Reading the Winter Landscape: How to Design for the Most Barren Time of the Year

The Green Team improvises surfaces and plantings for the winter season.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) are often selected to add winter interest to a plant palette because of the characteristic peeling bark and red twigs that stand out in the winter landscape.

Courtesy Bryan Siders via flickr

Most recently, we discussed the challenge of destructive rodent populations to urban landscapes such as New York City.

In all-season regions, winter provides a different kind of challenge. It’s season when our natural environment can look a little less than lush—autumn leaves fall, leaving behind a skeleton of branches; perennials die back to subterranean dormancy; and the landscape fades to shades of brown and grey. Designers need to find alternate methods to maintain color, texture, scale, and interest during this most barren time of the year. What is a landscape architect to do?

A popular approach to this challenge is to select plantings that have winter interest. These include those with a quirky form (Corylus avellana or ‘Contorta’), engaging bark (Betula nigra), bright winter color (Cornus sericea or ‘Flaviramea’), or luxuriant textures (Panicum virgatum). An additional tool to liven things up is to incorporate materials that are largely unaffected by the changing season. Stone—while being constant in its shape, size, and texture—casts intricate shadows from the low winter sun and can be transformed by the elements to exhibit color changes when wet versus dry, standing out in these subdued surroundings.

Boulders sited by Mathews Nielsen at Hudson River Park stand out in the winter landscape (left); granite blocks used for seating at the 96th Street subway station (right)

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

There are as many ways to use stone in the landscape, as there is a wide variety of colors, sizes, textures, and types available. Large boulders can be integrated as retaining walls that rise above the dormant winter vista, as seen at Hudson River Park. The stepped granite blocks at our 96th Street subway station project on Manhattan’s Upper West Side provide places to sit and also act as skateboard deterrents. These embedded installations can set off the varied textures of dried ornamental grasses or structured, woody plants.

Contrasting warm and cool-toned stone at the University of Albany, SUNY, Life Sciences Building.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

At a smaller scale, river rocks, pebbles, or crushed stone can add sound, texture, and micro-undulations to the ground plane, which remain visible through shadows, water, ice, or settling snow. These installations provide year-round interest and require minimal maintenance. Our use of warm-toned river rocks at the Life Science Building at the University of Albany, SUNY, provided a subtle juxtaposition to the cool-toned plant and building materials, while the dark grey slab paving and fountain stones are a bold contrast in color, scale, and texture. Additionally, these features retain their structure and interest when the surrounding plantings go dormant.

Snow and ice often enhance the natural beauty of stone in winter.

Courtesy Rich Engelbrecht via flickr

Weather permitting, both natural and man-made stone landscapes, such as the wall at Manhattan’s Teardrop Park, look even more dramatic when water freezes along stone’s cracks and crevices, creating large ice formations that add interest to such walls. The contrasting snow and ice enhance the stone’s character and make a more powerful impact than any plant could.

So, the next time you are challenged to design for four seasons, think beyond typical interventions to see the beauty of alternate materials as a solution to your design problem. There is more to a well-designed landscape than just plants.

Terrie Brightman, RLA, ASLA is a practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City with over ten years of professional experience. Since receiving her BLA from the Pennsylvania State University, she has worked on riverfronts in Pittsburgh, private residences in California and Florida, a sustainable community in Turkey, and multiple public parks, plazas, and waterfronts throughout New York City.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects Green Team that focus on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team will also share its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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