Creating a Four-Season Landscape for Year-Round Interest

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

We cherish our lush, colorful landscapes in late spring through early autumn, but the long off-season can be pretty bleak (for those of us in cold-winter climates, at least). Why not plant for some color and interest in November, January, March, and the months in between? There are plenty of trees and shrubs—and not just conifers—that can help you do just that.

Year-Round Landscaping Strategy

The basic idea of planting for all-season interest is to select trees and shrubs so 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. To do this, start by researching which plants put on their best show in your local climate. Then, devise a planting plan that is "staggered." That is, make sure your backyard does not end up with a plethora of high-performers for spring and summer display while neglecting fall and winter display. Instead, distribute the beauty across the four seasons as equally as possible.

Plants for the Spring Season

By the time winter's over, you want color, and you 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 laurel and hawthorn

Plants for 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 the long-blooming rose of Sharon, whose flowers conveniently hold off until the second half of the summer. 

Plants for the Fall Season

While floral color reigns triumphant at the beginning of the growing season, near the end it is foliage color that is king. The best fall foliage plants include must-have maples, of course, as well as many shrubs and vines for fall color. If you love the exquisite harvest colors of autumn and feel that the fall foliage season is too short-lived, you can get a jump on your fall foliage display by planting 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.'

The best color of the maples will be gone partway through October (in northern climates), 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.

Plants for the Winter Season

Alas, despite your best efforts to prolong the fall foliage season, winter will inevitably arrive. 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.

With the exception provided by evergreen trees and shrubs, the winter landscape is largely dominated by the colors white, gray, and brown. But you certainly have some other options. 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.

In addition to introducing some unexpected color, the wise designer will think in terms of "form" to provide winter interest. After trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, leaf-color becomes irrelevant, and more attention is drawn to their form and other characteristics. The form of one particular shrub in the winter yard has elicited many a double-take over the years: Harry Lauder's walking stick. This shrub's other nicknames speak volumes about 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.