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Sleeping Beauty: The winter garden

By now winter has settled in across the north-country and a light snow covers my Goshen garden. I know it will be six more months before the snowdrops and daffodils pop up to announce the arrival of spring.
During the warmer months of the year our gardens, brimming with colorful flowers and abundant vegetables, are surely beautiful. And of course, from spring until fall, a host of different gardening activities beckon us outside — there are seeds to plant, weeds to pull, vegetables to harvest and so much more.
By contrast, for gardeners at least, winter is the quiet season — with time to read a book or perhaps order some seeds in preparation for next spring. But the winter garden, while completely different from its summer counterpart, has an elegant beauty all its own.
So, rather than mourning the passing of summer, right now I am enjoying the tranquility of winter and the abstract beauty of my snowy garden.
As the French would say: “Vive la Différence” or “Long live the difference!”
Early winter
Today, as I sit at my computer, basking in the warmth of the ancient Jotul wood stove (affectionately called “The little Giant”) my eyes drift across the sleeping garden to the distant hills beyond. What do I see and what draws me to this scene?
For me, my garden is like a vast “picture on the ground” where the outlines of the lawn, flower beds and garden paths, coalesce into a peaceful flowing image.
In summer, I am so busy looking at the flowers that I barely notice this underlying picture. But today, outlined by a light dusting of new snow and framed by my windows, the garden’s intrinsic framework comes to life.
Of course, not every winter day will be picture perfect. Some days it pours with rain or the garden is shrouded in a gray mist. But I savor the days when the sun returns, perhaps with a layer of new snow, and my garden scene is recreated once more.
Eventually as winter progresses and the snow becomes deeper, the shapes on the ground become blurred. But even then, strong above-ground features serve to highlight my garden’s skeleton, including a number of small trees, plenty of shrubs, a gazebo, sundry garden benches, a row of free-standing metal trellises and four beloved wrought-iron sculptures by Vermont sculptor Bill Heise, who sadly is no longer living.
Origins of design
At the outset, before there was a garden, our property consisted of a long meadow interspersed with a few huge rocks and some scattered blueberry bushes, culminating in a small pond — it was like a big blank canvas waiting for a picture.
During that initial winter I spent hours at my drafting table, making a scale drawing of the meadow superimposed with potential designs for my garden-to-be. I focussed on creating a graceful and fluid ground plan that would look beautiful year-round, both in summer as we strolled around outside, and also when seen from our windows in winter. Eventually the final ground plan emerged.
Then, still at my drafting table, I added plenty of woody plants, showing them as circles that represented their full grown size. That way I knew how close I could plant them so that, as they matured, they would just touch one another, without becoming a tangled mess.
Gradually over several years, as we implemented the various piece-parts of the design, our new garden was born.
Woody plants
It goes without saying that trees are star performers in the winter garden. A group of three serviceberries can define the shape of a flower bed, while a single beautiful crabapple, with its branches etched by the snow, creates a living sculpture.
There are also plenty of shrubs that shine in winter, including red-twigged dogwoods, high-bushed blueberries (which also have reddish branches in winter), ninebarks (with a peeling bark) and low-growing spireas that catch and hold the snow in the tips of their finely divided branches.
I also love our native winterberries — members of the holly family. Unless discovered by a flock of robins looking for a tasty November feast, their beautiful red berries usually last well into February.
And finally, let’s not forget those stalwart evergreen shrubs like rhododendrons and boxwood with shiny leaves that, perhaps surprisingly, can take a Vermont winter.
To create a winter focal point I like to plant delicate shrubs like spireas and blueberries in informal groups of three or five. I have also used rows of low-growing shrubs to outline the edges of our circular patio and some of the paths.
The book “Landscape Plants for Vermont,” describes these and many more woody plants, all of which are hardy in Vermont. It also has a most useful chart listing those with multi-season interest. So next spring, when shopping for a pretty shrub or tree, look for one that will not only give you flowers in summer but also light up your winter landscape.
Winter queens
When it comes to woody plants in winter, our thoughts automatically turn to evergreen conifers (which have needles and produce their seeds embedded in cones) that will stand out beautifully against the snow. But beware of planting the regular species of conifers like White Pine, Blue Spruce or Hemlock, all of which will become huge forest-sized specimens and completely overwhelm a typical garden.
Instead look for one or more slow-growing conifer cultivars (this is shorthand for “cultivated varieties”) that, over the years, will stay within bounds. Most conifer cultivars actually originated as strange genetic mutations called “witches brooms” that can occasionally be found high up among the branches of regular forest evergreen trees. Plant geeks love to seek these out and then, back in the nursery, asexually clone the most promising.
As a result, a huge number of different conifer cultivars are available for sale, offering gardeners a remarkable variety of shapes, sizes and textures. For instance there are upright growers, which may be either stiff and formal or weeping and cascading. Then there are those that grow primarily outwards that will never get very tall.
Textures vary too — from the stiff sharp needles on members of the spruce family, to the soft smooth needles of pines or hemlocks.
It is important to realize that slow-growing conifers are just that — they actually keep on growing, both upwards and outwards, for their entire lives, albeit very slowly. So, when you look for a particular cultivar, it helps to check the anticipated growth rates (both height and width), which may range from less than an inch a year, or perhaps a few inches a year for dwarf varieties, up to two feet or more in just 12 months for the largest varieties (which may quickly outgrow the allotted space in your garden).
Rocky Dale Gardens in Bristol is the perfect place to discover the world of slow-growing evergreens. When I last counted they offered over 200 different cultivars for sale, and Ed Burke (the owner) or Amy Rose-White (the nursery manager) will happily share their extensive knowledge and help you choose the best ones for your particular garden setting. You can also see many gorgeous mature specimens, some planted over 20 years ago by previous owners, Holly Weir and Bill Pollard, as part of the beautiful display gardens at Rocky Dale.
The supporting cast
Finally, a number of ornamental grasses like Miscanthus, Switch Grass, Little Bluestem and Blue Oat Grass, as well as perennials such as Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Achillea and Astilbe, have strong skeletons that will withstand all but the heaviest snowfalls.
So, if you have not tried this before, next fall when you cut back your perennials, try leaving the more robust standing to grace your winter garden. In addition to looking nice for people, they also provide food for birds and other wildlife during the coldest months when they need it most.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his photographs at The Brandon Artists Guild and at northcountryimpressions.com. You can reach Judith at [email protected]

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