winter, and can look quite striking en masse (it will look less like you forgot to chop them back).
For winter flowers, you can have more than just the strident pansies sold at the supermarket.
Cool season annuals like calendula will gamely send out occasional blooms between frosts. For shrubs, look to witch hazel, winter hazel, camellias, and early blooming viburnum.
Many shrubs offer persistent berries the birds eschew, like winterberry (Ilex verticillata), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and native mahonia. Many crabapples (Malus) will also hold fruit a long time.
Winter heaths (Erica carnea) offer months of petite blooms in white or pink if you have good drainage and acidic soil.
Many “evergreen” perennials and subshrubs undergo color changes too. Heathers like Calluna v. ‘Wickwar Flame’ and ‘Firefly’ rival any maple for blazing reds. Conifers can take on interesting burnished tones you can echo with bulbs or annuals.
Heucheras, which come now in fantastic colors from silver to caramel to red, hold their leaves and color through the winter, looking great while the rest of the border sleeps.