How to make your garden look great in winter

overall garden in snow by Connie Oswald Stofko
These photos were taken on a day with no blue sky– and no colorful flowers– but the gardens of Tom and Darcie Homme in Pendleton sparkled. This is a view of the front yard from the patio. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Is your garden exciting in winter? Do you enjoy gazing at all its beautiful features?

Or are you one of those people who didn’t even know it’s possible to have a garden that looks great in winter?

Today we’ll take a look at a Pendleton garden has been featured on Open Gardens. It’s amazing in the summer, but it sparkles in winter, too!

Tom and Darcie Homme had lived in Lockport before they moved 11 years ago to Pendleton. The day after they moved, Tom realized the gardens at his new home were nothing like what he had created at the previous house.

“Do you know that feeling you have when you’re in love and then the person breaks up with you?” Tom asked. “That’s how I felt. I was sick to my stomach. I thought, ‘I can’t believe I gave up my garden.'”

He has spent the past 11 years creating a four-season landscape that is attractive all year round.

Here’s how he does it.

junipers in winter garden
The tall evergreens are junipers, which act as a windbreak and provide privacy from the busy road. They also obscure the view of the utility lines. The shorter evergreens are mugo pines. The deciduous shrub between the junipers is a viburnum and the shrub to the right is a forsythia. The large maple at left was there when Tom Homme moved in; he planted the rest. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Evergreens are key

“If you don’t have evergreens, you don’t have structure,” Tom said. “They give me the four-season garden.”

The evergreens add color, height and mass to the garden during a time when the deciduous trees are bare and the perennials are under the snow.

Some gardeners are afraid to add a shrub or tree to their landscape, thinking they will take up too much space. What I’ve learned from visiting wonderful gardens in Western New York is that every garden needs something tall. The yards where small plants are pushed up against the boundaries of the yard aren’t nearly as dramatic.

One thing that I noticed about the Hommes’ landscape was how many shrubs and trees there were, yet it didn’t feel at all crowded. And remember that in the summer, the garden beds are filled with even more plants because the perennials spring up to join the party.

See a list below of trees and shrubs that are in the Hommes’ landscape.

Create a view

rock in winter garden
A tall rock from the farm fields across the street adds interest to the English-style gardens of Tom Homme. The shrub to the left is an azalea. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

“What do you want to look at? Just snow?” Tom asked. “A snow bank from the plow and dirty snow?”

He gets up every morning, year round, to look at his gardens.

“You should always have something to look at,” Tom said.

Don’t plant everything up against the house; have something interesting situated at a distance.

And keep the view open. The previous owner had rose of Sharon shrubs close to the patio, which blocked the view of the front yard.

middle bed in four-season garden
This garden bed is in the middle of the yard, surrounded by grass. The lawn is like a very wide path around the island. Shrubs in this bed include, from left, hydrangea, a small ornamental ‘Kwanzan’ cherry tree, ‘Green Velvet’ boxwoods (the round evergreens), two ‘Fine Line’ buckthorns on either side of the urn, azalea (behind the last boxwood), dogwood (looks like a tree) and hydrangea. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Start with an island garden

If you’re not sure how to start, create an island in the middle of your yard, said Tom, who did garden design and installation for five years after retiring from GM.

During the summer, the middle garden bed in the Hommes’ front yard is the area for Darcie’s fairy garden, but now the fairy items are packed away for the winter. Yet the garden is still attractive. How can you do this in your yard?

Start with something substantial, such as a tree, Tom said. It doesn’t have to be huge; the tree in the middle bed is a small ornamental ‘Kwanzan’ cherry.

Don’t stop there– add more shrubs. You can include some flowering shrubs, but don’t forget about the evergreens. After you have your structure, add perennials.

Trees and shrubs

emerald green arborvitae in snow
This is one of a pair of ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes that flank the entrance to the front garden. Juniper ‘Chinese Old Gold’, a low-growing shrub, carpets the soil in the raised beds. Hardscapes such as these low walls made of stone also add interest in winter. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

You may want different varieties of trees and shrubs depending on what you want them to do, Tom said. For example, some varieties of juniper are taller and wider than others. You may want shorter varieties near utility lines and taller varieties elsewhere.

Evergreens

As the name implies, evergreens stay green throughout the winter.

“I like the ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes, but so do the deer,” Tom said. ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes get only 14 feet tall and and stay compact so you don’t have to trim them. They keep their cone shape.

Because of the deer, he also uses junipers, which deer don’t bother as much. Birds love the junipers and eat the berries, and six seedlings have come up from where the birds dropped seeds. Tom recently bought a half-acre lot next to his, so he has plenty of room for new plants.

Other evergreens in his front yard are:

  • Conical boxwood
  • ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood
  • Mugo pine
  • Chinese ‘Old Gold’ juniper

Deciduous trees & shrubs

Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in winter. These aren’t very noticeable in Tom’s front yard now, so you might be surprised by how many there are. They will get more attention in other seasons.

