Winter Wonderlands

Frost-brushed elms. January, 2019.

Frost-brushed elms. January, 2019.

It has been so chilly in Calgary over the past few weeks!

Our sub-zero snap feels to be right on schedule as this is the time of year when people really get to grumbling. “That’s it! I’ve had it. I’m ready for spring.” And who can blame us? It is a base desire of all humans to wallow in good weather and lush surroundings.

In stark contrast to these inclinations, we are also fully capable of recognizing both splendor and comfort in our winterscapes. Once we’ve gotten over the cold-shock, there is nothing quite like a blanket of fresh snow that fixes us with such a sense of pristine beauty. Some of us even enjoy being active in the frigid outdoors! The Danish concept of “Hygge” fully embraces the chilly bosom of winter, armed with nothing more than a warm sweater, a pair of snowshoes and a excessively positive attitude.

Others prefer the more passive approach of taking in the view from behind a picture-window with a mug of hot tea in their hands (Thankfully, the comforts of Hygge can also explored indoors). But what about those less than inspiring winter scenes? The waning sunlight, the bleak absence of colour, half-melted patches of snow, gravel, salt and muck everywhere. Well, you could certainly continue on grumbling, or you could try a quasi-“Hygge” approach and embrace it head first.

#wintergardengoals. Bressingham Gardens, Norfolk, UK. Retrieved from, Feb 2019.

#wintergardengoals. Bressingham Gardens, Norfolk, UK. Retrieved from, Feb 2019.

The good news is that there are a few tricks that gardeners and landscapers can employ from November through to March (or later) to retain some semblance of scenic beauty.

A simple first step is to resist the overpowering urge to cut-back or pull up all of your plants when you put your garden to rest in the fall. Many of us have come to the firm belief that our yards must be completely tidy and devoid of any unruly plant material in order for our work to be done for the season. This is not necessarily true! You can and should weed out severely diseased or pest-ridden plants (like my aphid-ridden kale), but leaving healthy plants as they are for the winter months may actually extend visual interest in your garden.

Form and texture are the messengers of depth and volume when everything is coated in white. January, 2019.

Form and texture are the messengers of depth and volume when everything is coated in white. January, 2019.

When everything is covered in snow, there is little left but shape and form to translate volume in the landscape. Deciduous plants that once filled your yard with their lush and leafy presence might at first glance appear shrunken and bare, but when all the excess is shed twiggy structures can still adorn themselves in crowns of frost. Keeping flowerheads on their stalks for example can provide some rather interesting “floating” shapes, especially when dusted with a fresh snowfall.

Permaculture Tip: If you’re the kind of person who likes to save seeds, you may wish to harvest a few heads off of your annuals and hang them up to dry so you can resew them again in the spring. If the plant is a perennial and you don’t plan on moving or thinning it, leave the seed-heads on as these may be required for regernation. Leave healthy foliage and fruit on all plants as long as possible to extend forage and shelter to animals who will provide recurring animated winter interest!

Plants that do benefit from a good, hard cutback (like some grasses and fast-growing woody perennials) can be chopped in the later stretches of winter when the weather is still cool and before new growth begins to develop. But until then, why not enjoy their lovely texture and colour against the snow?

Another method is to intentionally incorporate attractive winter-hardy plant species into your garden. Don’t just use these as one-off focal specimens, try creating repeating or alternating patterns, or even mass planting for widespread colour, texture and form. Some great species for zone 3b-4a winter planting could include:

Four different coniferous species with four different shapes, four different colours and four different textures that will persist 12 months a year. December, 2018.

Four different coniferous species with four different shapes, four different colours and four different textures that will persist 12 months a year. December, 2018.

Deciduous Trees

  • Weeping or Paper Birch with their character white bark and black lenticils that stand out from dull, brown-barked companions.

  • Amur Maple’s shapely, contorted branches are just as eye-catching when they are bare as when they are covered in leaves.

Evergreen Trees

  • Scot’s Pine with its warm orange bark and upturned branches look lovely even under a heavy dumping of snow.

  • Hoopsii Spruce is a cultivar of the common Colorado Blue Spruce with shimmery silver-needles and a strong pyramidal form.

Deciduous Shrubs

  • Red Osier Dogwood or one of the miniature varieties like Little Rebel Dogwood for striking red woody contrast of varying heights and densities. For even more variation in colour, try Kesselring Dogwood (Purple Twig) or Bud's Yellow Dogwood.

  • Russet Buffalloberry, a prairie native with bright red edible berries that persist through the coldest months (if the birds don’t get all of them first!).

Evergreen Shrubs

  • Blue Chip Juniper turns from purple to blue with the change of the season and looks truly gorgeous when minted with a sparkling layer of frost.

  • Mugo pine’s medium to tall brushy branches create dense green masses of varying heights.


  • Avalanche Reed Grass, Fountain Grass, Flame Grass, or any other feathery stalked grass with prominent towering tufts that will sway in chilly winter breezes.

  • Fescues or clumping grasses with persistent year-round colour for the addition of curious snow covered forms.


  • Any flowering perennial with tall stalks and coneheads like Globe Thistle, Echinacea, or Black-Eyed-Susan for the unique structure and texture of little balancing frost-coated baubles early in the season.

  • Untrimmed yarrow will give a similar effect with an inverted triangle shape.

Finally, seasonal landscapes need not only be defined by organic matter. Well placed basins of frozen water, icicles, logs, stone and sculpture speak to the scale and perhaps also the state of dormancy in our winter gardens, still and unmoving until the spring thaw reinvigorates the life that lies hidden in wait beneath.

Traci Bee