Arts & Leisure Gardening

Judith’s Garden: Sleeping beauty, Part 1

THE SPIRIT KEEPER, a metal sculpture crafted by Bill Heise, is framed by a carefully pruned lilac bush. Photo by Dick Conrad

As we think about beautiful gardens our thoughts usually turn to colorful blooms — perhaps a beautiful expanse of daffodils, a crab apple tree covered in pink blossoms, or a long meandering border brimming with summer flowers. 

But what about the garden in winter, as it sleeps under a blanket snow? This can be equally beautiful. It’s all about the contrast of the seasons — something that I relish about living in the Green Mountain State.

In winter the garden assumes the elegance of a black-and white photograph, and we become acutely conscious of its abstract shapes and textures.

As outside temperatures drop, distant views become crystal sharp in the dry air. Sometimes it feels like we can see forever. The remote mountain feels almost touchable, and indirectly becomes part of the garden scene. 

The low sun, streaking through leafless trees, paints giant black-and-white stripes on the ground that could camouflage a zebra. Thus, in wintertime, both the trees and their shadows become an essential part of our garden pictures.

MOUNT MOOSALAMOO BECOMES becomes part of the winter scene in Judith’s garden.
Photo by Dick Conrad

In winter our eyes are also drawn to walls and steps, trees and shrubs, as well as the remains of perennials we left standing to feed the birds — all of which become part of the winter garden. 

So here are some suggestions to help you make your garden as lovely in winter as it is in summer. In my next article, “Sleeping Beauty Part 2,” I will shine a spotlight on my favorite plants to enliven the winter garden.

The views from our windows

The main structural elements of the garden, like a beautiful stone wall or an elegant arbor, as well as the trees and shrubs, together with the shapes on the ground created by a flower bed or patio, are often collectively referred to as the “bones of the garden.” 

A CHICKADEE PERCHING in the serviceberry tree outside Judith’s kitchen window.
Photo by Dick Conrad

And in wintertime, when most trees are bare and the flowers are dormant, we become especially aware of the garden’s structural elements. As I like to say — winter exposes the bones of the garden.

It also stands to reason that, in winter, much of the time we enjoy the view of the garden from the warmth of our house, looking out from our windows. For me, looking out from my study window at a group of snow-covered garden chairs, patiently waiting for visitors, are like the ghosts of summer.

So, as you plan a new garden or contemplate proposed changes to your existing one, think about how your garden’s bones will look from the important windows in your house in every season. 

It can also be helpful to take a photograph of what you see from the window, and then make a black and white print. Now use this to imagine the winter scene and sketch out potential ways to embellish it. 

Ask yourself whether your garden’s structural elements, including the ones you are contemplating, create a balanced and cohesive picture even as the flowers are sleeping. 

Sometimes all it takes is the addition of a couple of small trees or perhaps a grouping of shrubs to complete the winter picture. 

Sculptural pruning

As you look into the interior of older trees you will often observe a clutter of dead or crossing branches. This is not a particularly attractive sight — especially in winter, when there are no leaves to hide the mess. It is also not the best for the overall health of the tree, since the dead wood provides an entrance point for disease and the crossing branches mean that some of the leaves cannot get enough light for effective photosynthesis.

But this same visibility makes mid-winter a great time to do some careful pruning. 

For pruning large trees it is always best to bring in a professional arborist. But many home owners enjoy pruning smaller trees like serviceberries and crab apples. Before you start, check your local library for a good book on pruning, such as “Pruning and Training” by Christopher Brickell or “Pruning Made Easy” by Vermont author Lewis Hill. 

Generally, you want to start by carefully removing each dead branch at the point where it joins a live parent branch, and then take out any crossing branches that rub directly on other branches. As you do this, be sure not to leave any unsightly stubs which not only act as entry points for disease, but also look plain ugly.

STONE WALLS IN the snow show off the “bones of the garden.”
Photo by Dick Conrad

Then finally remove any branches growing inwards, towards the center of the tree, or that otherwise clutter the silhouette of the branch pattern. (The pruning books I mention show how to do this correctly).

And, for trees that are prone to bleed sap — like maple and birch — be sure to prune them before the end of January while they are fully dormant.

Also, to avoid stressing any tree, in a single year you should not remove any more branches than will produce 25% of the tree’s total leaf area. Thus, if a tree requires a lot of pruning to bring it back into shape, this may need to be done over multiple winters. 

Welcoming the birds to the winter garden

Like many of people, Dick and I love to welcome birds to our garden, especially during the winter months when their natural food is more scarce.

Chickadees are delightful little birds that flock to the sunflower seed feeders we hang near our windows, where they are joined by other small birds like goldfinch, nuthatches and titmice. Other birds, including juncos that look for their food on the ground, appreciate a little seed scattered around in a sheltered spot which does not get too much snow and the woodpeckers like to visit our suet feeder. 

THIS CERAMIC POT by Stephen Procter, which can remain outdoors in all weathers, adds beauty to the winter garden.
Photo by Dick Conrad

Indeed, in locations at lower altitudes you will probably see many other winter birds in your garden, even bluebirds.

To attract any birds to your feeders it is always helpful to plant some shrubs and small trees fairly close to the house. Not only will they provide a sheltered landing spot as the birds fly in across the garden, but also a safe place where they can peck open seed hulls. 

And for some birds, shrubs that keep their berries in the winter months also provide an excellent source of food. While the cedar waxwings and evening grosbeaks leave our mountainous locale in the winter months, in years past we have observed birds like pine grosbeaks in January, enjoying the bright red fruit on the winterberries — Ilex verticillata— that grow around our driveway.

Elegant ornaments for all seasons

To my eye nothing looks more special than the sight of a beloved garden ornament set against a white snowy backdrop.

A BILL HEISE metal sculpture features a whimsical bird drinking from his birdbath.
Photo by Dick Conrad

Let me tell you about two unique Vermont artists who have specialized in creating elegant garden ornaments that can stay outside all season long. 

The first is Stephen Procter who works out of his ceramics studio in Brattleboro. And his specialty is creating large and very elegant pots that can stay outside in all temperatures and all weathers. Visit stephenprocter.com to see some of his beautiful winter-hardy creations.

And it is many years ago since Dick and I were fortunate enough to discover Bill Heise, a wonderful sculptor in Burlington, who sadly is no longer living. Heise’s speciality was creating all manner of whimsical creatures out of pieces of iron that he would carefully salvage. And again, all his pieces can remain outdoors in all weathers and enliven our garden scene. 

At that time we were able to acquire four of his creations, all of which still have pride of place in our Goshen garden. While they look superb all year long, they are especially stunning in the snow. 

In this picture you can see one that Heise called “The Spirit Keeper,” who keeps a careful watch over our vegetable garden all winter long — until spring arrives once again to kiss the garden awake.

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 northcountryreflections.com. 

Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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