Is your winter garden a patch of yellows and browns with an isolated evergreen or two? It doesn't have to be that way. "So often you'll go...

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Is your winter garden a patch of yellows and browns with an isolated evergreen or two? It doesn’t have to be that way.

“So often you’ll go to people’s homes and they do annuals and perennials, and this time of year things all disappear,” says Kim Rooney, a landscape architect in Ravenna. “I start with the winter garden.”

For Rooney and other local landscape designers, evergreens, specimen trees and some grasses — along with patios and pedestrian pathways — are a source of beauty in and of themselves. They also provide the critical foundation for everything that flourishes in spring, summer and fall.

“Winter elements give you the bones,” Rooney says. “I begin with structure and bark and branching, and then work backward with the perennials and color.”

One strategy for kick-starting that process is a visit to nurseries in November and December to see what particular plants, shrubs and trees look like in the wintertime. Once there, you can start to think about plants in winter-smart terms.

“You want to look for plants that will give you texture and color interest,” says Michal Lehmann, a landscape designer for Lifestyle Landscapes in Seattle.

In winter, that means interesting leaves and bark. For example, coral bark Japanese maple and red-barked dogwood offer burgundy bark and twigs that look especially gorgeous coated with rain or frost. After the leaves have fallen is the best time to appreciate the swirling branches of corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

Lehmann also incorporates ornamental grasses with attractive seedpods; variegated Euonymus with cream, yellow and pinkish rimmed leaves; and witch hazel, which puts out spidery yellow or reddish blooms in midwinter.

Rhododendrons are a winter staple for Steve Haizlip, owner of New Leaf Creations in Issaquah, and one particular favorite is Rhododendron tsariense. While the tops of the leaves are a shiny, dark green, the undersides are covered in a rich cinnamon-colored fuzz. Haizlip also uses miscanthus, tall grass with wheat-like plums, which he lets go dormant and cuts back in the spring. For a nice bronze contrast, he’ll group Carex buchananii (a reddish-brown sedge) with evergreens.

But the particular demands of the winter garden require more than astute plant selection. Haizlip encourages his clients to incorporate art in the garden — anything from a whirligig to a granite ball. In the summer, these details are often hidden by growth. “When fall and winter come around, the art becomes more prominent,” he says.

Rooney suggests leaving garden furniture out in the yard. A brightly colored wood bench “gives the sense of a kind of welcoming without you actually being out there,” she explains.

Like art and furniture, patios and paths help hold the winter garden together and make it inviting. “A lot of us don’t want to go out when it’s soggy,” Haizlip says. “But hardscape does create a room. It’s like carpet or hardwood in a house.” Still he warns about choosing too much slate, which can feel “harsh and very cold” in December. He likes Montana flagstone, which has warm oranges mixed in with the gray.

Even if you aren’t inspired to work in the garden this time of year, it’s not a bad time for it. “Our crews work as long as the ground isn’t under water or frozen,” Lehmann says. “We encourage planting in late fall, so that plants have the benefits of the rainy season to get their roots down and get somewhat established.” This can be the ideal time to plant a specimen tree.

If you’re not quite up to a major effort but still want to boost the winter garden, look to flower pots for a quick and effective fix.

“A very minimal thing you can do is get a nice brightly colored urn, like a deep wine red, and plant it with an evergreen and put it by your door,” says Rooney, who suggests adding pussy-willow branches or a few Christmas light accents. “It will add some zing.” Something we can all use this time of year.

Lisa Wogan is a frequent contributor

to The Seattle Times: vietato@msn.com