The Winter Landscape: Gray Days

Michigan winter weather can be fiercely inhospitable and miserably cold, but the vast majority of the days will be some listless shade of gray. As in garden variety gray, moody gray, or good and plenty dreary gray. Giving a name to the gray of the day is where we are at. For the past week, we have had warmer than usual air temperatures and lots of rain. That warm wet air passing over the cold and frozen earth has produced some spectacular ground level clouds collectively known as fog. Dense fog is so saturated with water that tiny droplets condense, and are suspended in mid air. That fog throws every object at a distance into a watery unfocused blur. The further away the object, the less distinct its shape. Any object up close has a clearly defined outline, but not much detail. The rim of the fountain at the lower right of the picture above is close enough to the camera lens that the surface has some detail. The grapevine on the pergola is back lit by the blue gray fog. There is little differentiation between the vine and the pergola. It is seen in silhouette, meaning all that is seen is a flat two dimensional outline of a shape made black by a pale background.In this composition, the fountain edge is closest to the eye. The vine and pole are some distance away.  The pot with a sphere, and the grapevine on the phone pole occupy the mid ground. The distance they are away is described by their lack of detail and contrast. The sphere is a precisely geometric shape made from a hard material. Its appearance is somewhat sharper, but uniformly gray. The phone pole is further back, and less distinct. As the eye moves further and further the back, objects lose their individuality, and read as tonal masses. The fence line and willow trees in the background have very soft shapes. This is a too long paragraph about a picture I took at the shop on a foggy morning, but it does illustrate the concept of depth and spatial relationships can be described in a landscape composition.  Though the picture is a two dimensional flat object, there is the illusion of distance, depth, and spatial relationships.

The winter landscape can be austere. Our foggy days have made everything in sight appear to be black or some shade or another of blue gray, and a dash of near white here and there. But the lack of color and lush form from the plants enables the eye to appreciate other relationships.  The contrast of the deliberate geometry of this sphere, and the mass of the limestone urn, set against the tangle of grapevine and the bare branches of the trees – visually satisfying in a haunting sort of way.

I do enjoy the lindens on the driveway in every season of the year. In the spring, the buds breaking and new leaves is a sign of life on a big scale.  The dense head of leaves provides shade in the summer. The yellow leaves in fall may be their most dramatic moment. But the silhouettes of their trunks and branches against a somber winter sky makes me appreciate their structure and stature. I also see that some 20 years after they were planted, the part they play in the landscape at the shop still interests and satisfies me.

Snow drags that winter gray down the ground plane.  On this day, the sky and the ground were just about the same color. The snow on the evergreens accentuates their texture in a strongly graphic way. Those evergreens are indeed supremely green in the summer, but on a winter day they go black. The shape and texture of Himalayan white barked birch is subtle on a snowy gray day. This detailed view of their structure cannot be appreciated in any other season. Any plant still standing once the winter comes will provide interest. If you live in a gardening zone like mine, it is worth planning for some sort of structure that will persist over the winter.

Rob took this photograph, and posted it to his detroitgarden instagram account. The silhouettes of the trees reflected in the rain water sitting on top of the ice on the lake perfectly illustrates the effect of fog on the landscape.

Another of Rob’s photographs is composed in such a way to make clear that there can be much to see of great beauty in a winter landscape.

Of course both the season and the weather are extremely important factors in landscape design.  Mother nature would not have it any other way.




















  1. Carol Sandt says

    You and Rob have captured the stark beauty of a Michigan winter with compelling sensitivity.

  2. Beautifully put! I’ll try to appreciate these days in new ways.

  3. Very nice, Deborah,
    All your photos are beautiful and instructive. I especially like the white birches in front of the snow-covered evergreens, a well-designed version of a classic Michigan forest scene. And Rob’s photos are lovely. What an eye he has! (Except I have a hard time looking at the Phragmites at the water’s edge!!)

    Is the fluffy golden ground cover in the last photo ferns? and do you know what the young trees are?

