Structure in the Garden During the Winter Months

As I write this, snow is falling fast and furious. They say we will have a foot by the time the storm is over. In the winter I spend quite a bit of time watching the garden from my sunroom window. Today it is so lovely with the fresh snow, and there is lots of activity at the bird feeder. The birds must REALLY appreciate the food during these New England snow storms, when most of their natural food sources are buried!

When I first starting to develop my current garden, almost 25 years ago, I built two large perennial borders and stuffed them full of gorgeous flowers. It was spectacular during the growing season, but once the late fall arrived the perennials died back to the ground, leaving little to look at during the long winter months. (Side note: In those days, everything was cut to the ground in the fall, in a fit of tidiness. We now know that leaving up as much as possible in a perennial garden, provides food and wintering over nooks and crannies for the micro-organisms and macro-organisms that are crucial to a healthy garden - but more on that in another blog).

Gradually I added shrubs, small flowering trees, and conifers to the garden. They were not as showy, but they added height, textural interest, and sometimes flowers to the garden. Then, when it snowed, the snow had something to land on! This is the key to developing interest in the winter garden: when you develop a garden, whether it is designed all at once, or elements are added little by little, always ask yourself, what will the snow have to land on in my garden? (If you are fortunate to live in a mild climate, just PRETEND that there is snow on your garden - heck climate change will probably bring you a snow storm one of these days anyway!) Whatever is left when the leaves have fallen, or the foxgloves are knocked back to their rosettes at ground level, that is the structure, or the bones of the garden.

So as I look at the garden under snow, what do I see, all iced in white?
• the bare trunk and branches of the large Norway maple (ug, I know, but it’s my only shade tree, so I am loathe to cut it)
• the beautiful shaggy form of the Arbor Day white spruces my daughters planted way back in their kindergarden days
• the branching structures of 2 dogwoods, and a full moon Japanese maple (if there were in a client’s garden, they would be carefully pruned to accentuate this important winter aspect, but mine is a ‘cobbler’s garden’, so there is still work to do on that!
• the branches, buds and bark of a Korean stewardia (planted close to the sunroom window so that I can see these details up close)
• a teak bench, with beautiful vertical slats on the back - this one piece adds serenity, a stark lonliness, yet a promise of the warms days and the glasses of wine to come - as well as a hard-edged contrast to the natural forms of the plants
• the remnants of a huge miscanthus, cut to a table shape about 30” high - another contrast of form
• a platform bird feeder with a cute roof added for shelter for the birds during storms
• a bird bath with a heater
• shrubs and perennials of various sizes: a HUGE rhododendron, clethra (great drooping seed pods in the winter!), hydrangea, sedum, caryopteris, etc
• a cedar hammock stand/pergola
• lattice panels along the back and sides of the property (the grid is most awesomely accentuated by snow)
• various iron tuteurs (flower/vine towers)
• two old adirondack chairs under the maple - they are too old to sit in, but I love the form of them, in both summer and winter, and they make the garden look comfy!
• containers with winter greens and red twigs

So as you look in your garden after a snow storm, what do you see? Is it pretty much a flat expanse of white with a bump here and there? If your garden is visible from any windows in your house, and especially if there are chairs next to those windows, you may want to consider adding some more ‘bones’ to your garden. It will add SO MUCH to your enjoyment of winter. Yes, I said enjoyment! I love love LOVE to watch my garden in the cold months!

Just be careful not to ‘tart it up’ too much! Too many concrete gnomes, bunnies (ok I do have a concrete bunny, but only one!), turtles, fairies, etc. can make your garden look like a cheezy garden center!

And don’t forget the birdies! They will repay your efforts with hours of entertainment!

In a future installment, I’ll talk about how best to add bones to the garden, and no, I’m not talking about a pet cemetery!