Lessons From the Winter Garden (of My Discontent)

A winter vignette from Mary's garden! Featuring: mud, dead leaves, old bags of planting mix, cheap hoses, rusty stakes, and disillusioned pets.

Ahhhhh yes, the garden in winter.  So serene.  So magical.  So frosty and twinkly!

That is, if you live in the pages of one of those “Winter Gardening” books or articles, which always include the following photos:

1. a cardinal sitting on a snow covered holly branch
2. a close-up shot of a berry cluster, possibly glazed with ice
3. some evergreen boughs adorned with fairy lights, once again with a fine dusting of snow

Okay, fine.  I know that winter gardens can be beautiful, but let’s be real.  This thing where there’s a half inch of fluffy snow highlighting the fine tracery of tree branches and creating a Currier and Ives wonderland is waaaaaay overrepresented in the gardening literature.  How often does it snow like that?  Where I live in Virginia, I can count on such a scene for maybe six to ten hours each winter.  Here’s a shot of a lovely, light snowfall from earlier this winter:

I think it made my backyard look rather nice.  On the other hand, it made the landscaping down at the local Shell station look like a friggin’ landscape design masterpiece, so I don’t really think it’s fair to critique winter landscaping under these conditions.  Plus, by 3pm it was all melted and I was left with my more typical winter landscape in shades of brown, tan, greenish-brown, tannish-brown, brownish-olive-green, doo-doo brown, and “mud” brown.  And all of it squishy.

Unless you are gardening in Camelot — where it snows an inch a day, melts overnight, and then snows again in the morning — your garden will not be graced with a fine dusting of fresh snow all that often.  So what to do?  How to design for winter?

Well, I’ve been mulling this over, and today I wandered around my backyard asking myself that very question.  Here are a few thoughts I had during my stroll…things I’m going to keep in mind for the future:

#1 Consider the winter color of evergreens.  Because there’s a good chance it won’t be green.  Many evergreens, like these ‘Macrantha’ azaleas in the photo below, turn a sort of muted plum color in the winter.  This is a characteristic that could be used to your advantage if you can find other plants to contrast or complement this plum color (bergenia?carex? any other ideas?)  In my planting, though, they fade right into the brown of the dirt around them and the timber wall behind them.  So the whole advantage of being evergreen is sort of lost.

Another example: the variegation on this dwarf boxwood in the photo below changes from yellow to rusty-orange in winter.  How cool is that?  I am dying to pair something with this shrub to make a winter combo extraordinaire…I just haven’t figured out what yet.  Would you hate me if I planted orange pansies around it?

#2 Colorful Stems = Best Horticultural Invention Ever  Last spring I planted three Yellowtwig Dogwoods (cultivar “Green and Gold”) and I could not be more fond of them.  If I’m feeling morose, I make a point of looking out my kitchen window at them and they cheer me right up.  Now…as much as I love colorful stems, I don’t know if I would plant a shrub if that were its ONLY worthwhile attribute.  But this cultivar looks cute in summer, too…not too big and unkempt like other shrub dogwoods, nifty green and white variegated foliage…yup, it’s definitely pulling its weight in the garden.

#3 Berries Rule!  If they are not too eagerly consumed or used as projectiles!  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve got a few Winterberry Hollies  in this garden, and they are looking pretty sad and sparse at this point.  Earlier in fall, they were loaded with berries and totally looking stellar next to a glorious clump of  tawny Miscanthus.  But the birds really do seem to like these berries, which is reason enough to plant them.  Plus, certain five year olds can’t seem to keep their little fingers from plucking them off and either a) hurling them at imaginary foes, accompanied by exploding noises or b) stomping them into a pulp on the wooden deck.  But I guess this is all part of the winter garden experience.

#4 Plant perennials that die with dignity.  My favorite pictures of winter gardens are not the ones with the dustings of snow, but rather the ones that feature large masses of perennials and grasses that remain standing through the cold months in all their brittle, straw-and-russet-colored glory.  What’s missing from my winter garden is the texture, color, and sheer mass that exists in such plantings.  I’ve just got too much empty space. 

The legendary Piet Oudolf has left me, and probably millions of other winter gardeners, striving for this ideal. It looks so easy but it is truly the work of a genius. Photo credit: Piet Oudolf.

Some gardeners think that planting evergreens can solve this dilemma; however, too many evergreens make a landscape look monotonous, so the trick is to figure out which herbaceous perennials retain strong stems and/or cool seedheads, and plant more of those.  Many ornamental grasses fit the bill.  Sedums, yeah.  I don’t cut those back.  In the spirit of Piet Oudolf and Oehme/van Sweden, I really want to keep all of my perennials standing through winter, but my garden phlox and my turtlehead?  Oh man, they just have to go.  I can’t bear to let their limp, eviscerated corpses lay strewn about my garden.  Leaving too many gaps, though, becomes a problem.  Does Piet Oudolf leave gaps?  I think not.

