Winter Outlines Garden Bones

Ilona Erwin

Winter is a stark time for most of us in a temperate climate. Doubly so when a fresh snowfall creates lines and shapes, filled in with snowy white. We then see our garden in silhouette, and all its features are outlined for us to better judge the proportions and dimensions of our larger plantings and hardscaping. This is when we can decide how to improve the garden’s structure to give shape to the billowing foliage and blossoming flowers of the growing season. The winter garden is a feature in its own right, as well.

“Good bones are important, so it is wise to go slowly and get your plan right before launching into a vital project.”
~ Rosemary Verey

You don’t want a “jellyfish” garden, going all limp after the first frost… and that is what good bones in the garden is about: the arcs, high points, solid shapes, curving or straight paths, all the things that give the eye interest and a sense of presence. In a way, we need that solid reassurance that our gardens are more than “the grass of the field”, as beautiful as that is. We want our gardens to hold a feeling of home, something stable and secure in the march of time.

The Focus of Structure

We tend to focus on the bones of a place. Sometimes it is a tree, sometimes an arbor, it can well be a bench within the curve of flower borders, or a fountain surrounded by stone. Features both geometric and curvy, horizontal and vertical, all give shape to our perception of a garden space. Winter simply strips away the distractions of all the flora and foliage we love so much, to expose the design on which we grow it all. We can then see how flowers might be better displayed, and living spaces more pleasingly arranged.

winter scene

garden bones in winter

Things to Check

  • Are there big blank spots? More than you like?
  • What design do the walkways make? Are areas unbalanced in size or shape?
  • Are hedges and fences an asset or a liability?
  • Are your foundation plantings attractive?
  • Are your “outbuildings” a feature, or could they use some camouflage?

What could you do to improve some of the less than satisfying answers you might have to some of those questions?

  • Distractions made by planting an ornamental tree or shrub, or judiciously placing a structure such as a tool house, or trellis
  • Carving out a feature garden in a boring, large space
  • Culling out too large, overgrown plantings; or filling in spaces with an interesting mix of deciduous and evergreen plants
  • Create an axis in the garden with pathways. A popular design uses a water feature or urn in the central cross of the dividing axis.

“The central axis is often the line from the living-room door to a focal point at the far end of the garden, Good garden design also uses axes across the plot from side to side. Focal points are located where these axes cross the central axis and also at the termini of the axes. Color accents and form accents come at these focal points in an orderly garden design.” – From a 1935 “Garden Design” article.

That central axis was in much earlier times called “the axis of honour”, as in this quote, “Thus the garden was laid out symmetrically along the axis of honour, a straight line passing through the centre of the house.” And this would be something to consider in formal designs using symmetry and geometrical shapes.

Whatever your style, a camera is your partner in capturing an unbiased view of your garden’s features. The gardener tends to focus on the best points and mentally edit out the less stellar ones. A camera is more telling.

Related Books

A garden design example for a potager, explaining features of design.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.