5 Quick Ways to Improve Your Garden:

Winter is dreary, and the months can drag on for what seems like forever. But that makes it the perfect time to start thinking about the big picture: overhauling your garden, repaving a walkway, adding a focal element to create a lovely moment, (maybe a visual pause?) or just improving a garden bed. Here are some things to consider before you get down to actually making decisions.



  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good view. Consider the three most important views from inside your home, and make them more rewarding visually. At my house I have an extraordinary one out into my backyard and onto a neighbor’s meadow—what those of us in the garden-design business call a “borrowed view”. In evaluating your property, look out each window and consider what meets your eye. Does it measure up to what you see in your home’s interior? Is there perhaps an ugly chain-link fence that can’t be moved? Perhaps you could cover it with a wood exterior that would make it more soothing to the eye. If you paint it a deep green (like Benjamin Moore’s ‘Essex Green’) it will actually fade into the background.


  1. Focus on Flowers: Now is the time you should be honestly evaluating which flowers have performed well and which haven’t. It always shocks my husband how ruthlessly I eliminate a plant that hasn’t performed. My motto is: If it doesn’t measure up, rip it out, enrich the soil, and start again! Winter is a perfect time to research color combinations, maybe with an eye to extending the growing season. Know your bed’s orientation in relation to the sun and how many hours of light an area receives when making plans for the plants and colors you most enjoy. Yellow and white are usually our earliest seasonal colors followed by the pinks and rose of late spring and early summer, moving into the vivid yellows and blues of mid-summer, which deepen to scarlet, rose and purple in fall. You can elaborate on this natural scheme or emphasize one as much as you wish, but settling on an underlying theme will simplify your planning. For variety add a layer of bulbs like snowdrops, fritillaria and grape hyacinth, which will begin to bloom towards the beginning of spring. I like to plant in drifts of about twenty bulbs.


White and yellow daffodils are beautifully suited to New England. Strong performers are Mount Hood, a favorite white, Carlton, a creamy light yellow, and Las Vegas, which has white petals with a yellow center. Introduce festive, fantastic allium bulbs to any part-sun-to-sunny bed area for a mid-June pop. Purple Sensation, sporting a four-inch globe of rosy-purple flowers on long stems, is an excellent choice. I plant these in clusters among perennials and shrubs.


  1. Key on Trees and Shrubs: Winter is also an excellent time to look at the “bones” or underlying structure of your landscape.  Is there a coherent relationship between the trees and shrubs on your property, or are there gaps in the landscape?  Consider improving the visual dynamics by planting a specimen tree. Here along the shoreline—a friendly, mild Zone 6—we have lots of options.  The Magnolia cultivar Butterflies is a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub with beautiful yellow star-shape flowers. Paperbark maple has a stunning cinnamon-colored peeling bark for year-round interest, and boasts bright orange fall foliage. Coral Bark Maple, with its brilliant red new growth, is another favorite, as is a Japanese Dogwood, which offers tons of flowers and pink fruit. Consider trees that offer more than one seasonal attribute such as color, blooms, fruit and interesting bark or leaf shape that create a new emphasis in the garden.



  1. Welcome Wildlife: Is your garden a butterfly magnet? A Hummingbird attractor? It should be. In border beds, try a new hybrid, like Blue Chip Buddleia, a dwarf Butterfly bush that stays under three feet without any pruning. Or how about Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpura), which comes in many, exciting new flavors like Pow Wow Wild Berry and Summer Sky? Plant them all in full-sun in beds with a Yarrow like Paprika, a Coreopsis like Zagreb or Moonbeam, and New York Asters, which will extend your blooming season into October.


Place plants that attract hummingbirds in containers near seating areas where you can see the action. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ is an excellent candidate, as are any of the Catmints (Nepeta). Lantana is easy to grow, comes in vibrant colors, and is excellent for summer containers. Petunias are perfect for a hummingbird snack as they are high in nectar. The new, easy-care hybrids are more weather-resistant, do not need as much deadheading, and work well in hanging baskets, pots, and containers.


  1. Just Add Water: Every garden should have a water feature, even if it is just a bowl of water on the deck or a small fountain with a pump somewhere within earshot. The gurgle of water will deflect attention from the street noise beyond and create a serene retreat right outside your door. Wall plaque fountains work beautifully in even small garden spaces. (Campania International (www.campaniainternational.com) is a good place to start.) We have a simple Japanese stone fountain alongside our backyard deck. Its low stone base has a rough finish, which creates an interesting visual as water trickles down the sides. I’ve surrounded it with a polished river rock, and it creates a lovely vignette beneath a low Japanese maple. Its soft sound creates a relaxed atmosphere.


Don’t let the depths of winter get you down – now is a great time to be thinking about your garden and envisioning spring!






Trees Make the Best Neighbors’, Michael Tortorello, The New York Times, 2.7.13.

Color in My Garden’, Louise Beebee Wilder, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1990.

Ten Ways to Improve Your Garden’, Jinny Blom, Garden Illustrated, Issue No. 192.

Breaking Ground’ by Page Dickey, Artisan, New York, 1997.

http://www.springvalleyroses.com/learn/birdgarden.html, ‘Gardening for Birds’




About christinedarnelldesignstudio

Christine Darnell Design Studio is a landscape and garden design studio in Chester, CT. Imaginative plant combinations characterize the work with an artist’s eye towards texture and color. A strong commitment to environmentally considerate design runs through the practice, the support of local nurseries, and guidance towards the most environmentally sustainable materials and products. Adjunct Professor, Horticulture Dept. of Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, CT , Wetlands Commissioner for the Town of Chester, Vice President, APLD, Connecticut Chapter.
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