Learning to Love the Winter Landscape

finding to beauty in winter

finding to beauty in winter

I’m looking out the window as the snow falls onto the ground, creating a carpet of white fluffy powder accented by a blade of grass here and there. Even as I have learned to appreciate the beauty of snow, I still look out at my trees and wish that their abundant blooms of spring will arrive soon, and turn into lush green leaves of summer. I dream of the raspberries I’ll pick off the bushes in June, or the way my hands will smell when I touch the lavender plants in July. Traditionally, spring and summer are the most exciting times for landscape design. In spring comes hope, when we try to put all of our gardening aspirations into play. In spring we plant a tomato seedling into the ground and dream of how delicious its fruits will taste come August.

Perhaps because of all the excitement that a garden brings in spring and summer, it's easy to forsake it's beauty in the winter; for in winter a garden is austere in comparison. But to truly love nature, and by nature, to love a garden, a park, or any part of a landscape (urban, suburban or rural), we need to try to understand how to appreciate the garden in winter.  In winter, a garden takes it's rest from giving us the abundance of flowers, and leaves, and fruits throughout the year. It leaves us with an opportunity to contemplate life and nature and the lifecycle of the natural world. And if a summer garden, bursting with blooms and greenery is a showman, a winter garden, with its bare silhouettes and subtle clumps of snow, is a Zen master, finding beauty in the moment, the solitude.

Pine branch ikebana at the Noguchi Museum.

Pine branch ikebana at the Noguchi Museum.

For me, embracing a winter garden means to truly appreciate the seasonality we are blessed with in a northern climate. The variety of beauty that nature bestows upon us throughout the years could not be possible without the repose of the winter months. I wanted to share with you some people who have shown me a different way to love the garden in winter.

I partially owe my change in perspective to Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer who has been a great influence on my work and the way I think about seasonal gardening. He is best known in the U.S. for his work on The High Line (NYC), The Battery (NYC), and Millenium Park (Chicago).  An interview with Piet Oudolf in the New York Times, brought a different way of thinking about the garden to light, and I'm excited to share it with you: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/31/garden/31piet.html?_r=0

Looking out over his perennial meadow, Mr. Oudolf articulated it this way: “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.” Allowing the garden to decompose, he added, meets an emotional need in people.

“You accept death. You don’t take the plants out, because they still look good. And brown is also a color.
— New York Times

To appreciate landscape design is to go beyond the plants, and understanding the world that surrounds the garden; the changes in nuances of lighting throughout the day, the cultural context of how our civilization has come to identify with nature, and how we express our relation to nature with cuisine, another art form where we work with nature to derive sustenance and satisfaction. Paying attention to these other facets of nature can shed light on the beauty of the winter landscape.


As a former chef, and a lifetime lover of food, I know that there is nothing more strongly bound to nature and the seasons than food and cooking. A few weeks ago I was watching "Chef's Table" on Netflix, which is a truly inspirational show on different chef's perspectives in cooking. One episode in particular stood out, it featured Magnus Nilsson, the hyper-local, hyper-seasonal, executive chef at Fäviken in Sweden (one of the top 50 restaurants in the world) http://favikenmagasinet.se/en/. There was a moment in the episode where they were cooking local scallops over juniper branches. I could almost smell the juniper smoke, and the warmth that must have surrounded the kitchen in the dead of winter. It was a beautiful celebration of the beauty of winter that showed a deep appreciation for the seasons- that no season is more special than the next. Every time I see my juniper shrubs, I think of Magnus and those smoked scallops, and how ingenious he was to see the potential in the winter landscape.  

With a short ways to go before spring arrives and puts on a magnificent show of blooms and greenery, let's take this time to enjoy the subtle elegance of a garden in winter. It can be quite beautiful if we learn to embrace it's Zen-like nuances.