Hope Shines Through in a Winter Garden
A cold wind tore through my garden last weekend, bringing the first snow and driving me and other warm-blooded creatures in for the winter’s hibernation. But even though I am tempted to take to my couch, armed with luscious garden catalogs to dream of next year, I am admonished by the words of the late, great English gardener Rosemary Verey: “A garden in winter is the absolute test of the true gardener.”
Winter reveals the structure of any garden, no longer obscured by the bright colors and rich foliage of summer. It is the perfect time to get out and take stock, to evaluate the garden’s “bones,” to enjoy the plants and hardscape that will hold up the scene through the coming dark months.
Gardening as I do in northern Connecticut, I am blessed with the strong shapes of stone walls outlining the different parts of the garden and edging the borders. Relics from when the early settlers first cleared the fields, these walls wander rather loosely, the large boulders having settled and shifted over time. In the slanting light of the winter sun, now so low on the southern horizon, the walls cast wonderful shadows along the ground. Pale gray-green lichens glow on their stony surfaces, as they are dusted with snow. Newer stone walls have strong, firm lines, not yet loosened by years of frost heaves.
Although many deciduous trees display interesting barks and lend structure to the winter garden, it is the evergreens that take center stage. I treasure their presence at this time of year and have included many different kinds, both large and small. Without them, the perennial borders, with everything cut to the ground, would look flat and colorless.
Evergreen hedges act much like stone walls, edging parts of the garden and looking especially elegant wearing their snowy hats. When too much snow threatens damage, I am out despite the cold, broom in hand, liberating branches from their heavy white burden. Certain varieties of box, hardy enough to survive my cold zone 5 climate, where temperatures can fall to 20 degrees below zero, make wonderful hedges, but I also use chamaecyparis and hemlock where I want taller plants.
Perhaps my favorite part of the garden is an area I planned especially to cheer me up in winter, my yellow garden, called the Moon Garden. Composed principally of yellow foliaged evergreens, this garden is meant to simulate sunshine in the darkest days of winter. I shamelessly copied the idea from the Golden Garden at Crathes Castle in Scotland. Now my Connecticut farmhouse is no castle and my Moon Garden is modest in scale, but just like the Scots living in that soggy, sun-deprived climate, I find yellow foliage the perfect antidote to winter gloom.
The stars include a large golden arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Emerald Spire) anchoring the fountain, with a semicircular hedge of Chamaecyparis pisifera Gold Thread behind. Flanking either side, tall bright yellow Hinokis (Chamaecyparis obtusaCripsii) are softened by the bronze tones of the lower-growing arborvitaes (Thuja occidentalis Rheingold). And while not evergreen, the branches of yellow-twigged dogwoods add spikes of color. Happily, the Moon Garden is also wonderful in summer when yellow flowers and touches of purple foliage add a little zing.
THERE are many blue-gray evergreens that complement the gray stained wood of some of the garden structures my husband has built in our garden. Two five-foot high Chamaecyparis pisifera Squarrosa Intermedia stand sentinel on either side of the gazebo. A dwarf blue spruce, now so old it is no longer dwarf but 15 feet high, complements a gray well house, with low clumps of Juniperus squamata Blue Star in front. The so-called blue hollies (Ilex meserveae) are not really blue at all, but the glossy, dark green foliage is so shiny it reflects light, adding brightness to more light-absorbing evergreens.
Rhododendrons, laurels and pieris are also valuable, but much as I love rhododendrons, I find them a little depressing on the coldest days. When they curl their leaves tightly in response to bitter temperatures, they stimulate my own similar impulse to curl inward in front of the fire. I prefer the jauntier spruce, lacey hemlocks or imperturbable white pines that set a better example and encourage me to venture out.
Before the first serious snows arrive, I use large outdoor frost-resistant pots, emptied of their summer finery, to create long-lasting winter bouquets. I cut and arrange branches of white pine, spruce and hemlock thickly in each pot, and insert branches of Ilex verticillata full of shiny red berries. In due course, the birds will strip these berried branches bare after they run out of other things they prefer to eat and are bored with the feeders – or the berries will fall off. These bouquets will carry through the coming months until I can once again rush out to plant pansies in their place. Until then, I am sustained by the quiet beauty of the garden in its winter dress.