Spanning the seasons: A landscape architect's advice on designing outdoor spaces for chilly weather

For The Baltimore Sun

Homeowners don’t have to retreat indoors just because the temperatures are dropping. With some planning, an outdoor space can be enjoyed late into the fall.

Landscape architect Kirsten Coffen of Baltimore County-based Garden Architecture has been designing outdoor spaces in Maryland for more than 30 years, working to find the perfect balance of elements to span the seasons.

What elements make homeowners more likely to spend time outside when it starts to get chilly?

This is where fire features come in handy. They are very popular right now. Almost every project I work on has some kind of fire element. The fire pits are popular because they’re less expensive than creating a whole outdoor fireplace. The idea of having a campfire circle that people can gather around makes a great social setting. They’re especially popular with families that have children because a lot of family outdoor spaces are driven by what the kids want.

How do you incorporate a fireplace into an outdoor space?

I often design outdoor fireplace features covered by a pavilion and bring a television above the fireplace with a bar and a fridge for a party space. Many people like to enjoy the fall weather outside by watching a football game on the weekend, and this helps to create a gathering spot where you can invite friends and neighbors beyond the summer months.

What plants make for nice year-round fixtures?

Evergreens are great if you’re looking to create a year-round space. There are all kinds of evergreen shrubs that you can use. For the wintertime, there are a lot of deciduous plants that lose their leaves but are still very beautiful; the stems on red twig dogwoods turn a very pretty orange or yellow. Also, coral bark Japanese maple trees have a really pretty bright gold fall color and then the stems turn bright red, which can make a space very bright and attractive. There are a lot of plants that will have red berries that look nice in the later months of the year.

Are there any tricks for extending the life of one-season elements, like water features or pools?

With a pool, having a heater in it allows you to open it up in the spring as well use it for the cold season. With a lot of water features, you can keep it going until the water starts to freeze up and create ice formations. We also use pondless water features with a reservoir in the ground that contains the water and a boulder on top where the water comes out. When it freezes it creates an ice flow pattern that’s very visually interesting.

How can lighting help create a space that can be enjoyed into the fall and winter?

Lighting is really important in designing a garden space that you can enjoy when it’s too cold to go outside. If you light your outdoor space by up-lighting certain specimen trees, you can enjoy them from the inside during the winter. In the winter, it gets darker earlier, so if you set your landscape lighting timer to go on at dusk then it can really extend your enjoyment of the garden. Also, if it snows then it’s all lit up, and it’s really pretty.

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