  4. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Starr, Rob takers his dogs for walks all over our area-and this is his photograph. I am sorry but I do not know what the plants are. best, Deborah

  5. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Carol, many thanks for your letter. best regards, Deborah

  6. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Christine, we have nothing to lose. And I think there is much to be learned about structure in the landscape during the winter. all the best, Deborah

  7. Hi Deborah – Always look forward to your reflections. We’re ‘Northern Neighbors’ so I appreciate your posts on the austere beauty of the winter landscape. We’re enjoying a bit of sunshine and blue sky here in Minnesota today, but the gray clouds return this weekend. The days are getting longer. A mere seven weeks until the equinox. Spring beckons!

  8. Ann Acheson says

    Dear Deborah:
    I’m relatively new to your blog but have enjoyed it immensely and been inspired to “imitate” some of your ideas in my own landscape design practice. I especially love that you take so many pictures that really tell a story. One of the coolest that has stayed with me was the fall picture of the big trough filled with green and white gourds and pumpkins – so beautiful and bountiful but somehow understated, as much of your work seems to be. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your designs. I only wish I lived near your store! Best, Ann

  9. debra phillips says

    stunning photographs. winter to me is serene and distinctly interesting, your photos enhance my mindset
    thank you!
    ps; need photos of robs pooch!

  10. Love the metal sphere in the round planter. If your planter was square, what shape would you use? I have a very large square planter at my front entrance that needs an overwinter structure. I love the architecture of your pieces.

  11. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Suzanne, I would have to see the planter, and its location either in person or in a photograph to make a recommendation. I would be happy to help. Let me know. all the best, Deborah

  12. Deborah, I can ditto Ann’s well written comments above. I’m so glad I discovered your blog in time to enjoy the beautiful winter arrangements that you shared in December. I, too,wish your shop were nearer.
    Do you advise others in solving landscape problems? We are wanting to add an urn to the existing landscape at the front of our subdivision entrance. The hardscape is exceptionally pretty but our planting bed has limited space and is always disappointing.We are thinking it might work to insert an urn or container in the middle of the 24″ yew hedge that is front of the picket and brick pier fence.That would allow us to put seasonal arrangements in the urn and avoid planting in the ground. Would you willing to give us your thoughts if we sent a few pics.
    Gwen Franklin, Tennessee

  13. Never thought I could get addicted to anything. …WRONG…I truly am to your posts…..eloquently written with truly beautiful photos. Thank you. By the way I won’t be looking for a program of any kind to rid me of this addiction! ! LOL

  14. Laura Tonar says

    Really love that first photograph….makes all the grays look so beautiful!

  15. Absolutely beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing.

  16. Love the pictures, love what you wrote. This complements very well your post of Jan 15 about evergreens and about the need to have structure in a garden … The shades of gray in winter really reduce a garden to its very core and its essential structure. For that reason, I don’t mind winter at all. It helps a gardener think and concentrate. Your post made me think of a marvelous book about Jacques Wirtz’s private garden in winter – I think you’d like it as well.

    By the way, I didn’t know Detroit Gardenworks has an instagram page! I will make sure to follow you there as well. Have a great weekend,

  17. Lisa at Greenbow says

    The photos of your pottery garden is a vision I see in my mind for when I hit the lottery. One of the first places I will shop. 😉

  18. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Antoine, thank you for your letter. I have that book about Jacques Wirtz’s private garden-it is stunning in all the seasons. Rob does the Detroit Garden Works instagram, although he will publish my photographs on occasion. All the best, Deborah

  19. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Therese, thank you for writing. best, Deborah

  20. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Laura, some days I have to talk myself into thinking the gray is beautiful. But it truly is. best, Deborah

  21. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Margaret, thank you so much for your kind letter. best regards, Deborah

  22. Jill Huebner says

    Thank you for capturing in word and image the illusion of simplicity in our planet’s winter palate. I love winter to slow down, hunker down and recharge in the dark and in the gray areas. Here in Western North Carolina we have less and less winter each year now. ( As gardeners we are preparing to make some installations that would “normally” go in in March or April.) I am seeing your photographs as pictures of ghosts – the ghost of winter, lost in our warming climate. Many things I grieve.

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