How to Create a Four-Season Garden

Ready to create a garden that looks good year-round? It takes equal parts planning and finesse. To get started, it’s easiest to pick at least one element that all of your plants must have in common (besides requirements like USDA zone, soil, and light needs). This often gives the garden a cohesive look and actually makes it easier to choose plants. Decision fatigue can happen even when choosing lovely things like plants.

What should the element be? Think:

  • color scheme (jewel tones, favorite color groupings, moon garden, etc.)
  • aesthetic theme (cottage, modern,  etc.)
  • purpose (cut flowers, habitat for birds, sensory, etc.)

Once you’ve chosen your element, start building your plant palette by choosing at least one shrub per category below.

Year Round Structure with Evergreens

The habit and placement of an evergreen sets the tone for a space* – tall, short, pyramidal, trimmed, the options are nearly endless. Use tall plants as hedging to create a room-like feeling, put commanding figures in key spots to highlight the structure of your home, plant low-growers at the front of the border to provide a permanent sense of order. No matter where you plan to use an evergreen or two, it will provide constant color! Your space will always have a lush note and a handsome backdrop for flowering shrubs and perennials. 

You also get to choose from a variety of textures to break up the monotony of medium-textured views; try coarse-leaved rhododendrons or junipers with fine foliage.

*Unless it’s a classic cottage garden, which is typically only deciduous plants.

Thuja plicata
USDA zones 5-8

Gardenia jasminoides
USDA zones 7-10

Juniperus communis
USDA zones 2-7

Spring Interest Shrubs

Spring feels like a celebration, so it should look like one too! Start the growing season off with a big statement piece, something that delights you specifically. Whether you are particularly interested in fragrance, flower count, or color, there’s a shrub to act as the herald of spring for your space. 

At least one spring flowering shrub should take pride of place as a specimen. Use it in a highly visible spot you’ll see each time you arrive home, plant in a group in the middle of the border, or use some as edging so they make an even bigger visual impact.

Bouvardia x
USDA zones 8-10

Forsythia x
USDA zones 5-8

Syringa x hyacinthiflora
USDA zones 2-8

Early Summer Interest Shrubs

Summer tends to be long and is arguably filled with the most options for flowering shrubs, so it can be useful to break the season into halves. You don’t have to, but for the purpose of this list, we’ve made some suggestions for you!

Get the most flowers in summer with shrubs that bloom on new growth and fill out fast. To find plants that grow quickly, look at their pruning recommendations. If they benefit from a spring trim, you’ll likely see a good amount of (flower-filled) growth later on. 

USDA zones 5-9

Dasiphora fruticosa
USDA zones 2-7

Spiraea x
USDA zones 3-8

Late Summer Interest Shrubs

The transition to fall can be rough in a garden. Sometimes there’s a gap between the abundance of summer and the color change in fall. Berry producers, rebloomers, and plants with long-lasting flowers like hydrangeas will fill that gap.

Shrubs for summer tend to make up the bulk of a garden, filling up the middle of the border and shining at the front of the garden as edging or low hedging. If you have a lot of space to devote to plants, you could easily make a hedge out of your favorite summer flower.

USDA zones 3-7

Hydrangea macrophylla × serrata
USDA zones 4-9

Tecoma fulva
USDA zones 8-11

Fall Interest Shrubs

There’s a fall display that will spark interest in just about any gardener. Plants are showing off in many different ways – color-changing foliage, showy blooms, or long lasting berries.

Depending on your interest in this particular season, you could devote a whole hedge to your fall show or simply choose one plant to use in groupings throughout the border.

Camellia x
USDA zones 6b-9

Fire Light Tidbit Panicle Hydrangea blooming heavily

Hydrangea paniculata
USDA zones 3-8

Viburnum dentatum var. deamii
USDA zones 4-8

Winter Interest Shrubs

Winter gardens do not have to be boring! Plenty of shrubs are ready to pop when the days turn dull. You can find berries, brightly colored stems, evergreen foliage, and perhaps even blooms.

Shrubs with winter interest are usually suitable for placement in the middle or back of the border. Many of the plants in front tend to be deciduous and will lose their leaves and, if they are small enough, they practically disappear. Evergreen edging is a timeless, easy exception to that rule.

Coprosma repens
USDA zones 9-11

Rhododendron x
USDA zones 4-8

Ilex verticillata
USDA zones 3-9

Make Use of Rebloomers

If you’re short on space, planning time, or simply like a pared-down plant palette, use rebloomers to span several seasons of interest. 

Rhaphiolepis indica
USDA zones 8-10

Hydrangea serrata
USDA zones 5-9

Hydrangea arborescens
USDA zones 3-8

Spiraea japonica
USDA zones 3-8

Weigela florida
USDA zones 4-8

Additional Plants

While you can certainly make a complete view with shrubs alone, you don’t have to. If you plan to use perennials, annuals, and even edibles to give even more interest to your space, consider:

  • leaving pockets of space at the front of the border where you’ll add annuals every year.
  • planting easy-to-transplant perennials near shrubs that have a long time to grow before they reach their mature size.
  • keeping a critical eye on high-traffic areas where you might want to plant edibles, as this positioning will remind you to harvest and use them.

Arranging the Space

A drawing of a modern farmhouse with landscaping
A drawing of a garden bed layout

Now, if you’re excited about your plant list, but still feel a bit overwhelmed at the thought of making a planting map or a landscape plan, we can help! The latest issue of Gardening Simplified (our DIY landscape guide) will tell you all about the different plant roles and how to use them. Plus, it provides a few different example garden plans.

For more inspiration dig into the following blogs:

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Picture of Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


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