Begin with the Background

Like a good cocktail party, a winter garden needs an inspiring setting. Start by getting the “room” right, before inviting the colorful guests. Conifers like Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), for instance, can shape a space as strongly as the columns in a temple. And for background, you’ll need finely textured evergreens that will provide contrast for the brightly colored or boldly patterned leaves, twigs or flowers that are going to be the “show.”

The trees that shine brightest in a winter garden grow reflective surfaces on the underleaves.

If your space is small, plant clinging vines such as climbing hydrangea or jasmine. Reminiscent of drapery in a room, they will cover any fence or wall near which they’re planted. Thanks to aficionados in Japan, jasmines can be found easily in any leaf color. One particularly stunning form is an Asian variety known as “beautiful gold” (Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Ogon Chirimen’) whose leaves are a deep, golden yellow, turning orange in winter. But no matter which you choose, pay attention to the light: Hydrangeas prefer moderate shade, while jasmines like more sun.

With small, broad-leaved evergreens like Chinese mock oranges (Pittosporum tobira), you can create tapestries of leaf color from dark-green to splashed cream-and-white, while getting the bonus of highly scented flowers in the warmer months. A new variety on the local scene, P. parvilimbum, sprouts creamy flowers atop very fine foliage on a six- to eight-foot shrub in early spring. But my current favorite is Mexican orange (Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’). With its golden leaves growing to almost six inches round on a four- to five-foot plant, it works either as background for intense red twig dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera) or as a focal point itself.