BONES IN THE WINTER GARDEN

When I first began to garden, I was captivated by the color and excess that the midsummer garden brings. This is the time of year when nurserymen and women make the most sales, captivating and seducing with fluffy flowers, pastel shades, and entrancing scents. The time when the garden looks its best, and thereafter begins its steep decline...or so I thought.


As I began to immerse myself in horticulture I grew to appreciate the soft and dark beauty of evergreens. The drama of light and dark that only the low winter sun can produce in the garden. The jewel box flowers that, despite the bitterest cold and snowiest days, manage to project their deep, sweet scents to entice pollinators. This is a time of understated beauty, but one that I now deeply appreciate, and even look forward to.

So why does one so rarely see an attractive winter garden? I think this has to do with a lack of exposure more than anything else. In Britain, one is able to see winter gardens on a grand scale that light up the landscape with dogwoods in fiery hues, arching raspberry canes that appear to be coated in a gray glaucus powder, and subtle evergreens with variations in color and texture that all combine to make a thoroughly satisfying garden.

How do we bring this warming winter scene into our own gardens? It all comes down to the bones. A successful garden design is built on a solid foundation that gives definition in the landscape in all seasons of the year. It grounds frothy perennials in the summer, gives interest in just those months you need it most, and focuses the eye, making the picture look 'right' without perhaps knowing why. Although every site is different it helps to get this skeleton right by first examining what aspects of your yard you want to screen, what features you want to enhance, and what elements you want to repeat.

My own garden has been designed with this concept in mind. I am a huge fan of Viburnums and enjoy including them in every plan I make. In different turns, the skeletal structure I have planted, softens stone, alters the perception of elevation, hides unsightly views, guides the eye, and synthesizes the overall design. In this picture you can see I have used boxwood balls to punctuate the perennial garden, in the summer this gives substance to the border, in the winter it continues a pattern around the garden tying it all in. I have large swathes of grasses that serve as punctuation points in the beds, provide food and habitat for the birds, sparkle in the frost, and sway in the gusts of frigid air that comes down from the hilltop. Variegated shrubs (used sparingly) lighten the border and add interest. And I would not be without my evergreen groundcovers that protect the soil and provide a beautiful foil for snowdrops, hellebores, and daffodils in the spring.


At a time of year when our surroundings seem bleak and bare, having this structure in the garden is cheering and beautiful. When planning a garden, do not forget the vital step of establishing a skeleton that will carry you all through the year; once spring has sprung, it is all too easy to forget the 4 months of the year we are left with bare gardens, but spare a thought for the bones!