Year-round yards: Start planning now for a cozy winter garden that hits all the senses

Imagine yourself having cocoa by the fire pit or under a heated arbor, watching a hummingbird nuzzle a mahonia, while wrapped in a tapestry of evergreen color, peeling bark and intoxicatingly scented flowers.  

Of all the seasons, winter is the one most likely to be benched as we plan our gardens. Yet it can be one of the most beautiful — and important — seasons to consider when creating year-round outdoor spaces. A garden with strong winter “bones” is alive with color, texture and scent, offering structure, creature comforts and beauty that tempts you outside. And it can feed wildlife, building a stronger ecosystem for your spring garden. If you plant some spinach or purple-sprouted broccoli, it can feed you too.

With a little planning now, you can create a garden you can’t wait to enjoy — even in February. 

“Winter is my starting point for everything. That’s one of my guiding principles for the whole design,” says Renton-based garden designer Christina Salwitz, aka the Personal Garden Coach, who co-authored the books “Fine Foliage” and “Gardening with Foliage First.” 

“Being here in the Northwest where we have a slightly grayer climate, I want my clients to drive up in mid-January and really enjoy what they see, and not be depressed because they don’t have the hydrangeas blooming,” she says. “You can absolutely have it all with texture and blooms” throughout the year.

“The rainy season is half of our year,” agrees landscape designer Lisa Port, of Seattle-based Banyon Tree Design. “Getting people outside in the ‘off months,’ the shoulder seasons, is a big part of my job. People are wanting to utilize those spaces year-round, not just summer.”

Port, an architect-turned-landscape designer, has taught at Edmonds Community College and helped develop a Sustainable Landscape Professional Certification program in Washington.

Adding fluffy cushions and blankets around a fire pit is a quick way to increase cozy comfort outside as the weather cools. A covered pergola and string lights are additional ways to activate your outdoor space well into winter, says Seattle landscape designer Lisa Port. (Getty Images)

Foundational pieces

Port focuses first on the hardscaping — the inanimate materials — to reflect the way her clients use their space. The main ingredient? Comfort, spelled as warmth, shelter from rain and a cushy place to land. 

This could be as simple as Adirondack chairs with fluffy cushions and blankets around a fire pit, ideally kept outside for ready use. Port likes a substantial chair to pump up the cozy — “not just something skinny you’d sit on in summer.” 

The ultimate weather-proofing addition, Port says, would be a covered structure, like a pergola or awning. 

“A lot of people are staying home more these days, so having a covered space adjacent or close to your home is really great,” she says. She notes that, while the plastic sports canopies people bought early in the pandemic for social distancing were a great temporary fix, they are not ready for high winds and possible snow. 

More permanent structures allow you to run electricity for lights and heat, as well as ceiling fans in the summer. Port favors Infratech overhead heaters, which are carried at Sutter Home & Hearth in Ballard. Roofing can be, in roughly increasing cost, opaque corrugated fiberglass, wood shingles or clear acrylic, which allows in precious light.  

“For outdoor fire sources, they can be fire pits, a gas fireplace or a wood-burning stove with a chimney if you want to go all in,” Post says.  

She stresses that every jurisdiction has its own building regulations around fire sources and recommends working with a professional landscape designer or architect before hiring a contractor, because “changing things on paper is cheaper” than rebuilding.

Lisa Port’s company, Banyon Tree Design, put together this Seattle backyard, which includes a partially covered outdoor kitchen and several places to sit comfortably. (Courtesy of Lisa Port)

Fun additions 

Feeling more like a soak than s’mores? Many people want to bring the spa into their garden. Port says she’s installed more hot tubs this year than ever in her 20-year career. “When they are warm, even if it’s sprinkling out, you’re fine,” she says. 

If you want to boost your exercise recovery routine, include a plunge pool or outdoor shower for hot-cold shock value, or a sauna, which can be tucked under a deck. A garden or landscape designer can help you integrate these into your landscape.

Of course, outdoor lighting is key during our winters, Port says. White lights can brighten the short days from November to March. Port’s pro tip: Skip solar lights — they don’t work well here. 

Lastly, remember to make a good path, Port says. You don’t want to harsh your hygge vibe with cold, wet feet from running across grass. Pavers, gravel and decking are all good options for a dry walkway.

A colorful winter pot designed by Christina Salwitz includes heuchera, hellebore, ilex and carex. (Courtesy of Christina Salwitz)

Plants with impact

Now for the dessert — choosing the plants! You might think winter is all about evergreen shrubs and conifers, but Salwitz, who is known for her extravagant use of color and bold texture, says they should only make up about one-third of the plantings, with the remaining two-thirds being deciduous and perennial plants.  

