Designing A Four-Season Garden

Dec 14, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I like a garden that changes throughout the seasons. I find the suburban plantings that only use evergreens for “year-round interest” boring. A certain percentage of the plants in my garden are evergreens, but I don’t overplant. Like the old mantra says, “everything is good in moderation.” The key is learning the right combination of different plant types to display not only variety and originality, but also emphasize the seasons. For instance, if it snows in your area, you might consider planting shrubs and trees with interesting winter forms, such as Contorted Hazel or Weeping Willow.

I find that the traditional vegetable garden can look extremely flat and bare in winter when nothing is growing, so I’ve started planting fruiting shrubs such as Goji Berries and Blueberries to add not only height, but also fall color and fruit. That way I get multiple uses from a single spot in the garden. I’ve also been toying around with the idea of allowing climbers, such as clematis, to scramble through my shrubs and provide some color at a time when the shrubs themselves don’t have any special interest. That way I get four seasons of enjoyment in a fairly small space (Blueberries and Goji Berries both take up roughly a 5 x 5 foot area).

Another way to provide seasonal interest is the idea of layering, or “sandwiching”, plants into a fairly small area. For instance, in just 6 square feet I could plant Daffodils and Crocus for early spring interest, a low-growing groundcover such as a variety of Strawberry (remember, multiple uses!), fall flowering bulbs like Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale), and a variety of Japanese Anemone. That gives you three seasons of interest in a tiny space. I could also (in my area) plant an evergreen such rosemary or lavender to add a structural element along with a delicious fragrance.

You also want to consider what effect your climate will have on the design. Do you get excessive winter rainfall? Are your summers humid or arid? How about the temperatures? What is the warmest and coldest it usually reaches in your area?

All of these questions can play a useful role in developing a four-season garden. If you get excessive winter rain like I do, you could plant Salix alba ‘Vitellina’ to provide some winter color in the form of bright yellow twigs. I also have a spot in my yard that is fairly sandy, so I plant natives and grasses that are acclimated to the spot.

One often overlooked possibility is designing for frost. In my area, the air is extremely humid. That causes masses of hoar frost to develop on every surface. By planting grasses, roses that bear hips (fruit), and late-blooming asters, I can create a garden that is as beautiful at the first frost as it is in the spring.

Selecting plants that have multiple seasons of interest can help you truly create a four-season garden. I’m still experimenting with fall and winter plant ideas because that’s when my garden seems to fade away and lose interest until spring. Every year it gets better!

How about you? Do you have a particular time of year in your garden that seems to lack interest? I’d love to discuss this topic further in the comments below (I could have written all day on designing for seasonal interest!). 🙂

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  1. I would recommend the book a beautiful food Garden which may be out of print at this point. Well she’s not dealing with a four-season garden she is dealing with succession color and interest. It sounds like what you’re doing with your bulbs and strawberries. My latest Garden will be blowing up over half of my lawn and it will border on the street with a raised bed it’s very important that the garden have at least structural interest in the winter. Because we are in 7A I do have some flexibility to keep Greenery in amongst the perennials. I don’t think my stokesia asters ever succumbed to the cold and they are as green now as they were in August. But of course what brings people back to a garden is to see the seasonal changes. It’s my hope that our street Garden that will wrap around the front of my property will bring dog walkers and Runners and Walkers to stop for a minute and look at the Garden and to interact with it. My goal buy gardening at the street level in a subdivision is 2 teach people to Garden and to get them to start with something small at the very least. Discussion welcome

  2. Heather says:

    I agree about using more than just evergreens for seasonal winter interest! There are so many trees with interesting bark – paperbark maple is one of my favorites – which is a great way to get multiple seasons and multiple uses out of one plant. I’m starting a new garden this spring (just moved in to a new house) and while I have lots of ideas about what I want, only time will tell with what actually works. But that’s the fun of gardening, wouldn’t you say?

  3. Carol says:

    So excited about your newsletter. Look forward to receiving it.

    • Travis says:

      Thanks, Carol!

      I actually just sent one out yesterday, so it will be another few weeks before I send out the next… Nice to “meet” you! 🙂

  4. Donna Pike says:

    I was very happy to get your newsletter Travis! It still amazes me that someone so young has achieved to much with regard to loving Mother Nature’s green (and not green) babies. I have been a gardener for many, many years and still enjoy learning from others. I will look forward to each and every suggestion, tip and photo you publish. It is still chilly here in the Vancouver BC area, but spring shall not be stopped by that little problem.


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