Frost in the Garden

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

For those of you in real winter climates, please humor this Californian who went photo crazy in the garden the other morning when it got all the way down to 24.  Some of you only wish it might get up to 24.  If crunching across the frozen grass is no rare sensory treat that gets the creative juices flowing for you, then simply enjoy some frosty photos.

crunchy frozen grasss

crunchy frozen grasss

I had just raked most of the leaves off my little Festuca rubra meadow last week-end, so the long floppy blades lay flat like flowing water.  The last few Pistache leaves dropped in the cold snap and with a little care looking into the camera (always with tripod), a composition composed itself.  The default white balance settings on my camera wanted this to be a much warmer image, but cold needs to be blue.


These hollyhock seedpods make me cold even looking at it now and I remember thinking I need to find some warm colors in the garden to contrast with the frost.  My berberis was just beginning to turn and the cold weather has now pushed it along.

holt_903_2075.CR2Even though I am wearing gloves, the cold steel of my tripod is beginning to numb my fingers as I ever so carefully try to find a composition that puts the frosted leaves of one branch in front of  red foliage below – where the frost has not penetrated.

Macro composition can be a very delicate process.  There is so little focusing depth of field that the slightest shift of the camera can make a huge difference.  But that very same narrow focal plane allows the background to go completely out of focus, drawing attention to that area that is in focus.

So despite fingers that are now fumbling around the camera controls, I work this hoary berberis a little more.  After all, the warmth of my office is only a few steps away, I am not exactly hiking in the mountains.


Here I use a compositional trick that uses a diagonal line to divide the frame into two equal parts, trying to balance each remaining space with shapes that draw the eye back to the two small nodes that are the design focus of the photograph.  A bit of yin and yang.

holt_903_2073.CR2Some plants respond to frost in different ways.  I have no idea how this Honeybush (Melianthus) got to have little crystal logs of ice all over it.  It makes sense that dew becomes the frost we see on the other plants, but what explains this pattern I wonder.

Garden books tell me this plant is not hardy and will not survive the cold.  It doesn’t survive as an evergreen, but I quite appreciate that this rampant grower dies back to the ground every year for me.

The real star of my frost garden has always been ‘Alice’ the Oaklaef Hydrangea. holt_903_2082.CR2Even in times of light frost the intricate little veins that run all through these oversized leaves become white rivers and rivulets.  And I love the oakleaf shape that reminds me of holly.

Dusted with frost, I can almost imagine I am in a climate that actually has real winter.  And then I snap back to reality, happy that I enjoy these wintry thoughts through the magic of a garden plant and wee bit of frost.

Note the composition of the leaves that have the yellow central veins all directing the eye to an off-center focal point, at the same time isolating and framing the one whole leaf in the picture.

‘Alice’ has always provided good garden color in autumn.  holt_903_2079.CR2Sometimes deep mahogany, sometimes oranges and yellows; often in layers depending on where each leaf lives in the shrub.

One might think that the whole garden is full of all these colorful leaves and winter vignettes.  Actually the photographer has to go looking for them.

The frosty morning gave me an excuse to go looking for something a bit different, but the camera always lies – each of these photos is a carefully composed little image that one day I might be able to sell to a publisher as evidence of a winter garden.  I just won’t say it’s in California.

But out there in the cold it felt like winter.  My assistant is now arriving for work and the cold seems to have given him inspiration to take photos … of me.


Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

19 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

rosmar December 18, 2009, 6:18 am

Beautiful photos.

Thanks. Beauty can be found almost any time we look. – Saxon

Joy December 18, 2009, 6:39 am

These are so pretty ! I some how missed the frosts this year .. we had strange weather for October then November was like what our October should have been .. seems I was doomed to miss pretty frost pictures but I am enjoying yours !!

Missed frost ? It’s still only December 18. Be ready …. – Saxon

Karl December 18, 2009, 7:33 am

Great pictures, good job

Thanks Karl – we like praise …. – Saxon

thistleandthorn December 18, 2009, 8:05 am

Beautiful writing, too.

Now here is some unexpected praise. We like this especially. Thanks – Saxon

jodi (bloomingwriter) December 18, 2009, 9:01 am

I like a little frost in the garden too, Saxon. Just not minus 24 C as it seems to be here today. We’re in a frigid snap so allow me to be amused at your mild cold snap. Lovely photos–I didn’t get any of those this year because the light was never suitable, and I rebelled over photographing too much under grey dull skies.

Hi Jodi – When we had that cold snap here in California last week I was getting no sympathy from some friends who, unlike you, did not seem amused. But dull grey skies can result in wonderful color saturation or even bleak moody seasonal photos. Challenge yourself – but don’t blame any hypothermia on me – Saxon

Summer December 18, 2009, 10:53 am

Gorgeous photos! I love looking at frost on leaves, I just don’t like being in the cold myself. LOL

Well, for someone called Summer I can understand why – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter December 18, 2009, 12:29 pm

I don’t blame you for going a little nuts with the frost, I do the same every year with the first few frosts. You’ve discovered the trick to cold weather photography – running in & out of the house. At least you were able to shoot wearing gloves. Believe me, it’s very difficult to take photos wearing mittens.