His deciduous trees include:

  • Black lace elderberry. They get lacecap flowers and purple leaves.
  • Paper bark maple. It’s slow growing, gets colorful leaves in the fall and has peeling bark in the winter.
  • Purple sand cherry.
  • Nine bark ‘Amber Jubilee’. It has yellow-gold leaves in spring that turn green in summer and burgundy-orange in fall.
  • Limelight hydrangea.
  • Smoke bush.
  • Forsythia
  • Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’
  • Lilac ‘Miss Kim’
  • Dogwood.
  • ‘Kwanzan’ cherry. It gets green bark in the winter, pink flowers in spring and yellow-orange leaves in autumn. (The leaves turn a bit later than other trees, giving you another wave of color.)
urn and boxwood in snow
The evergreen is a conical boxwood and the deciduous shrub is a black lace elderberry. All of the urns in his yard are made of fiberglass composite, Tom Homme said. They stand up to our weather and don’t crack. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

One shrub that you can see in the middle garden, ‘Fine Line’ buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula or Frangula alnus), is now prohibited as an invasive species and can no longer be purchased in New York State.

Tom said that he hadn’t seen his two specimens spread at all and wondered whether this species was just a nuisance for Long Island. I wondered if it’s just the common buckthorn that is a problem and whether the newer cultivars ‘Fine Line’ and ‘Fine Line Improved’ might be exempt.

I contacted Western New York PRISM. Here’s what Emily Thiel, Education and Outreach Program Manager, had to say:

“The problem is not whether ‘Fine Line’ is spreading in the area, the problem rests in that it is a cultivar of Rhamnus frangula, a species known to be invasive in New York State. WNY PRISM often manages areas with Rhamnus frangula and it is not just an issue on Long Island (there are over 300 observations of it around Buffalo in iMapInvasives).

“Many of our invasive species are able to spread through rhizomes and this makes it very easy to see them spreading in your garden. However, some invasive species spread primarily by seed. You may never see some plants spread within your own garden, but you also have to think about spread outside of your garden. Animals such as deer, birds, wind and running water are great at transporting invasive species seeds long distances.”

Rhamnus frangula or Frangula alnus is a prohibited species in New York State, Thiel said, and this includes all cultivars including ‘Fine Line’ and ‘Fine Line Improved’. A prohibited species cannot be sold.

Some prohibited species, such as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), have cultivars are conditionally exempt and are able to be sold.

A cultivar like ‘Fine Line’ would have to meet these criteria in order to become conditionally exempt.

“I’m not sure if New York State will update its list of prohibited plants soon,” Thiel said, “but we will definitely send out information about any changes to the prohibited and regulated lists through our listserv when the time comes.”

purple bench in snow
The side yard includes a colorful bench, statue and arbor. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Hardscapes, ornaments & color

While evergreens are the key to a great garden in winter, here are some other ways to perk up your garden in the colder months.

  • Hardscapes such as arbors and stone walls are structures that add height and interest to your yard.
  • Look for a splash of color with outdoor furniture or ornaments.
  • Garden art needs to be tall in order to make a statement in the winter. Even something that is knee high could be obscured if we get enough snow accumulation. (A couple of Hamburg gardeners had a funny ruler topped with a snowflake in their yard that could measure four feet of snow, but it got buried in the Snowvember storm. Let’s hope we don’t see that kind of weather soon.)
  • Large pots and urns that can withstand the winter can be beautiful with or without plants.
  • Bird feeders can be decorative, but what really can capture your attention is the motion of the beautiful birds.

8 Comments on “How to make your garden look great in winter

  1. Lorraine, I’m sorry to hear that. I guess I haven’t noticed berries but will certainly keep an eye out for them. Might have to remove them so I’m not part of the problem.

  2. Beautiful winter garden!
    I have been at war with buckthorn for over 20 years in Orchard Park. The bountiful black berries are relished by birds who gleefully disburse them under trees. Baby seedlings flourish in shade, crowding out everything, especially native plants.

  3. What a great story….and very picturesque…..looks great every time I go by….any time of the year…great job Tom

  4. What a wonderful article!! It would be lovely to see these gardens followed up on with each season to see the beauty that Toms four seasons gardens produce. I visit often enough to see the changes but others don’t get to. Full disclosure… I’m Toms sister and am so very proud of him and his talents! He and his wife Darcie out a ton of love into their garden presentations and designs

  5. Judy, We are a zone 5-6. Russell’s Tree and Shrub Farm on Transit Rd, Swormsville NY sells them. The only problem I had was it was too windy in it’s first place and I didn’t keep it watered well. I moved it out front and it took off. Give one a try. A note I learned from another gardener, if you see a branch looking wilted, cut it back to a healthy spot. There is a caterpillar inside the damaged stem. Thanks for the compliment. Connie thanks for visiting our garden.

  6. Hi Judy, this garden is in zone 6a. I have seen black lace elderberry in local garden centers in previous years. Of course, stock changes from year to year, so you have to contact the garden centers to see who is stocking a particular plant.

  7. Beautiful winter garden. A breath of fresh air at this time of year. Just wondered what zone this is. I love the black lace elderberry but am not sure if I could grow it or where to find it.

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