Landscaping Backyards for 4-Season Interest

The Best Properties Display Color Year-Round

Snowdrops (image) look just as good with closed flowers as after opening. That's why they're drops.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the first plants to bloom each spring. David Beaulieu

Have you noticed that we are demanding more and more out of our landscapes? Having long-blooming perennials is a nice start, but it's no longer enough. For the upscale, this perfectionism may take the form of outdoor kitchens with all of the amenities of home, or, perhaps, large in-ground swimming pools with Jacuzzis built right into them. For the average person, the trend is toward something a bit more modest: namely, landscaping backyards with an eye to four-season interest.

Modest, yes; unimportant, no. Since we use our properties year-round, why shouldn't there be something to catch our attention at any time of year, even in the dead of winter? Why shouldn't we have something to gladden our hearts and put a twinkle in our eyes, so that our backyards continually delight us? That is the goal of landscaping backyards for four-season interest.

This article discusses using trees and shrubs to achieve four-season interest. Of course, conifers immediately come to mind, since they are noted for keeping more or less the same appearance throughout the four seasons. But in this article, the focus will be on other kinds of trees and shrubs.

Specifically, let's discuss how to select trees and shrubs in such a way that, as soon as one plant is done putting on a show, you'll have a different plant picking up the slack and strutting its own stuff. In selecting plants for landscaping backyards for four-season interest, there are two key points to keep in mind:

  1. You must discover when particular plants put on their best show.
  2. And, based on this knowledge, you must aim for a planting plan that is "staggered." That is, make sure your backyard does not end up with a plethora of high-performers for the spring and summer displays, for instance, while quite neglecting the fall and winter displays. Instead, distribute the beauty across the four seasons, as equally as possible.

Achieving year-round interest begins by drawing a landscape plan. Trees and shrubs simply take up too much space for you to plant them haphazardly unless your property is very large. For smaller properties, it is better to allocate space for trees and shrubs in a methodical and disciplined manner, so that they do not end up outgrowing their homes and causing you problems.

Consequently, tree and shrub selection must take into consideration the mature sizes of the plants. Other practical issues must also be addressed, such as the zone in which you live and the sun and soil requirements for the trees and shrubs that you have in mind.

Once you've researched the practical issues, you can give free rein to your more creative side. Again, the idea is to distribute the color that trees and shrubs offer across the four seasons, as equally as possible, so as to achieve year-round interest. For more information on how landscape designers think of color, please consult this article on color theory.

But color is only one of the pieces of the puzzle. As is discussed in Landscape Design for Beginners, there are other elements in landscape design which you should use to your advantage. Of particular note for our purposes here is the element known as "form." Since your choices for color are more limited in winter than in the other seasons, you will have to pay more attention to form, as we will see below, where you will be given access to resources that will aid you in landscaping backyards with year-round interest in mind.

Planting Trees and Shrubs for Year-Round Interest

Now that some preliminary considerations are out of the way, let's discuss specific examples of planting trees and shrubs to create year-round interest in a yard, going season by season.

The Spring Season

By the time winter's over, let's face it: We want color, and we want it fast. Thus the popularity of one of the earliest blooming shrubs, forsythia, as well as the other plants that always bloom earliest in our yards. Forsythia blooms in early spring, well before many of the other flowering trees and shrubs. 

Achieving color in the landscape in mid-spring generally is not a problem, since there are so many flowering trees and shrubs from which to choose. 

If you plan carefully, late spring need not take a backseat to April and early May, in terms of color. Lilacs are a long-time favorite that will bring color to the landscape in late spring. To supplement your lilacs, two other plants to consider are mountain laurels and hawthorns

The Summer Season

In summer, the brilliant spring blooms on trees and shrubs give way to just plain old leaves. It can be a challenge to find any trees and shrubs that will bloom for a significant amount of time during the summer season. In the Southeastern U.S., the long blooming period of crape myrtle trees is a boon to summer landscaping. In the North, hydrangea shrubs inevitably enter the discussion, but another savior is long-blooming rose of Sharon, whose flowers conveniently hold off until the second half of the summer. 

The Fall Season

While floral color reigns triumphant at the beginning of the growing season, at its end it is foliage color that is king. A number of resources on the best fall foliage plants are available here, including the must-have maples, and the best shrubs and vines for fall color, but let's focus on two plants in particular that are useful -- and overlooked -- in extending the fall foliage season.

Do you love the exquisite harvest colors of autumn and feel that the fall foliage season is too short-lived? To get a jump on the fall foliage display, plant sumac shrubs, which usher in the autumn season well before the maples. Sumac's fall foliage will help bridge the gap between the last rose of Sharon bloom and the first hint of color on your maples. An excellent sumac cultivar to grow is 'Tiger Eyes.'

But don't stop there! The best color of the maples will be gone part way through October in the North, so you also need a fall foliage specimen that takes the torch from the maples and carries it a bit closer to the winter season. Oak trees will do just that, albeit usually with less flare than the incomparable maple trees.

The Winter Season

But alas, despite your best efforts to prolong the fall foliage season, winter will surely come, eventually. What then? What do you have to work with once the trees have dropped their leaves and the spring blooming period is still months away? Indeed, winter poses the greatest challenge to the goal of achieving year-round interest in your landscape.

Yes, your choices for color are more limited in winter than in the other seasons. With the exception provided by evergreen trees and shrubs, the winter landscape is largely dominated by the colors, white, gray and brown. That is not to say that you do not have some choices. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Allemans') has an attractive reddish bark. A patch of fiery red osier dogwood against a backdrop of pristine snow makes for an unforgettable winter scene.

Red osier dogwood and a few other exceptions notwithstanding, the wise designer will think in terms of "form" to provide winter interest, as stated previously. After trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, leaf-color becomes irrelevant and more attention is drawn to their form and other characteristics, as discussed in this Top 10 list for winter landscapes.

But the form of one particular shrub in the winter yard has elicited many a double-take over the years: namely, Harry Lauder's walking stick. This shrub's other nicknames speak volumes about its form (to be more specific, the form of its branches), for it is also called "corkscrew filbert" and "contorted hazelnut." Its branches contort themselves in every which way, resembling corkscrews.