Hellleborus, Hellebore, Perennial

Winter Vignettes

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

In my travels as a landscape designer, I hear a cycle of complaints about plants with seasonal interest. Plants that are adored beyond measure in their season are equally slandered at the opposite end of the year. What has luscious summer blossoms is “nothing but sticks” in the winter. What breaks winter’s chill with fiery foliage is “just a big green blob” in the summer. I know we all want that fantasy plant that never loses a leaf and blooms 300 days a year in sun and shade, but here in Virginia, we have to work just a little harder for our four-season gardens.

One particular challenge is balancing all of those love-hate seasonal plants so that we can enjoy their fabulous moments while quietly letting our eyes skim over them in the off-season. One way is to concentrate the power of seasonal interest by making several vignettes within your garden. (While the term vignette is most commonly used in literature or photography, in the landscape it refers to a particular scene within the whole that, while distinct, has no definite border.) Four-season gardens are typically expected to have every square inch to be interesting all the time—a near impossible goal. Seasonal vignettes shift the idea of a four-season garden to one where focused interest lights up in different areas at different times.

Importance of Vignettes

Let’s take winter interest for example. Unlike in the growing seasons, when lushness and color are bursting everywhere, winter interest can be subtle. The shaggy bark of a river birch, the red twigs of a shrubby dogwood and the wispy flowers of witch hazel can be hard to notice when they are scattered here and there among a sea of other plants. Too often, I see attempts at winter interest fail for this very reason. Homeowners may invest in 20 winter interest plants, only to dilute their effect by scattering them throughout their property. In their effort to make the whole place interesting, they only point out just how lifeless everything else seems by comparison.

Consider what would happen if they made a winter vignette instead. If the same 20 plants are grouped together in a place often seen in the winter, their beauty will be magnified. There is no worry if the scene to the left and right is still as drab as ever. The eye will focus on the interest and ignore the rest. And what about summer?  Then, it is likely that the plants will now be lush and green, if not particularly interesting.

Creating a Vignette

By concentrating interest and focusing on one area at a time, season by season, a truly delightful four-season garden comes together. All of those love-hate plants find their home. If you are ready to give seasonal vignettes a try, follow these four steps:

Step One: Identify the Location and Season for Your Vignette

A few examples of location might be the area immediately adjacent to your front entrance, the view from your kitchen window, the berm that is the first thing you see when you drive up or the plantings surrounding your patio.

When choosing the season on which to focus, take activities into account. Winter views are often from indoors while summer views are more likely to be from outdoor lounging spots. Spring and fall bring more movement through the garden, so out-of-the-way views may receive more attention during those seasons.

Step Two: Select a Focal Point

This will draw your attention and become the main feature of the vignette. Your focal point may already exist in the landscape or could be added.  Focal points can be just about anything and range from small-scale objects, such as specimen ornamental trees, benches and birdbaths, to large-scale features, such as pergolas, ponds and gazebos.

Step Three: Define the Borders

While your eye should be able to detect instantly where the scene stops, there should also be a planned and gentle transition to the surrounding landscape. For instance, imagine a garden statue backed up by a semicircle of camellias underplanted with helleborus. Such a scene might look ridiculous surrounded by lawn, as if it was dropped into the garden from a spaceship. However, if the camellias transition to a group of skip laurels on one side and viburnum on the other, and the helleborus becomes interplanted with hosta at the edges, the scene will appear nestled into a broader picture. Avoid placing two vignettes right next to each other or within the same view so that they do not compete.

Step Four: Choose Fill Plants

These fill in the vignette while shining at the same time. Pay attention to layering. The overstory, understory, eye level, waist/knee level and ground level all have potential to add interest. Use all-season background plants like laurels and boxwood liberally to keep things from getting busy and to help with transitions.