Winter Tasks: Assessment

Monty strikes again. In his December post, among talks of Christmas trees, he mentioned a way to assess the structure and bones of your garden. Here’s what he said:


Take the time to go outside and photograph every aspect and angle of your garden. It does not matter how abandoned, neglected or empty it may be. Photograph what is there with a detached and inquiring eye. This is a process of reckoning, of stock-taking and will provide you with hard evidence of what lies at the bedrock of your garden. It is a truism that any garden can look good in high summer but only good gardens look good in midwinter. So use the pictures to plan both how to make your garden look really good at this time of year and to plan for the glorious days that will start to creep in before very long.

Did you catch that bit towards the end? “Any garden can look good in high summer but only a good garden looks good in midwinter.” I’m not sure that is 100% fair for those of us who deal in months of ice, bracing winds, and loads of heavy, wet snow, but it is an interesting exercise nonetheless.

From where I’m sitting, my view is out the front of the house and nearly all of the garden is in my view. Do I find it lacking this time of year?



If I’m being charitable with myself and our conditions, I have laid the groundwork for some great winter structure, its just not old and big enough to look good just now. The Yew hedges will one day (hopefully soon) be lovely green walls and columns standing proud and green against the snow. The willow shrubs do the majority of the heavy winter interest lifting (along with the grasses), but they do lack the color that something like a dogwood would provide. I just like the leaves and shape of the willow so much better.


The Bayberry, Lilac, and Viburnum hedges will also be much more striking as they mature. For now they look like shaggy, wimpy afterthoughts.

There are also trees, or large shrubs, dotted around but for now they are short in stature and impact. They will soon grow large and prominent, anchoring the corners of the garden all through winter. I can’t wait!

Perhaps this is a slightly unfair exercise to undertake when one’s plants are still so small. But small plants or not, I can easily see that my garden is devoid of color come this season (aside from the deep green of the Yews). While bright red and yellow dogwoods would give so much interest, I can’t think of a place where they would fit in (both in shape and texture) aside from the hillside.

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While this photo is from last year, the scene is much the same on the hillside. The trees have gotten bigger, but their impact is nearly non-existent as this stage. Would some red-twigged dogwoods spruce up the area? Yes, they certainly would, but I must confess to not loving how they look in the warmer months- they feel plain and unshapely and the foliage all but hides the beautiful stems. Would it ever make sense to grow something you only like in the winter??? Honest question!

I suppose the gist of this exercise is to try to look at one’s own garden with a critical and thoughtful eye- is it doing what I want/need it to do all year round? Do I have the structure I need to keep things interesting come the depths of winter? I think my answer is yes, but not quite yet.

What do you all plant with the intention of giving winter interest? Evergreens? Dogwoods? Something else I’m not thinking of? Share your secrets with me so that next year my view isn’t so boring!

9 thoughts on “Winter Tasks: Assessment”

  1. I planted red twigged dogwoods once…certainly unaware that they spread underground and take over an area, especially if it is slightly moist. They came up everywhere! And, unless you constantly prune out the older twigs, they lose their bright color. Not on my list of interest, winter or not. I don’t worry about winter interest anymore…I’m too old to go wandering about when its frigid, and all of our friends go to Florida so there are very few visitors, and fewer still that would bother to look! If I were in England or Germany where my daughter lives, I’m sure I would view things more with Monty’s assessments.

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    1. That makes me feel better! Right now we have 24 inches of snow and that means whatever interest I had is pretty much invisible so I’m just not going to worry about it!


  2. You sound like you are trying to talk yourself into the dogwoods but don’t really want them. So don’t. I think your assessment is correct; you have the beginnings of great structure and your garden just needs more time. I think winter interest is more about mass, structure, and texture. If you want color in winter you can always paint an arbor a bright color. You could even have some kind of bright ornament that you only put out in winter; in summer it stays in the shed. A garish bird feeder, perhaps? A book about winter gardens that’s in tune with our climate is The Prairie Winterscape by Barbara Kam and Nora Bryan. I am a big Monty fan myself, but Monty’s “winter” is like my November, then he skips straight to my March. So their winter is November, November (December), March (January), March (February), April (March), April, May, June, etc. A lot of things that he says applies to gardening in our climate, but their conception of winter is USDA Hardiness Zone 8. (Do I sound a titch envious?) However, they rarely get hot enough in summer to ripen tomatoes unless they grow them in a greenhouse, probably one of the few things we can do better.

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    1. Yes, I agree that Winter Interest is likely a bit of a folly for those of us in the true North. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in a zone 8!!! I do love your idea of bright decor for winter interest- I hadn’t thought of that but it is brilliant! Thank you!


    1. Me too! This has always been my issue with colorful stems… I’m just not sure the juice is worth the squeeze. Besides, I think your combination of rocks and evergreens is beautiful and really enhanced with a dusting of snow (nothing looks good with the boatloads we’ve both gotten in the past few weeks!) and looks beautiful in winter. I don’t know that a wad of red twigs would do anything to enhance what you already have!


  3. I love the views of your garden, all that rolling country. Our garden is very cramped by comparison. I am in the process of taking down a big old Yew that will be replaced by two Red Twig Dogwoods. Thanks for the link to the Monty Don blog – I didn’t know it existed.

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    1. Oh, that is going to be lovely! I do think the red stems of the dogwoods are much more impactful in closer quarters where they can be seen better. Are you going with a standard variety or one with variegation in the leaves? We had a variegated one but it was massively neglected when we bought the house and I couldn’t save it.
      I hope you enjoy Monty’s blog! I think it is lovely, albeit a few months ahead of us!

      Liked by 1 person

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