Form, Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden

I had hoped to follow up with this second post on “Winter in the Garden” before now, but photo shoots take time, especially for a beginner photographer like me. However, this is Calgary and winter will be sure to hang around for a bit longer, so the topic is still timely.

In my last post I discussed Focal Points and their value in the winter garden. You’ll recall from that discussion, that a focal point refers to a ‘hard’ or non-living feature that draws the eye. We can also employ ‘soft’ or living elements in the garden to create winter interest – plant material that contributes form, colour and texture.


Plants with strong architectural form offer a unique kind of winter interest – naked of foliage from fall through spring, their distinctive silhouette draws the eye in much the same way as a focal point, hence many of the same guidelines would apply: don’t overuse, make sure they are planted perfectly upright (they will sometimes lean over time so need to be straightened periodically) and stage them for maximum visual impact.

So what constitutes ‘strong architectural form’? There are a number of plant shapes that fit the bill.  I find that ‘weeping standards’ are among the most dominant of plant forms – small weeping ‘trees’ which are developed by grafting a pendulous or prostrate form onto a standard, e.g. Malus ‘Rosy Glo’, Betula pendula ‘Youngii’. These little beauties bring real elegance to a composition. Not surprising then that gardeners often make the erroneous assumption that because one looks awesome, two will look even better. More is better? This may be a great philosophy – when it comes to lobster, or cheesecake, but not here. I made this mistake in my own front yard a few years ago. On one side of the yard a Royal Beauty weeping crab took centre stage and I wanted something interesting to balance it on the other side. Off I went to the nearest greenhouse to look for the perfect garden addition. A beautiful Young’s weeping birch caught my eye. Oh yes, I thought, that will be perfect for that spot. I should really know better – in fact even as I stood in line I was having an internal dialogue: “Sue, you already have a weeping standard in the front yard – another one would be overkill”… “But, but it’s such a perfect specimen and the bark will look lovely against the cedar fence in the winter”. Well, the gardener won out over the designer – I bought it and had it planted within an hour. I guess it looked okay, but it didn’t take my breath away. The real effect was that each of the two similarly strong features diminished the impact of the other, even though they were 40 feet apart.

As I scrutinized this over the next few weeks, I eventually decided that it wasn’t ideal but it would have to do … for awhile anyway. It has of course, now been replaced – like I said I should know better. Weeping standards are definitely best used as single specimens. But enough about my garden challenges.

This attractive little Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ has been nicely staged by underplanting with a Juniperus sabina cultivar and framing with 2 Juniperus scopulorum specimens – likely Wichita Blue. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Additional plant forms that are distinctive and provide winter appeal would be:

  • other top grafted standards, e.g. top-graft Syringa meyeri
  • columnar trees, e.g. Populus tremula ‘Erecta’
  • vase shape trees e.g. Caragana arborescens ‘Sutherland’, Malus ‘Pink Spires’
  • tall upright grasses e.g. Calmagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ or ‘Avalanche’
  • evergreen topiary e.g. Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’(pom-pom)

These can be used as single specimens, and with the exception of certain topiary forms (e.g. pom-poms), they can also be grouped, used to frame entrances/views or planted sequentially to direct visual movement and reinforce design lines. And while more than one can be used in a composition, they too if overused, will create visual unrest.

This ‘pom-pom’ topiary pine is appropriately used as a single specimen. Here, it needs very little staging as the detail on the house is an effective backdrop. The upright blue juniper supports visually too, although appears to have once been a topiary specimen itself – it would be best if allowed to revert to natural form so as not to compete with the pine. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This grouping of spire-like Populus tremula ‘Erecta’ creates a stately feel in an otherwise informal landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The upright form of these Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Avalanche’, effectively directs visual movement along the pathway in one of my client’s front yards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Top-grafted standards like this Syringa meyeri, provide strong form while allowing a view beneath it to what lies beyond.

