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Cover story: Keeping the winter landscape interesting

- - Thursday, October 25, 2012

While many homeowners gladly embrace the joy of gardening in spring and summer, many turn their backs on the outside of their house as the weather cools. It may not be as easy to surround your home with colorful flowers and greenery in the winter, but landscape designers and home remodeling experts can recommend ways to improve the appeal of your grounds even when they are hard with frost.

Popping a few annuals into pots and garden beds can make a big difference in warm seasons, but options are more limited in winter. Instead, experts recommend planning for the season in advance.

"When we're in the planning stages for a property, we try to look at all 12 months and all four seasons to create a landscape that doesn't disappear for half the year," said Scott Brinitzer, owner of Scott Brinitzer Design Associates in Arlington. "I'm not a fan of decorating a yard with a few pansies to make it look better. I think that just looks sad. It's much better to have evergreen plants that become more visible after other plants lose their leaves."

Mr. Brinitzer particularly recommends evergreen plants with glossy leaves, such as hollies, laurels and camellias.

"Up north you get more snow, so you can get the reflection of the sun off the snow," Mr. Brinitzer said. "We get a lot of 40-degree gray weather, so it's nice to have glossy leaves to reflect what little light we get. Glossy leaves look brighter and work well with the low angle of the sun."

Gina Benincasa, a landscape designer with D&A Dunlevy Landscapers in Poolesville, said mixing a variety of evergreen plants improves the look of a yard in winter.

"It's important to have not only the trees with needles like spruce and pine, but to have a variety of textures and leaves like magnolias, rhododendrons and hollies," Ms. Benincasa said. "You should also have ground cover and perennials that stick around like vinca and ajuga."

Ms. Benincasa also suggested looking for plants with different colored stems and bark as well as interesting shapes, such as river birch trees, crape myrtle and burning bush.

"You can create movement, too, with ornamental grasses because some of them last into January or February," she said.

Mr. Brinitzer recommended layering plants, shrubs and trees so different leaves will be visible in different months.

"Once you have the basic principles in place, you can have a big stone planter of pansies, but those pansies can't do all the work if nothing else is interesting," he said.

Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda, said architectural pots that can be filled with plants in every season work well to add color in winter.

"Pots are easier to take care of, especially in the winter, and you can even move them around to bring them into the sun or closer to the house for extra warmth," Mr. Rill said.

In addition to choosing the right plants, homeowners can improve the look of their grounds with architectural elements. Mr. Brinitzer said stone and brick walkways become even more important in winter because they are more visible.

"It can be pleasing to look at a winding path out the window and to see evergreen plants drawing your eye to the back of a property," he said.

While most homeowners think of a pergola as a place to grow vines or provide a little summer shade, Mr. Rill said a pergola can help give a sense of space and scale to a yard in winter.

"You can add color to the landscape with stained or painted wood posts, or add lots of ornamentation with brackets and a trellis," he said. "In one yard we recently put in a Japanese-style pergola around a hot tub with horizontal one-by-fours with five-inch spaces in between instead of diagonal latticework. You get a sense of spatial enclosure and privacy even with the spaces."

Mr. Rill said outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are becoming very popular with homeowners, particularly if they have a big hearth to sit on in the winter.

"The idea is to be outside a little bit so you can see the sky and the stars, even in winter," he said. "We like to add a gas starter for the fire pit to make it easier to catch the wood and warm up fast."

Stone walls, stone and brick terraces and even wood decks can define a yard and make it more interesting in the winter.

"The idea is to create nooks and romantic spaces within your yard," Mr. Rill said.

Ms. Benincasa said an outdoor kitchen and an outdoor spa can keep your garden functional in winter and more attractive, especially if you carefully choose the materials for their exterior, such as brick and stone.

"You can also do a lot with lighting to illuminate key features of your yard or just to brighten dark corners," she said. "You can create interesting shadows with the branches of trees that make your yard look more interesting."

Mr. Rill said some homeowners also add color with outdoor furniture, as some cushions are made to stay outside all year.

While not as much fun as building an outdoor fireplace or playing with lighting, an important step to making your garden look its best in winter is your fall maintenance project.

"You need to clean up your garden and trim your plants to get them ready for winter," Ms. Benincasa said. "Add a fresh layer of mulch, too, which makes your whole yard look better the way a fresh coat of paint spruces up a room."

Above all, be sure you're prepared to move out of winter and into spring as quickly as possible.

"Try to plant some early-blooming bulbs or find a protected area to plant camellias or witch hazel that begin to grow early," Mr. Brinitzer said. "Anything that shows the regeneration process is under way can lift your spirits at the end of winter."