While nearly every landscape appears lovely after a snowfall, I grow tired of the winter white that continues to dominate our scenery and dream of all the colors that will paint my borders when warm weather returns. Just the brief appearance of a few sassy blue jays or the dazzling plumage of a brilliant red cardinal at my bird feeders brightens my outlook, while the colorful illustrations in gardening books, magazines and catalogs remind me of the beauty nestled beneath the blanket of snow.

For many dedicated gardeners, especially in the Northeast, the cold, gloomy days of winter pose a serious challenge to our sanity as we yearn for the greening of the landscape and the advent of springtime flowers.


While nearly every landscape appears lovely after a snowfall, I grow tired of the winter white that continues to dominate our scenery and dream of all the colors that will paint my borders when warm weather returns. Just the brief appearance of a few sassy blue jays or the dazzling plumage of a brilliant red cardinal at my bird feeders brightens my outlook, while the colorful illustrations in gardening books, magazines and catalogs remind me of the beauty nestled beneath the blanket of snow.


In the weeks to come, as the melting process progresses to reveal the underlying plantings, the view from our windows may become even less appealing. The average winter landscape often appears drab and uninteresting, clothed in a winter garb of basic brown and gray, dotted with the stark silhouettes of leafless trees and shrubs.


The winter landscape need not be dull and unappealing, however, and for those of us who respond to color, thoughtful planting can dramatically enhance the winter palette.


Perhaps the most effective sources of winter color are provided by evergreen plants. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide a dramatic contrast to the drab browns and grays of winter or a blanket of snow.


Spruces, pines, hemlocks, firs and cedars all present commanding, distinctive forms. Yews, junipers, false cypress (Chamaecyparis) and other conifers are available in a wealth of sizes and color variations including blues, yellow, rusts and innumerable shades of green.


Mature evergreen trees and shrubs furnish blocks of color and form, even at a substantial distance. They can be used to frame views, create boundaries or serve as backdrops for the handsome white bark of birches or the branches of yellow- or red-twigged dogwoods.


Plant evergreens in small groupings rather than dotting them all over the yard, which tends to create a polka-dot effect. Avoid vast plantings of large conifers, however, which may produce a dark, gloomy effect, especially in restricted spaces.


Combinations of different colored evergreens -- including blues, yellows and coppers interspersed with a diversity of varying shades of green -- brighten the dormant landscape. Blend, contrast and repeat forms, textures and colors using the smooth, shiny foliages of rhododendron, andromeda, mountain laurel, holly, boxwood and leucothoe with the coarser textures of false cypress, arborvitae and the fine needles of dwarf white pine or hemlock.


The blue tones of junipers, blue Atlas cedar and blue spruce combine beautifully with the yellow and copper tints of Rheingold arborvitae, gold thread cypress or variegated varieties of winter creeper (euonymus). The deep, lustrous, bronze hues of azaleas and PJM rhododendrons are attractive companions to these blue and gold tones at this time of year.


One drawback to the planting of many evergreen shrubs and trees is their tendency to outgrow their allotted spaces over the years. Adorable 3-foot tall blue spruces that I planted 30 years ago have become giants necessitating relocation in my landscape in their early years to prevent their overtaking walkways and gardens. The rate of growth and ultimate size of woody plants should always be considered prior to planting. While pruning will often keep some of these plants in bounds, as time progresses, many of these woody plants lose their individual character and beauty. 


Fortunately, many new evergreen plants have been developed that greatly expand the realm of choices for nearly every landscape. Dwarf conifers, in particular, have becoming increasingly popular offering a wealth of forms, colors, and textures ideal for smaller spaces, gardens, and foundation plantings. A “dwarf conifer”, by definition, is a slower growing version of the species, so not all dwarf conifers are necessarily going to remain small in stature. A dwarf white pine could reach a height of 18 feet over many, many years while our native white pine can grow to 100 feet at maturity.


The American Conifer Society classifies these evergreens into four general groups: miniatures grow less than 1 inch per year, their size 1 foot or less in 10 to 15 years; dwarfs add 1 to 6 inches of new growth each season reaching 1 to 6 feet in 10 to 15 years; intermediates are likely to grow 6 to 12 inches a year becoming 6 to 12 feet in 10 to15 years; and large conifers add more than 12 inches a year and attain heights of more than 15 feet in 10 to15 years.


Many nurseries now offer an assortment of dwarf conifers with labels that indicate rate of growth or height in a specified number of years to assist gardeners with their selections. While the majority of conifers perform best in sunny locales and well-drained soils, some are tolerant of lower light including yews, false cypress (Chamaecyparis) and hemlocks.


In addition to variations in color and textures, dwarf conifers boast a broad diversity of forms from globose (rounded) or mounded to upright (columnar and pyramidal for vertical accents), prostrate (excellent as groundcovers), and pendulous to contribute those weeping forms that so many gardeners desire. This diversity makes these plants ideal for use as singular focal points to anchor seasonal plantings, or to be grown in groupings in a mixed shrub border for year-round interest.


The winter landscape need not be all black and white. Thoughtful selections of evergreen shrubs, multi-colored conifers and evergreen perennials can provide year-round color and a landscape for all seasons. While snow may cover some of these bright spots in the days to come, the knowledge that color and beauty lie hidden beneath offer assurances that spring will be forthcoming.  


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers. This column is the opinion of the writer and not of the newspaper.