You can get away with using numerous strong forms if they aren’t all the same shape. For example when I removed the Young’s weeping birch, I replaced it with a Pink Spires Crabapple – a lovely vase shape tree. In front of this I placed a bird bath – these two together created a co-dominant ‘focal vignette’, completely different in appearance from the weeping crab. Hence the effect is that they support rather than compete with each other.

For the average gardener it can be hard to predict how certain plant forms will work together – just keep in mind that the more striking or unusual its form, the more likely it is that it will need to stand alone.

I will be discussing plant form in more detail in a later post, but in the meantime the best advice I can give you is to practice some restraint. (Really? Is that even possible for a gardener?)


There is of course a limited palette available to us at this time of year – let’s see, gray, brown, grayish brown, brownish gray, sometimes white, some green, a bit of blue. Anything else? Well yes actually – take a look:

Many trees have colourful bark, in varying hues of green, yellow, orange, red and purple. These colours may be less saturated than the colours of summer, but because they are exhibited by an entire tree or shrub, the effect can be quite dramatic. Photos: Sue Gaviller

The beautiful bronze bark of this Prunus mackii picks up the warm hues of the wood and stone on the house. These same colours are seen again in the boulder in the foreground. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This landscape was also featured in my last post. I’ve included another photo, (minus the lopsided light fixture), because it’s an excellent example of how colourful a winterscape can be. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Berries too can provide winter appeal. The visual impact will be determined by the amount of fruit and it’s size – this may vary from year to year. As well, berries with little water content, like the above examples, will retain colour better through the winter than juicier fruits.

The abundance of Hippophae rhamnoides berries caught my eye when driving by this landscape – a good illustration of the use of form, colour and texture to provide winter interest. Photo: Sue Gaviller

While all conifers provide winter interest, it is the rich green of several Pinus mugo that enlivens this scene. Imagine how drab it would appear without them. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Evergreen Colour

I aim for at least 1/3 of the plant material in a composition to be evergreen – and I mean evergreen, not everblue. Not that I don’t love blue spruces and blue junipers – I do, and they should be used, but not to the exclusion of green. Blue-grey foliage has less pigment than green foliage, hence can contribute to the washed-out look of a winter landscape, especially in the absence of snow. If you’ve ever been to one of my Colour Theory lectures, you know my thoughts on green – it’s the most important colour in your landscape, the colour which allows other colours to have significance.

Green is the colour of life (plant life that is). It can tame the most unruly of hues, add visual depth and infuse richness into your landscape year round. So for every blue conifer you use, plant a few green ones. You’ll see how much more alive your garden will look in the dead of winter.


Textural contrast is another important consideration when planning your garden. Texture can be fine or coarse – during the growing season, fine texture generally refers to small leaves or flowers that are grouped closely together, and coarse texture would be large leaves or flowers spaced further apart. During the winter months though, we need to look at texture differently. Since most herbaceous perennials have little or no presence in the winter, and most deciduous trees and shrubs lose their foliage entirely, then it is the texture of their bark and branches we see. Spiraea and Potentilla, for example are fine textured – their branches are small, twiggy and tightly spaced. Syringa and Fraxinus (especially males) have much coarser texture – their branches are beefier, and more widely spaced. At any time of year too much tiny, tightly packed foliage, flowers or branches will end up looking busy, so punctuating with some coarse texture will create both emphasis and contrast.

Texture can also refer to the surface of something – is it rough or smooth, shiny or matte. In the winter this will refer mostly to the bark of trees and shrubs.

Compare the very different texture of the above three trees – the oddly flaking bark of Pinus sylvestris (left), the twisted striated bark of Crataegus mordenensis ‘Toba’(centre), and the shiny peeling bark of Prunus mackii (right). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Evergreen Texture

All evergreen foliage is considered fine textured – narrow needles spaced closely, and yet they appear texturally quite different. Some appear weightier than others – they may be denser or the needles longer, or stiffer. Use of contrast in this regard will produce superior results to utilizing a single type of evergreen. Yet another example of me not practicing what I preach – I have too many junipers in my backyard, with few other evergreen foliage types (that and my Rosy Glo has developed quite a lean).

