Love your winter garden

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Although it would probably be more healthy to be outdoors in winter, I like it inside–cooking comfort food in a steamy kitchen, reading by a hot fire, but more often, I confess, watching HBO. Okay that’s in the evening, when I’d hardly be outdoors anyway unless I was walking the dog. But we have our darling cats, so that’s out.

So like virtually all Canadians (except for those lucky ones in southern British Columbia) I do nothing in the garden in winter, and to be honest I’m glad of the break. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t look out, sometimes with a sinking heart. Snow is the great concealer–it covers all the nasty bits and provides humps and bumps that suggest there’s something interesting underneath, not those leftover bags of pea gravel. But in southern Ontario, where I live, we haven’t been having a lot of snow lately and my garden can look decidedly inelegant.

It’s not that it doesn’t have its attractions. It has “bones”, or a basic plan that gives it some structure: a diagonal gravel path forms a kind of spine from the deck at the back of the house to the pond at the rear. A designer helped me with this years ago and I’ve been grateful ever since. In winter a semi-circular boxwood hedge hugging a bed of thyme upstages the path, simply because it’s more visible, as is the euonymus-covered arbour at the bottom of the garden that hides two large wooden compost bins.

Structures play an important role in winter, more so than in summer. In the background of the photo above you can’t help but notice our new glassed- and screened-in gazebo. It’s a beauty and I love it, winter or summer, when we eat lunch there on rainy days and can sit mosquito free on summer nights. It replaces a Norway maple I had a love-hate relationship with for years, until it died and I realized we were losing a focal point. Now the gazebo fulfills that role.

“Art” in the form of sculptures or even birdhouses on a fence is also important in a winter garden, although, please, not too many gewgaws. Behind the hedge is my favourite–a rusted-iron sculpture made by a talented neighbour, George Christou (he also made an arbour for our front garden). There’s a story behind the sculpted tree: it’s in honor of one of the century-old ancient apple trees that grew on our property, part of a subdivision built on a former apple orchard in the ’50s. George understood our sense of loss when it died (still blooming and bearing, I might add) and created the iron one so the real tree would be forever in our memory.

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But statues and summerhouses and “bones” aren’t the whole story. A garden needs a few properly placed plants that will stay around in winter and give it volume, rhythm and texture, plus a bit of muted colour.   Spiky yucca, like the two near the hedge, have a strong presence.  Dried ornamental grasses take on a subtle winter colour that complements the faded landscape, as do the dried seedheads of  plants such as echinacea and black-eyed susans; every fall garden writers remind us not to be too zealous about  removing them, not just because they look terrific in winter, they can feed the birds, too.

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I love the strong, masculine hydrangea that grows against my neighbour’s board- and-batten shed on our lot line and holds on to its giant weak-tea blooms till I cut them back in spring.  I also admire the plummy winter foliage of PJM rhododendron and the dormant flower buds nestling in the crooks of the leaves, promising spring.  My three bloom their heads off in May in various riotous shades of pink and remain well behaved, meaning about four feet tall. They’re hardy to Zone 4 and tolerate alkaline soil, unlike most rhodos.

More strong plant images and textures I’ve seen: twisty corkscrew hazel; the spare, red branches of a Japanese maple against a wall of lacy cedars; strong, leafless vines like grape and climbing hydrangea; greyish-veined dark green Baltic ivy, up a wall or on the ground; red-berried firethorn and orange  bittersweet, which too often likes to take over; bright-berried groundcovers like horizontal cotoneaster  and bearberry, also called kinnikinick; the bare, sculpted branches of a well-pruned deciduous shrub;    Snow on anything looks good, from the pattern it forms on gravel to the cotton puffs on the mugo pine to the traceries on rose leaves  and the trident shapes on conifer branches. In winter, you have to appreciate the details.  If you’d like to offer your suggestions, contact us…

But back to what I said earlier about a sinking heart: I’ve made a short list of resolutions for improving next winter’s garden, and here they are:

*plant more evergreens in the central bed. Something low, like the prostrate blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca Prostrata’) I planted on the slope in the front this past fall.  It has a nice bluish tone and might look good with:

*a dwarf Japanese maple with chartreuse or red bark. But plants look better in groups of uneven numbers, so what about  adding:

*bergenia? It turns an interesting bronze in winter.

*Definitely remove the peony rings in fall. They’re eyesores, even if it might be more convenient to have them already there next spring. Now they’re frozen in the ground and I can’t get them out.

*Persuade the other member of my household that we should move the birdbath. It’s a classic piece, but the style clashes with the rusty tree sculpture. Before going to bat for this, think of a new location.

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