Mittens ! I suppose this seems somehow appropriate for Mr. McGregor’s Daughter but gloves are challenging enough. Another challenge of cold weather photography can be lenses fogging up creating special effects that you hadn’t intended – Saxon

villager December 18, 2009, 1:22 pm

Frost certainly does make for some interesting photo ops. We have lots of frosty moments here in Indiana. You did a great job of capturing it while you had the chance!

Yes, today it is 65 and all I want to do is go work in the garden. I am sure the good cold freezes wil be back in a few weeks when we expect them. – Saxon

Helen December 18, 2009, 3:05 pm

I missed the first frosts this year as they were later than usual and I have entered the time of year when I leave home in the dark and come home in the dark so only see the garden at weekends and therefore missed this paricular opportunity. I do like your frosty pics

I am lucky in that my studio is at home. – Saxon

Christi C. December 18, 2009, 3:17 pm

Thanks for posting all that lovely ***frost***
I am newly inspired to get out there myself, frozen fingertips and all. We are up to 47 here in the Pacific Northwest, but if anything would make me want the temps to dip again soon, it would be shooting those frosty flakes Holt-style!

“Holt-style”, now that is a new descriptor. I will sneak into your comment, where few will see it, the latest descriptor for my work – “seductive”. So said Ketzel Levine on her NPR show when she selected my American Meadow Gardens book as a top 5 pick for 2009.
I think there is nothing seductive about frost though – Saxon

Pam/Digging December 19, 2009, 1:11 am

Beautiful photos, and as always I enjoyed your tips on composing them. They brought a little imaginary chill, as it was nearly 70 here in Austin today.

You’ll just have to pretend that winter has frosty the snow man and hot chestnuts ’round the fire . – Saxon

Allan Becker December 19, 2009, 4:45 pm

Crunchy Frozen Grasses is a brilliant photo.
Thank you for sharing what only your eyes can see.

Thank you Allan. Each of sees different things and I find studying a scene through the camera viewfinder, and subtly changing the composition until something “clicks” to be a very satisfying process. – Saxon

Stevie December 19, 2009, 8:34 pm

What amazing photos! The Honeybush was spectacular.

Thanks Stevie – I wish I could explain the honeybush frost pattern. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa December 20, 2009, 12:29 am

Outstanding Saxon ! As a fellow wimpy Californian, I applaud you for venturing out and sacrificing comfort for art. I turned up the thermostat and stayed inside-looks like I really missed the boat !

Thanks Kathy – I assume you did not want to comment on the non-wimpy photographer wearing the Giants cap … Saxon

Rich @ NY Homesteader December 20, 2009, 9:14 pm

Nice photo’s Saxon, the purples are really purple. My day in the frost came about 2 months ago, but, it is one of the most beautiful days of the year. Glad you captured it.
Peace and Prosperity to you and yours this Holiday Season!

Thanks Rich – Am glad to hear others think frost is beautiful. One of my favorite beautiful days of the year is always first rain, a day that goes unappreciated unless you live in a summer-dry climate. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa December 21, 2009, 12:09 am

Jeesh, I must be slipping. It’s just not the same after the season ends. How could I have missed that cap ?

Well one doesn’t expect a cap for the boys of summer to be in a frost photo. Pitchers and catchers report in 2 months ! – S

Jacqueline Schick December 21, 2009, 8:15 pm

Truly beautiful frost pictures. Here in Washington DC we were out trying to take snow pictures. I would settle for frost, much more delicate and special.

Jacqueline – The frost is a delicate look but I would love to try snow on bare branches or on red holly berries, but we never get snow. – Saxon

healingmagichands December 23, 2009, 12:23 pm

Man, when the frost paints the place like it did yours I’m not a bit surprised you were stuck out there! How gorgeous!

By the way, you get those crystal logs because of the way the water will freeze out of the humid air and deposit crystals in the structure that has already been started previously. That is also how you get the six sided plates that show up in the permafrost tunnels that the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks maintain.

Thank you for sharing your beauty with us. We had a super hard freeze last week and now it is raining so everything that got frozen is now sagging and drooping and melting into mush. Not particularly photogenic at this time. . .

Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas.

Thanks for the explanation of the frosty crystal logs but you have only whetted my appetite for more info. The structure of the logs on the Melianthus mimic the structure of the curled leaf ? I will go out and investigate this … Saxon

healingmagichands December 24, 2009, 11:24 am

Saxon, when compounds crystallize (which of course is what water is doing when it freezes) they are very opportunistic about what they use as the “seed” for the crystal. H2O has a 120 degree symmetry in the molecule and can stack itself in several ways, so it can follow the contours of the “template” it has chosen.

Have you ever seen frost flowers? These are structures that form on certain plants when the weather gets cold and they are still running sap. Often these amazing curled “flowers” show up at the leaf axils on frosty fall mornings. There are some great images here:

Thank you ! I hope any and everyone who is intrigued by frost will follow the link yo provided . – best Saxon

Previous Post:

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]