How to give your yard four-season interest

By George Wiegel

Spring bulbs add the season's first color to this garden.
Spring bulbs add the season’s first color to this garden.

Sometimes it’s not easy making a yard look good even in one season, much less all four.

Yet high on many a landscaping wish list lately is the goal of creating a yard that changes with the seasons and looks good in all of them.

The job is a little easier in spring to early summer when the majority of plants bloom and in moderate climates where seasonal differences aren’t as harsh.

It gets much harder where seasons bring major changes, and it’s hardest of all in cold-winter climates where the landscape can be buried under snow for months at a time.
Still, it’s possible to milk the most out of any landscape anywhere with good planning.

The heart of that is picking a diverse selection of plants that has something different going on at different times of the year.

Too often that doesn’t happen because gardening tends to be viewed as a “spring thing.” The result is that everyone shows up at the garden center as the weather warms in spring and ends up buying the same plants that happen to be peaking then.

A crape myrtle, for example, that will bloom beautifully by late summer, but that looks like a bare set of moose antlers at purchase time, has little chance next to an azalea that’s blooming in full glory.
Buy your plants at the same time year after year, and it’s no wonder that many yards end up as one-season wonders.

If you’d like to start spreading out your interest this season, here are 10 ways to do it:
1.) Add more variety. Plant more plants and different kinds of them. You’ll get multi-season change and interest just by dumb luck. Even when planting a particular species, choose several different varieties of it to capitalize on their differences.

2.) Evaluate your seasonal weaknesses. Do homework into what plants are in prime form at what times. Then think about what each part of your yard looks like in each season, and seek out plants that will add interest to those boring gaps. Make notes during the course of the season to help identify the down times most in need of help.

3.) Move beyond two-week wonders. Many of our favorite landscape plants happen to be one-dimensional plants that peak only for a few weeks out of the whole year. They tend to be ones that have the good marketing sense to bloom when the most people are shopping, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs, peonies and forsythia.
If your yard is heavy with short-term performers, it’s time to…

4.) Look for harder-workers – plants that do more than one thing in one season. One example is oakleaf hydrangea, a U.S. native shrub that blooms white in late spring, gets burgundy foliage in fall and then shows off peeling bark when the leaves drop for winter. Viburnums are shrubs that flower fragrantly in spring, turn yellow or red in fall, then develop berry-sized fruits of red, gold, blue or black from fall into early winter. Some even hold their leaves in winter. And native ninebarks are shrubs that flower pinkish-white in late spring, then get BB-sized clusters of red seed-heads in early summer, then turn blood red in fall, then display peeling stems when bare over winter. Leaning toward plants with multi-season interest is especially helpful in smaller yards where limited space limits the number of different plants that can be used.

5.) Pay attention to leaf color, especially in plants that hold their foliage over winter. Blooms are fleeting, but colorful leaves and needles add interest much longer … some of them all year long.

6.) Don’t plant-shop only in spring. You’ll tend to buy only what’s looking good then… or on sale. Shop in different seasons. Make it a point to go to the garden center whenever your yard is looking particularly barren.

7.) Visit public gardens. They’re great for getting ideas and seeing what’s doing what at any given time. Take advantage of public gardens near you because the plants doing well there are likely to do well in the same climate and soils as your yard. Visit these in different seasons, too. Public gardens are especially helpful because plants are usually labeled.

8.) Pay attention to what other people have planted. If you see plants nearby doing something interesting at a time when your yard is snoozing, find out what those plants are and add them to your list. Odds are your neighbors will be flattered that you noticed how nice their plants were looking.

9.) Don’t overlook the “hardscaping.” These are the paver walks, the stone walls, the arbors, the fences, the benches and the other non-plant features of the landscape. Not only do they add structure or “bones” to the look during the growing season, they’re at their best in winter when many to most plants are off stage.
10.) Add dedicated seasonal gardens. In addition to mixing plants with multi-season interest throughout the yard, consider planning whole gardens that peak in a particular season. Load each of those gardens with plants at their best in each assigned season, for example, a summer garden filled with annual flowers and summer bulbs, and a fall garden highlighted with plants that get late-season berries and turn leaf color.

Four good books to help you with your four-season homework:
* “Continuous Bloom: A Month-by-Month Guide to Nonstop Color in the Perennial Garden” by Pam Duthie (Chicago Review Press, $49.95, 2000).
* “Time-Tested Plants: Thirty Years in a Four-Season Landscape” by Pamela Harper (Timber Press, $39.94, 2005).
* The “Nonstop Color Garden” by Nellie Neal (Cool Springs Press, $24.99 paperback, 2014).
* “The Nonstop Garden” by Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner (Timber Press, $19.95 paperback, 2014).

George Weigel is a Pennsylvania-based horticulturist, garden consultant, author and newspaper garden columnist. His website is