Great beauties have great bone structure. As in Hollywood, so in gardens. And a garden's structure is particularly evident in winter. But when the trees and shrubs are bare, and the flowers long gone, what's there to see? Chances are, you're hoping for a couple of inches of snow to blot the forlorn sight from view. There's another way to look at it. You can adjust your vision and appreciate winter's minimalist palette. This is a season of stone grays, sere browns and creams, the blackish green of evergreen needles against a washed, white sky. Open your eyes to subtle differences in texture and whispers of color; recognize the grace of trees and shrubs as they adjust to the season. It's beautiful out there. Stripped to its essentials, the garden is both dramatic and self-sustaining. And we have simple suggestions to help you make your winter landscape stunning.
Souvenirs of summer
Fall cleanup is an annual ritual for flower beds (and yes, those impatiens and other annuals will freeze and turn to mush, and there is no sense in leaving them). But wait until spring to cut back sturdy perennials such as sedum, false indigo, bee balm, and coneflowers. Their slender brown stalks add height and texture. Ornamental grasses and Scotch broom also hold their mounded shape through the winter, standing tall and rustling evocatively in the wind.
The first flowers
Longing for blooms? Push the season with hellebores, whose hanging cuplike flowers range from deep maroons to greeny whites. They're among the first to bloom, even in the snow. Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) is one shrub that blooms very early; its pale yellow flowers are sweetly scented. Winter-blooming heaths (Erica spp.), with their tiny white, pink, purple, or yellow flowers, are especially welcome in a rock garden or edging a snow-lined pathway.
Even tiny bits of color make a great impact in the gray months. That's why hollies and their berries are so popular. Try a variegated variety, such as 'Madame Briot' with leaves outlined in gold. Many other bushes and trees, such as mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) and Arbutus spp., produce berries that will help sustain birds. If roses are left undeadheaded, they'll develop glossy hips. Hardy rugosa roses produce particularly large and shiny hips that linger far into winter.
Snow falling on conifers
This is the season to appreciate the ways in which conifers add definition to the landscape. The sturdy grandeur of a Douglas fir with its branches reaching out like huge open arms; the tall and weeping deodar cedar; the umbrella pine that evokes Tuscany; or the Canadian hemlock, with its glossy and soft green needlesany of these will take on new prominence against gray skies. Even the classic green pyramid of an eastern white pine or a Fraser or balsam fir becomes statuesque at this time of year. And a whole row of junipers or Colorado blue spruces (Picea pungens) will create a sense of enclosure or hide an unsightly view. For more suggestions, read Organic Gardening's article "The Many Shades of Evergreen," in the November/December issue and also on organicstyle.com.
Deciduous trees we take for granted all spring and summer stand out like ink drawings against the winter sky. To up the drama further, plant trees with interesting bark. The peeling bark of birches such as Betula davurica or 'Jermyns,' a cultivar of the ghostly white-barked Himalayan birchwill brighten a dark corner or a dark day. Many varieties of maple, including Acer capillipes and A. griseum, have dramatically textured trunks. Parrotia persica sheds its bark in flakes, revealing a miniature terrain of green, brown, gray, and white, and the striated mahogany red bark of ornamental cherries will stand out with new prominence. A row of red-twig dogwoods (Cornus alba 'Sibirica') becomes a vivid scarlet hedge, like a child's crayon scrawl, astonishing against the snow.
A hedge for all seasons
You certainly don't need to settle for the sad, curled-up leaves of a scraggly rhododendron as your only source of winter greenery. Plant an evergreen hedge to give yourself color and structure that you'll value in these bare months. Use it to outline a flower bed, follow the line of a hill, or delineate an outdoor room. Precisely clipped or loose and shaggy, it will define your garden and give shelter to wildlife. Yew, arborvitae, boxwood, and barberry will all make lush, thick hedges. If you're working on a small scale, put in assorted dwarf conifers to create a low landscape in green, gold, and russet tones. Contrast the golden Pinus sylvestris 'Gold Coin' with Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star'; pair the pyramidal Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica' with the low-growing Thuja occidentalis 'Caespitosa.'
How to get started
Fall is the best time to plant, as long as you have a good six weeks before the first expected hard frost. Without having to produce leaves, trees and shrubs can put their full energy into their roots, ensuring sturdy spring growth. And many local nurseries have end-of-season sales. If the local selection is skimpy, consider mail order from three excellent nurseries that specialize in evergreens, grasses, trees, and shrubs: Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Washington (360-297-4172, Heronswood Nursery); Arborvillage in Holt, Missouri (816-264-3911); and Noble Plants in Athens, Georgia (706-613-0046). All will work with you to find plants that are suited to your hardiness zone, soil conditions, and amount of sunlight and shade. The best gardens respect natural conditions and don't require chemical fertilizers or lots of water in dry climates. Choose plants that are right for your garden, give them basic care, and they will thrive. Three books will prove helpful. The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening (DorlingKindersley, 1993) is a thorough reference that categorizes plants by seasonal interest. Designing with Trees, by Anthony Paul and Yvonne Rees (Salem House,1989), is full of inspiring photographs. And Taylor's Guide: Shrubs, by Kathleen Fisher (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), tells you all you need to know about the plants that are the backbone of any garden.