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Why the best time to design a garden is in the bleak midwinter

​​When you look out of your windows in January, do you like what you see? Are your front garden and backyard delights to behold, with powdery snow outlining all your trees and shrubs? Is your backyard an oasis for birds, picking off the berries that grew this summer?

When all spring, summer, and fall flowers have ended and the trees have lost their leaves, what is left to look at?

If you like what you see, you have done a good job with designing your garden. If the answer is “no,” then you can take the winter to plan changes to your garden.

Here’s a trade secret: a well designed garden looks as good in the winter as in summer. It is a simple concept, but hard to achieve. To do this, you need to start with the structure of your garden, not a plant list or your favorite flowers.

The photo shows a garden design that we drew in 2002 when we moved into a new house. This was the final sketch after many, many sketches. This is what we wanted to look at from the bay window of our family room—the “money shot” from our house. We were not unencumbered: half the backyard was a 2-tiered deck that we didn’t particularly love. And there was a cherry tree planted within 12 inches of a corner of the backyard. The previous owner didn’t dig a hole for the tree, merely made a raised bed for it. So, getting rid of it was as easy as one good tug. And the existing garden beds were all straight lines, pretty boring stuff.

The good news is that winter is long in Canada, so you have lots of time. Here are some tips as you think about your garden design:

Start with the dimensions of your lot, to scale. Graph paper is the easiest way to do this.

Take stock of what you have. On your to-scale drawing, mark all existing hardscape (decks, patios, pool, pond, children’s play gym, etc.) and trees, shrubs, and plants. What features do you want to keep and what features do you want to get rid of? This is frequently a tough question and will take you some time to ponder.

If you have young children, the jungle gym will stay; if your children are now teenagers, you’re done with the jungle gym. Garden ponds are lovely, but they need regular maintenance. Plan ahead.

Are you happy with where things are placed? Shrubs and perennials are easier and cheaper to move than trees and hardscaping. You may find that ultimately, you have to compromise, meaning you’ll decide to work with what you have rather than rip out a patio or deck.

Soften your landscape. For example, a square or rectangular deck or patio can be made to look more interesting if you put some verticals such as upright junipers or cedars right next to it. You can also break up the lines and get rid of a “boxy” feeling by adding circular-shaped shrubs like globe or Danica cedars.

To take a lesson from Art, you can borrow the concept of near-ground, mid-ground, and background. This is what makes your backyard and front yard interesting to look at. When the eye has to work to figure out the relationships of trees, shrubs, and perennials to each other, that’s when a garden becomes interesting. Think of it as layering for your garden.

Another trick you can use for your garden design is to take a lesson from nature. In nature, there are no straight lines. In nature, there are only curves. So, adding curves to very straight garden beds will make your garden more interesting to look at because not everything is revealed at once. If you have the space, you can create nooks and crannies, so visitors to your garden will have to go around to see it all.

And, every garden should have evergreens in it, which are actually considered hardscape. Even if your property is too small to support a tree, strategically placed evergreens (uprights, round forms, and spreading forms) will give you something interesting to look at in the winter as the snow piles up on them.

More tips:

You need to be ruthless in a garden, especially in a very small garden. If a tree or shrub has died, it should be removed. Trees planted too closely together, or too close to the foundations of your house, are not a good idea. Eventually, they will crowd each other out and die. To remove a tree root at the foundation of your house is expensive. The rule is: everything must thrive! Don’t settle for just OK, go for spectacular.

Scour gardening magazines and books for ideas. There are lots of ideas for garden design and how to organize the space available. Take scans, photos, and drawings and start your own file of what you like. You won’t be able to implement everything unless you have a very large property, but an “idea file” is great for crystallizing your garden design thinking.

Make several sketches for how to organize your garden space. Don’t settle for your first garden design. Chances are you will get a much better idea the more you think about your space.

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