Planting for Maximum Winter Light

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Planting for Maximum Winter Light

Daylight is a scarce commodity during winter.

The sun rises late and low on the horizon, travelling rapidly through the sky only to set just a few, short hours later. Rarely glimpsing and soaking up the sun’s rays this time of year can exacerbate vitamin D deficiencies, bring on depression, and leave us searching for ways to get the most out of whatever bit of daylight is actually available. Given a little design consideration, views of and through the garden ensure that when the winter sun actually is out, you and your garden will enjoy plenty of it.

Begin by taking note of how the sun travels through your garden. If you are planning your garden design in non-winter seasons, remember that the sun will be much lower on the southern horizon come winter. In summer, it will blaze much higher in the sky. This means a location that receives full, hot, blazing sunshine in mid-summer may endure a frozen, sunless winter as well. So, be sure to always pick plants that can tolerate any such extremes.


Next, consider where you’re likely to seek out the sun in winter. Will you settle into a cozy window seat to read? Do you just want some sunshine to hit and warm your home a bit during freezing temperatures? Or, perhaps you’ll want a bit of early light in your bedroom to help you wake up on those dark, wintery mornings. Once you know where and when you want to bask in the winter sun and you know how and if the sun will meet you there in winter, you’re ready to begin designing your planting beds.

The first rule of thumb: don’t plant big evergreen trees or shrubs in your designated sunlight corridors. More than anything, these will grow to become the biggest sun block you can add to your winter garden. If big trees are already planted in the winter sun’s path, prune out dead material from the interior to let light through. Don’t chop the top off of them.


If you have established that the best spot to let in winter sun is also a critical space for creating summer privacy or shade, mix up your plantings. Tall summer grasses like many Miscanthus create wonderful summer privacy but can be trimmed to the ground to allow in winter light. Larger perennials like Joe Pye Weed, Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’ and Goat’s Beard all gain heights upwards of six feet come summer only to be cut hard to the soil line for winter. Need something even bigger and shadier for summer? Tall, deciduous trees like Paperbark Maples and peely Birch will shade you in summer while still letting in winter light to the tune of rattling bark, which sheds beautifully during theses frigid days. Below all of these larger plants, consider installing lower growing evergreen ferns, groundcovers and smaller winter blooming evergreen shrubs and perennials like Helleborus to ensure year-round interest as you gaze outward into the garden before looking upward into the sun.