Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: Pleasures in the winter garden

JUDITH HAD A wonderful crop of winterberries this year — until they were discovered by a voracious crowd of cedar waxwings. Photo by Dick Conrad

GOSHEN — Winter is the season of short days and dark nights when, even at midday, the sun gives little warmth as it rides low in the sky.
By now my fall garden chores are done, my tools hang neatly in the toolshed and I have mostly retreated indoors.
I am lucky enough to have a small cool greenhouse which becomes my indoor winter garden and, from October until May, is home for my potted camellias. Camellias flower from December to April — when our outdoor gardens are covered with snow — making their beautiful blooms all the more special.
And yes, even though the summer flowers are but a distant memory, my outdoor winter garden also provides me plenty of enjoyment.

Twenty years ago, when we first moved to Goshen, I wanted a garden that would give pleasure in every season.
I started by drawing a pleasing spatial design for my new garden (akin to the floor plan for a house). Using gently curving lines I sketched in the shapes of the flowerbeds and a circular patio.
Then I accentuated my spatial design with vertical elements including: a gazebo and an arbor; several stone walls; plus plenty of shrubs and small trees. Together these vertical elements became the framework or skeleton of my garden.
Fast forward 20 years… oh my! Often in the summer, when my attention is focussed on the interplay of colors and textures among the flowers and leaves, I barely notice the garden’s framework.
But now, when the trees are bare and the perennials below ground, I love to gaze out at the winter garden, revisiting the details of its underlying skeleton and imagining possible changes.
Here are some of the things that catch my eye: the perfect alignment of the gazebo and the arbor; a low clipped hedge surrounding the circular patio; a set of stone steps leading to a hidden bench; a cluster of carefully pruned crab apples and azaleas; and the shape of the central bed accentuated by blueberry bushes and a fringed evergreen.
Of course, every garden is unique and every garden is different. Perhaps, if you set aside some time this winter and consider its skeleton, you too will see your garden in a whole new way.

In winter I also enjoy looking at deciduous shrubs and trees and their interior shapes, almost like abstract pieces of art. And — if things are not to my liking — I may use the winter months to undertake some judicious pruning.
For instance: near my study window there is a small tree that goes by the fanciful name of Seven Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides).
All year long this little tree is a source of pleasure. It has handsome green leaves all spring and summer. Then in September, when it is covered with clusters of white flowers, it becomes an amazing late-season magnet for bees and butterflies — a delight for insects as well as for people. Finally in winter its curving trunk with exfoliating bark and angular branches form a dramatic silhouette against the snow.
But the devil is in the details — this fall I was frustrated to see its shape marred by a number of vertical suckers. So I decided to give it a haircut. In less than an hour, all the suckers were on the ground and my little tree had a clean spare silhouette that I will appreciate all winter long.
You can actually use winter to prune many kinds of shrubs and small trees. (The main caveat is to avoid pruning spring flowering shrubs as they have already formed their flower buds for next season. Thus, winter pruning will inevitably result in losing some of next season’s flowers.)
So, if you enjoy getting outside on a sunny day in winter, why not invest in a good pruning book and make a new year’s resolution to shape up the interiors of all your woody plants.

Whatever the season, I delight in sharing my garden with wildlife — many familiar, some less so.
In late October, Dick and I watched in fascination as a little chipmunk busily worked on his (or her) winter home. First a sizable hole appeared at the corner of the little kitchen garden near our back door. Then the owner, emerging backwards, used his strong back legs to propel showers of soil out of the hole. After that, he used his nose as a little bulldozer, carefully rearranging the fresh soil into a smooth two-foot diameter circle.
For almost a fortnight he continued this excavation project, at which point I imagine his winter home was complete. But even in mid November on sunny days I would still see the chipmunk high up in the outer branches of a nearby crab apple, stuffing his cheeks with fruit that presumably he then stores away for later.
Apparently chipmunks, although solitary creatures, make extensive dens that often extend a couple of feet below ground. So now, all winter long, I will picture our little guy — or gal — snuggled down in his cozy nest next to his well-stocked larder.
By mid-November, I assume that the local bear (whom I actually met up close a couple of months ago as I was hiking along the Blueberry Hill ski trail above our house) will be in hibernation for the next few months. So, much to the delight of the chickadees, goldfinch, nuthatch and woodpeckers, I recently hung up our winter bird-feeders. It was amazing how quickly the word spread — within an hour we had a steady stream of customers feasting at our restaurant.
Once they have identified a good food source, small birds like chickadees will remain in its vicinity all winter. And, if that food source should disappear, they may be unable to find a new one. So, if we humans start feeding wild birds at the beginning of winter, it is important for us to continue until spring.
Recently Dick and I have also been thrilled to watch a large crowd of wild turkeys stroll out of the forest and around the garden on a daily basis. Turkeys are opportunistic feeders. This crowd enjoyed pecking though my strictly organic lawn, eating grass and looking for bugs.
Turkeys also love fruit. For a couple of weeks they foraged daily beneath our crab apples trees until the soil was picked clean. Sometimes a particularly bold bird even flew up into the branches to eat, at the same time knocking fruit to the ground that was snapped up by the rest of the flock.
Of course, even for the most welcoming gardener, sometimes our wildlife visitors wear out their welcome. I am particularly fond of a handsome row of winterberries (Ilex verticillata) that I planted many years ago to frame the corner of our driveway. Every October, after the leaves have fallen, these six bushes are completely covered with bright red berries — an amazing sight.
However this November my bushes were discovered by a voracious crowd of cedar waxwings. Dozens of birds came each day, perching high up in the maple trees and then swooping down to feast on the berries.
I tried shooing them away, making noises with a child’s air horn or a loud bell — all to no avail. Sadly I realized I had met my match and 10 days later the bushes were bare.
I consoled myself by thinking about how, for almost a month, we had enjoyed the sight of the berry-laden bushes. Then, I looked at how I had previously pruned the bushes into stunning abstract silhouettes which, I philosophically reminded myself, will remain a source of pleasure all winter long.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at

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