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The winter garden: a sleeping beauty.


Winter is the season of greatest drama in nature and in the garden. At this coldest time of year, when the sun shines obliquely, the garden displays to best advantage the lines, forms, and textures of its components. In this season of stark contrasts and clear, icy colors, the winter garden has a refined character unequaled in other seasons of more vibrant colors.

Winter in most regions of the country is a period of rest and rejuvenation for garden trees, shrubs, hedges, and perennial flowers. Even in warmer climates the tempo of the winter garden is slower and more dramatic than in the other seasons. The dormant trees and shrubs that appear lifeless and dead at first glance are, indeed, alive. Stripped of their summer growth, leafless boughs trace patterns across the azure winter sky. The architecture of the plants, paths, walls, fences, statues, and trellises becomes all-important now. Even the form of the land is more distinct in winter. Winter, then, is the best time to study and plan the home garden landscape.

The low winter sun lights the landscape from the side rather than from above. The resulting shadows are longer and more dramatic. Line, light, and shadow become the most important elements in the winter garden. Once this is understood, you can plan your garden with an eye toward the sleeping beauty of winter. Your winter garden can provide pleasure viewed either from indoors or up closer on mild days. And your well-designed winter garden can be attractive year-round.

So plan your home landscape to please you as much in winter as in other seasons. Choose trees and shrubs that have striking architecture when bare of their foliage in the winter. Consider how the sun will strike them during the winter, so they will be back-lit for the most dramatic presentation in your garden. For the most theatrical effects, position these special "sculptures' on the south, southwest, or southeast side of your home.

Plan your planting so some of your plants and garden structures will be silhouetted. Such statuesque evergreens as hemlocks, cedars, and pines are excellent backdrops for the horizontal branching of dogwoods or the curving bark of white birches. These combinations will provide heightened drama for your winter garden (and charm in other seasons). Small shrubs can be silhouetted on evergreen hedges, on a wall, or even on the lawn. Don't forget to study the effect from indoor windows, especially from upper levels of your home.

But too many evergreens, especially if tall and overpowering, can bring gloom and darkness to the landscape. The same evergreens that blended into the overall greenery of other seasons are the stars of the winter garden. And don't think of green alone --remember to include the blues, such as the Colorado blue spruces, and the yellows, such as Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, in your winter palette. Properly positioned evergreens, especially light-colored blue and silver ones, such as deodar cedars and Atlas cedars, can create a dimension of depth. They can emphasize special views and vistas, they can define boundaries, and as a bonus, many of them can provide secure winter dwellings for birds and other small animals.

Not many fruit-producing trees and shrubs hold their crops into the winter months, but those that do are worth considering as added color for your winter garden. As a bonus, they attract birds late in the winter, when their fruit is ripe. A crab apple called "Red Jade' has a distinctive umbrella shape, especially striking in the winter landscape, and beautiful red fruit late into the winter months. Other flowering crab apples also display colorful winter fruits, as does winter-berry and the Washington hawthorn, both of which bear abundant red fruits. (Crab apples and hawthorns also flower in spring and produce stunning displays of autumn color.) Hollies bear red berries in addition to their glossy evergreen leaves. Other good choices for berries are the bar-berries (best used as thorny hedges to deter traffic) and the American cranberry bush, a noncranberry whose shining fruit resembles cranberries.

Colored bark, rarely considered when landscapes are planned, adds drama to the winter garden and special interest year-round. Plants with such bark can be used not only as focal points in the garden but also as special features in prominent positions, such as at the front entry. Often older bark peels back as the tree ages to reveal young bark, more vibrant in color--as, for example, in the paperbark maple, Acer griseum, which peels to a bright cinnamon-mahogany. (This little maple tree features a reddish orange autumn color that only reinforces the beauty of the bark at that season.) Trees with light bark, such as the white birches, are best displayed against an evergreen, such as hemlock. Don't forget the weeping birches, which make a special statement in the landscape yearround: those with orange-mahogany bark, or the more popular creamy and silvery white tones.

The strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) provide a distinctive bark in addition to their winter flowers and fruits and their twisting growth, most intriguing in the winter landscape. Generally their barks are characterized by pinkish to cinnamon red tones. The ornamental cherries, such as the weeping cherries and the Kwanzan cherry, are also good candidates for showy bark in the winter garden. They provide a spectacular spring flower display, too.

Perhaps the most striking winter bark color is that of the red-stemmed dogwood, or Cornus alba ("Sibirica'), which also bears white berries. A vigorous grower, it quickly provides thickets of brilliant, smooth scarlet stems about four feet tall. The more you prune it, the more young growth it will produce--and the best color is from the new growth. Be sure to use the variety "Sibirica'--the ordinary form is not nearly as exciting. Cornus stolonifera ("Flaviramea') is the yellow-stemmed dogwood. Striking displays can be created by contrasting it with the red-stemmed variety. Both these dogwoods require a moist area to grow in.

Trees with contorted or spiraling branches must be positioned with great care to look their best in your garden. Some homeowners have been heard to moan that Harry Lauder's walking stick, purchased as a sculptural element for their winter gardens, appears like a messy and tangled bird's nest. This plant must be displayed against a pale wall or a well-groomed lawn for best effect. As with the other plants in your winter garden, creative prunning is important.

All magnolias feature interesting tracery in their branches. Of special interest in the winter are their smooth, fuzzy flower buds. Euonymus alata with its orange berries and winged branches is another wonderful shrub for the winter garden. It also features a fiery autumn color, hence its common name of "burning bush.'

Special touches can be added to the winter garden by planting small winter flowering plants, such as Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), winter aconite, and crocus. The small shrub Daphne odora is uniquely fragrant, a delight in the frigid winter air. The rare variegated variety of Daphne is a collectable. Other good flowering shrubs for the winter garden are the winter-flowering which hazels, Hamamelis mollis and Hammamelis japonica. These tall, open shrubs with brilliant, slightly fragrant yellow flowers display beautifully against the winter sky. And if you are fortunate enough to garden where camellias are hardy, you can add these queens of the winter flower garden to your plan.

Ground covers can unify the design and also set off special plants in your winter garden. Some of the best include such evergreen ground covers as pachysandra, ivy, myrtle, and Christmas ferns. Many of the cotoneasters are also effective ground covers, for they produce scarlet berries. Heaths and heathers are wonderful ground covers for color and special textural effects in areas where they survive the winter.

Like the icing on a cake, frost and snow are the finishing touches on our winter gardens. Seed heads on dormant perennials and ornamental grasses and the leafless boughs of specimen trees form intricate etchings on the snow. Like whipped cream, dollops of snow create special effects on the trees and plants in our winter landscape. Add outdoor lights to your garden and enhance these special effects for your nighttime pleasure.

If you look closely you will also see the promise of spring, sleeping snugly beneath the ice and snow, waiting patiently to delight you when warmer days arrive. Herein lies the hope of every gardener. Plan a winter garden and discover it for yourself. I guarantee you won't regret it!

Photo: Red-stemmed and yellow-stemmed dogwood twigs bring a singular brilliance to a winter landscape. The more the shrub is pruned, the more it shows its true colors.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Henke, Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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