These conifers are all fine textured, but they differ in perceived weight. The lacy foliage of Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’ (right), appears lighter and airier than the stiff needled Pinus mugo (left) and Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ (middle). Photo: Sue Gaviller

The beauty of winter is that it offers us a glimpse of colour and texture combinations that would be obscured in other seasons by branches clothed in foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I invite you to open your eyes to the beauty that is winter – at least for a few more weeks.

Spring is coming.

Til then,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

13 comments on “Form, Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden

  1. Treva Usher says:

    Fantastic job Sue. I wish all of yards in Calgary looked like the pictures you have posted. I guess first we have to convince people to plant trees.

    • Hi Treva,

      Yes it seems the gardener evolves with the garden – we start out planting annuals, then graduate to perennials and eventually we realize that trees and shrubs form the backbone of our composition and we should have started there in the first place. Ah well – hind sight is 20/20 isn’t it?


  2. Ralph says:

    you’re point about green and form in the landscape was well illustrated in the photo with the pom pom pine, also good use of examples with the bark and shrub stem colours, liked the examples illustrating the complementary plant colors within the exterior of the house
    (I just figured out how to follow the blog vs just the follow up comments as well!)

  3. Anjali says:

    Thanks for the great article! I must admit that while I’ve tried to include some evergreens in my landscape, I never paid attention to the blue vs green detail. Your picture does a beautiful job illustrating that point though and the green conifer is certainly the one that “pops” and livens the scene. I look forward to reading more of your articles and seeing more of your inspiring photography.

    • Hi Anjali,

      Thanks so much for reading!
      Funny thing about green – beginner gardeners often don’t give green a second thought since continuous colour is their desired end. However, as gardeners mature, green begins to find its way back into their gardens. In the winter especailly, it really is the colour of life.
      I appreciate your comments on the photography, but I can’t take credit for all of it. Some of the best shots are still my sister’s – she is teaching me though.


  4. Susanna Walsh says:

    Hi Sue,

    Thanks for the great writings and photos, (thanks to your sister also, I am assuming she is a professional photographer and does she teach photography to the public?). It is hard for people, especially new gardeners to visualize, so great photos are extremely helpful. Thanks for a great blog!


    • Hi Susanna,

      My sister isn’t a professional photographer, but she’s been doing it a long time and has excellent equipment. The shots are often collaborative efforts – I tell her what I want a photo of, and from what angle, and she then works her magic. My mother and younger brother are also excellent photographers so I guess you could say it runs in the family. I’ve discovered that really good photography requires endless patience, which I don’t have, but I’m thrilled when I get a ‘lucky shot’.
      Thanks again for reading the blog!


  5. Diana Lane says:

    I love reading your blogs!! Great photos but more importantly a constant reminder about what makes good design. Thank you for making the decision to start a blog. I realize that it takes an immense amount of time but every now and then I recognize a lecture note or two and am happy to hear your voice inside my head again!

    • Hi Diana,

      Yes indeed it does take a lot of time, but I do enjoy the outlet for my thoughts and ideas – just wish I had more time for it. But first and foremost I’m a designer so must attend to my clients. Hope to post again in the next few days though.

      Take care,

  6. Yes I must say those are some stunning gardening photos, Seriously ! This will not be my first visit to you blog. Gardening blogs this unique these days are rare.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words! I had a quick look at your site and enjoyed your showcase video. Your projects seem to run the style gamut from casual to formal, contemporary to traditional – so many landscaping companies seem unable or unwilling to break away from their ‘usual’ style, even if the site warrants it. Too bad you’re on the other side of the world or I’d be referring clients to you all the time.

      Thanks again for reading,

  7. […] I love this post from “Not Another Gardening Blog”. This blogger does a masterful job of defining texture as it applies to the winter garden. […]


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