“It’s all about layers, as much as anything,” she says.

Plants that earn their spot on Salwitz’s list morph through the seasons, weaving an evolving show of flowers, foliage, bark or fruit. Speaking on the phone, she dreamed up a winter garden combo on the spot.

Start with a red-twig dogwood (such as Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’), an easy, low-maintenance, shrub with variegated summer foliage that, if cut back hard in spring, reveals tall, straight, red stems in winter that are wonderful on their own, in containers or in arrangements. 

Next, add narrow Raywood’s weeping Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘Raywood’s Weeping’), which has scented blue foliage and adorably perfect cones, “like golf balls,” Salwitz says. 

Add a hardy pennisetum grass (such as Pennisetum a. ‘Hameln’), which turns a golden tan in fall, and, lastly, a silvery lavender plant, such as ‘Phenomenal’ (Lavandula intermedia ‘Phenomenal’). Voila — a party of textures and colors. 

“This combination would thrive in full sun through partial shade, with sun in the latter half of the day, and is pretty darn drought-tolerant,” Salwitz says. 

Some of her favorite winter-interest plants for shady spots are the early-blooming hellebores, called “Christmas roses,” for their refreshing blooms starting in November, as well as evergreen ferns, which come almost every shape you can imagine. 

Winter-garden resources

Plant information and inspiration:

• “Gardening with Foliage First: 127 Dazzling Combinations That Pair the Beauty of Leaves with Flowers, Bark, Berries, and More,” by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz 

• Great Plant Picks, a curated database of plants that thrive in the Pacific Northwest:

• egardenGO, plant combination recipes for the Pacific Northwest from Portland designer Darcy Daniels:

Soest Herbaceous Display Gardens at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture

Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden at the UW Arboretum

We often associate the cold season with inactivity and hibernation of the garden and forests, but many creatures are searching for food in winter. By welcoming pollinators, birds and wildlife to your winter garden, you’ll help them while adding animation and wonder to your space. 

You’ll see Anna’s hummingbirds zooming in and out of your mahonias and grevilleas, while sleep-groggy bees wake to nosh on your hellebores on sunny days. Spring bulbs like daffodils and crocus are irresistible to pollinators and untroubled by squirrels. 

Along with choosing plants like those, you can leave seed heads intact on grasses and coneflowers, thrilling the goldfinches and juncos. Skip fall clean-up this year and leave some branches, unpruned shrubs and even low broken tree limbs for foraging, nesting and shelter. 

Papery hydrangea blossoms, rosehips, mottled bark and tree rings each have their own fascinating beauty that rewards watching. Take photos, try sketching them or create an off-season arrangement for your table. 

And because scent is one of our strongest memory triggers, fragrance brings an invisible but unforgettable dimension to the garden. Evergreen shrubs such as winter daphne and sweet box (Sarcococca spp.) pair glossy foliage and swoon-worthy scents that earn them a spot by your walkway — or the fire pit. 

Pass the cocoa, please.

A gas fire pit, like this model from Sutter Home & Hearth, adds warmth and light as the days get shorter. (Courtesy of Sutter Home & Hearth)

Locals’ winter garden favorites

We asked some folks in the Seattle Organic Backyard Gardeners Facebook group: What’s your favorite part of winter gardening?

“Looking forward to my new fire pit to help extend outdoor time through the fall and hopefully winter. I look forward to the beautiful camellias and, of course, the hellebores.” — Sarah Andersen Bruemmer

“I have fragrance growing year-round, and that lifts my spirits in the dreary times. Also, leaving seedheads and leaves provides habitat and brings birds.”
Kathleen Warren

“I like doing some season extension with row covers, and I’ve prepared my garden this year for fall harvests such as carrots, rutabaga, turnips and brassicas such as purple sprouting broccoli well into the winter.” — Cherry Liu

“Tucking in the plants for a winter snooze and watching grow winter flowers like primrose and pansy and cyclamen come to life.”
Lana Lane

“Watching the shapes that the snow makes on the dead plants we leave in place on purpose to benefit insect babies and other over-wintering creatures.” 
Susan Baldry Doyle

“I planted a hedgerow of my favorite shrub along my patio — sarcococca. It flowers in the winter when not much else is flowering and emits a lovely vanilla fragrance. I love walking through it and breathing in the scent in the wintertime.” — Jen Yu