Usually, when I need writing inspiration I just look out of the window. At this time of year, I anticipate the vivid colors of maples and witch hazels, the rosy tints on variegated weigela and Japanese forest grasses together with big fat buds on evergreen hellebores that promise not only great foliage all winter but also flowers.
Sadly 2014 is not the year of the fall extravaganza. Blackened hydrangea leaves hang like limp seaweed from the branches, maple leaves are frozen to a crisp well before their colorful peak, dropping to the ground with the slightest breeze. The same goes for the viburnums, smoke bushes, and more.
And so I sought inspiration in my photo library rather than my garden where I discovered these images taken at the Denver Botanic Garden in January 2011. It was bitterly cold yet the gardens were beautiful thanks to the finely textured foliage of grasses. It occurred to me that there was a lesson to be learned.
Creating an understory
What do your garden layers look like in winter? Typically we will still have the tall trees – evergreen or deciduous, often with some shrubs in front, again either evergreen or just the skeletal branches. But with the perennials dormant the sense of movement and life may have gone out of the garden.
In the photo above notice how the grasses bridge the visual gap between the tall birch tree and the ground plane. The grasses add color, height, a focal point, and fine texture. Even though the grasses are frozen they are a critical design element in this winter border and they give a sense of movement by virtue of the feathery plumes and the wonderful rustling sound as the winter winds pass through.
Plan ahead for winter
When the nurseries start filling up with our spring and summer favorites it is tempting to fill every nook and cranny of our gardens with foliage and flowers that celebrate those warmer seasons. The winter garden shouldn’t just be the leftovers, however, but rather a deliberate setting and plant pallet.
In the photo above there are several different types of grasses all massed together for impact. Adding just a single grass here and there would not be nearly so effective. Choosing just two or three areas of your garden to create a winter scene like this can add significantly to the sense of a garden that is still alive rather than fast asleep. Be sure to design these winter vignettes where they can be enjoyed from the inside too.