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Expert Advice: 9 Tips for a Colorful Winter Garden

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Expert Advice: 9 Tips for a Colorful Winter Garden

December 12, 2017

In fall the Instagram feeds many of our favorite gardeners, quite understandably, start to wither or move indoors. Not so that of Dutch garden designer Frank Heijligers. Indeed, much like the dames of imperial Russia, who, rather that retreating from the cold, donned furs and tiaras in anticipation of the social high season, Frank’s winter garden seemed to reach the height of its sparkling charm.

Enchanted, we decided to ask Frank, who grows grasses, perennials, trees, and shrubs at his nursery, PLANTWERK, to divulge his secrets for a successful winter garden. Here are 9 tips for adding sparkle and moody color:

Photography by Frank Heijligers.

Embrace Black

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden

Above: Now a dramatic black, the once purple cones of Agastache ‘Black Adder’ still stand tall in the frosty winter garden.

“Successful winter gardens need a lot of plants with good structure in them,” says Frank. “The plants have to be strong and have more than one interest: nice foliage, bloom, color, seed head, change of color in fall, strong skeleton in winter.”

Long-Lasting Seedheads

Frank Heijligers Dutch Garden Fall 5

Above: Like spectators at the ballet, crowds of Monarda ‘Croftway Pink’ seedheads watch a changing fall landscape.

Fill the Gaps

Van Nature Garden Nursery Netherlands

Above: Because plants with good structure tend to bloom later, Frank notes that the successful four-season garden “starts with having a little more patience in spring.” To fill in the gap, he uses bulbs. Alliums, which maintain a sculptural seed head after they have gone by, are a good choice.

Frank Heijligers Dutch Garden Border with Perennials
Above: One of Frank’s gardens in summer. Though lust and leafy, it still maintains a textured feel.

Frost-Proof Plants

Frank_Heijligers__van Nature_Photography (18)
Above: A similar border garden in winter, when the regal heads of Phlomis take on a silver sheen.

“Hosta or Alchemilla mollis are plants that look good early on in the year, but with the first bit of frost, they collapse,” Frank says. “You need plants like Phlomis, Aster, Eupatorium, Veronicastrum, and Anemone combined with grasses like Deschampsia, Miscanthus, Sporobolus, and Festuca mairei to make the garden look good until March.”

Frank_Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 8
Above: Another sculptural favorite: Veronicastrum ‘Pink Spike.’

Bonus: birds love all the leftover seedheads in Frank’s hibernal garden.

Feathery Textures

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden Grasses 9

Above: Feathery textures of dried grasses and desiccated asters create a dynamic winter garden.

Like many of the great Dutch gardeners that inspired him, such as Piet Oudolf, Dan Pearson, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Kiley, and Mien Ruys, Frank prefers structured perennials and textured grasses.

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 7
Above: Standing in a sea of waving grasses is a stalwart sculpture of a wooden fisherman made by a neighbor.

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 6

Above: The stiff skeletons of Monarda ‘Prairienacht’ emerge from a veil of feathery Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’.

Add Structure

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 11

Above: A sea of textured grass, meets a horizon of clipped Larix kaempferi hedge.

“[Along] with big plantings of perennials and grasses, I like to use cloud hedges of Beech or Cornus, for example,” Frank says. “Even though those plants lose their foliage (Beech keeps those nice brown-copper dried leaves), they provide a lot of structure in winter and early spring. The look of the garden is modern, with strong lines and focal points. When the plants begin to grow, you gradually loose those lines and you get a totally different-looking garden.”

The Charms of Decay

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 12

Above: Playful Asclepias ‘Ice Ballet’ (milkweed) mimics fox ears or fish tails.

Late-Season Color

Frank Heijligers Dutch Garden Rubeckia and grass

Above: As fall sets in, late bloomers like Rubeckia, add a final bit of color and life.

“After the blooming period comes the decay,” says Frank. “Every period has its own charm. And in February it’s great to cut it all back and start all over again with a clean slate.”

Frank Heijligers Dutch Garden Frost

Above: Colorful accents in the winter garden. The black seeds of Baptisia and the reddened leaves of Vibrnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ can withstand the frost.

Frank Heijligers Dutch Garden Fall

Above: The skeletons of Pycnanthemum pilosum against autumnal grass.

Frost Is Your Friend

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 13

Above: The pompom heads of Pennisetum are even prettier with a dusting of frost.

Frank Heijligers Dutch Winter Garden 10

Above: Anemone ‘Serenade’ and Pennisetum ‘Cassian’ create bands of color and textures.

Stop dreaming of summer and get outside. Here are more ways to revel in your winter garden:

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