Do Try This at Home: Winter in the Garden

It’s cold outside. There’s frost on the car windows most mornings. And while many plants are dormant, we too tend to turn our focus indoors, taking a break from active gardening. It doesn’t have to be that way. I look to the pros for inspiration all year round, but especially in these months when the cold and dark don’t exactly scream, “Get out and garden!” Taking cues from some of Pennsylvania’s garden destinations, here are some ways that you can liven up your garden with pops of color and artistry until the daffodils pop back up.

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Light it up

With the darker days upon us, a string of lights — whether installed with a tall ladder on your mature pine and spruce trees, strung along your foundation plantings or tacked atop your row home fence — are a festive mood boost. Small white lights are lovely not just for the holidays: They can be left up all winter, or even all year.

Mirroring the style of your indoor lighting outdoors — especially when both are visible through windows — will lend a sense of cohesion and make your spaces feel larger. Adding small footlights, available in low-voltage LED and solar, lining a path from the house out into the garden, also connects the outside with the home; they can fade suggestively into the darkness, or end at a lit sculpture, a shapely Japanese maple, or perhaps a holiday decorated red sleigh.

Get Inspired: At Longwood Gardens the grounds feature lavish lighting displays and plantings that change with the seasons. Longwood also offers a vast array of online and on-site classes including workshops on wreath-making and garland design, and an exploration of the botanical inspiration behind unusual holiday traditions.

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A pop of color

Augment window boxes and planters by your front door with seasonal arrangements to welcome guests, and add brightness and color throughout the winter.

Red berried branches of winter berry holly (Ilex Verticillata) are just about the most stunning natural gift our region offers this time of year — especially after frost has decimated the foliage and left nothing but branches ripe with vibrant red fruit. Beware, though. Robins love winterberry hollies as much as we do (delicious to birds, though not to humans) and if a flock happens upon your branches, they’ll strip them in minutes.

Evergreen perennials such as Heuchera are available in dozens of colors that last through the winter. Other perennials to try are Acorus ‘ogon’ which has a grass-like texture and chartreuse foliage that contrasts delightfully — both in color and texture — with the deep purple foliage of Heuchera ‘palace purple.’

Get inspired: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden has activities, programs and classes for adults and children, and even programs specifically geared toward educators. To prepare for the season ahead, register for a lecture

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Branch out

Birch branches, in addition to branches of red twig dogwood (or the vibrant yellow and coral twig dogwoods) and the boughs of pine, spruce, holly and magnolia make lovely arrangements in planters. Sometimes a good alternative or addition is small potted evergreens that you can transplant in the spring.

If you are lucky enough to have plants in your landscape that can use a bit of a trim, get out there with your clippers and a critical eye and harvest your decorations for free! If not, any place that sells Christmas trees will have branches removed from the bottom of the tree that they’re often willing to give away or sell for a song.

Keep an eye out for winter sales at your local botanical garden or arboretum. They usually offer a great assortment, and often have unusual offerings as well. Most garden centers sell an assortment of branches: evergreens, colorful dogwood twigs and berried branches, either sold by the piece or bundled in pleasant combinations.

Get inspired: In December, the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens offers a Garden Railroad, the Winter Flower Show and Light Garden, and a greens sale. Phipps also offers virtual classes in garden and soil sciences, cooking, drawing, and plenty of other topics.

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Get creative

Whimsical items and art enhance the winter garden. Ceramic pieces and weathered antiques can be placed throughout the space or hung on walls visible through windows from indoors. Rustic farm implements, manual lawn mowers, or even an old clawfoot tub can make a fun centerpiece. Many garden art objects can be purchased at yard sales and flea markets, or from architectural salvage shops.

Get inspired: The Morris Arboretum, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, puts up its beloved train installation every holiday season. Not only are the trains lovely for the entire family, they meander through a garden planted with miniature evergreens for a magical winter world. While most of us may not have the space — let alone the technology and budget — to install a train set in our gardens, it’s a good reminder that gardens, particularly in winter, can benefit from whimsical non-plant items.

Winter is a lovely time to contemplate your garden: to be inspired by what Pennsylvania’s many public gardens have to offer and to assess your own space’s strengths. It’s a time to balance layering up for walks with sipping something warm in front of the fireplace. Either way, spring will be here before we know it.

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Carrie Borgenicht runs Earthly Delights, a small gardening company in Philadelphia. Each year, she proves, once again, that more plants can fit into a city garden than even she could have imagined. This is the first in a series of stories about inspired gardening at home.

Photo credit: Bob Bruhin

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