#5 Have fun with winter vignettes.  I think it’s a great idea to have a few places in the garden in which plant combinations are created specifically for winter appeal.   When I worked at a garden center one year, I was driving one of those electric carts back to a lot where the surplus plants were stored.  It was late fall, and as I was speeding along, a couple of random plants caught my eye — a Nandina domestica and a red Camellia sasanqua.  The pairing of the red berries and deep red flowers, of lacy and glossy foliage together, was stunning. I slammed on my brakes and just stared at this marvelous combo for several minutes.   It was lush and bold and wintry all at the same time…and no snow necessary!

Horticultural Distance Learning From Mt. Cuba!

Update: I received an email from Mt. Cuba today and they want ya’ll to know that they are open to the public far more often than they used to be.  Here’s what Jeannette Zipf, Mt. Cuba’s Communications Coordinator, told me:

“We are open for public garden tours in spring, summer and fall. Spring tours, which begin on April 12, 2012,  are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 10AM, and Saturday and Sunday at 1PM. Summer Twilight tours, Wednesdays and Thursdays, are at 5:30 pm, starting on May 30, 2012. All tours are just $5 per person – isn’t that a bargain? We do recommend reservations as we strive to have enough docents on hand to keep the tour groups small and personal.”

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Life and Limb

You really could not pay me enough to do this kind of work:

That was the view from my back deck a couple of days ago, as crews removed two stately, gigantic white oaks from the lot of my neighbor to the rear.  A third massive oak had blown over during Hurricane Irene, quite close to their house, so I guess the homeowners figured they didn’t want to chance it with these other two.  I am very sad to see them go, but have been thoroughly transfixed by the precarious process of removal.

Being afraid of heights, I cannot even imagine scaling a tree that large.  I don’t care how many ropes are attached to me or how big the spikes on my boots — it’s terrifying.  I’d always thought that tree removal of this magnitude could only be done with a cherry-picker and a crane, but these guys were doing it freestyle. 

In the picture below, you can see the huge piece of branch that the crewman just cut as it plunges to the ground.  Ropes are attached to these pieces before they’re cut so that they won’t crash into the roof of the house, but then they swing wildly back and forth before they hit the ground, sometimes coming close to knocking the climber out of the tree.  Ack!!!

Here’s a closer shot of the climber, with his chainsaw dangling from a rope: 

Just looking at these pictures makes my stomach queasy and my palms sweaty.  Not surprisingly, tree trimming is one of the most dangerous — and most unregulated — jobs out there.   And of course we all know the quality of work varies immensely from crew to crew — and that good work costs.

I honestly can’t imagine the price tag for removing those huge oak trees.  (They’re not done yet — they’ve already been at it for 3 days and still aren’t finished.)  Last year, we had a mature ash tree fall in a storm, and it cost us $1000 to get it all cut up and hauled away.  That price may have been inflated since it was a bit of an emergency (the tree actually fell right in front of my neighbor’s front door — oops!) but it seems that even a nice crown thinning on a large tree often pushes a grand.

I hope that guy who’s climbing those huge white oaks is getting some serious cash for risking his life, but I sure am glad it’s not coming out of my pocket.

The Marcia Brady of the Plant Kingdom

For the past three years, this plant has driven me crazy:

A really cool groundcover plant! What is it?

American Holly, American Beech, American Graffiti

The gorgeous American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) has long been a favorite canvas for young couples in love and other graffiti artists.  My favorite nearby park is filled with beeches, tulip poplars, red oaks, and American hollies.  At this time of year, the beeches call attention to themselves, with their parchment leaves still clinging on, their smooth gray bark, and of course — on many of them — hearts and initials adorning the bottom six feet of trunk. 

F. grandifolia, a favorite tree, along with one of my favorite H. sapiens

 

Decorating Your Decapitated Crape Myrtle This Holiday Season: An Illustrated Guide

‘Tis the season for making boxwood wreaths, garlands of fresh pine, and of course donning the mangled remains of your professionally landscaped front yard with holiday fairy lights and other whimsical decor.

Are you a traditionalist?  Why not adorn the hacked-off stubs of your once majestic crape myrtle with strings of white lights?  Really put a lot of them on there and wrap them tightly (think: binding severed limbs with tournequets) then sit back and enjoy the show.  Once the sun sets, those twinkly lights will really set off the freakishly stubby quality of your tree, and admiring neighbors will understand that you are a homeowner who is definitely in charge of his landscape, by god!  Why, you have the power to transform a beautiful vase-shaped tree into a ridiculous parody of itself!

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National Christmas Tree Mysteriously Disfigured!

The 2011 National Christmas Tree needs a prune. http://www.wjla.com

I saw this posted on a local news blog last week and was kind of intrigued.  The picture clearly shows an odd bump at the top of the tree, but I couldn’t find any explanation for it, nor could I find out if the bump is still there. 

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Junk on the Trunk

Here’s a few pics I’ve taken recently of some cool-looking tree trunks.  The first was taken at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale, VA, one of my favorite garden haunts.  They have a few mature crape myrtles in front of the visitor center there with the prettiest cinnamon-brown bark you’ve ever seen.  It helps that the folks there know how to prune crape myrtles; it really makes a difference in showing off the smooth bark.   With its coloring and muscle-like texture, the tree trunk reminds me of the flank of a thoroughbred racehorse.  I believe this is cultivar ‘Biloxi’.

Crape Myrtle 'Biloxi'

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