There is beauty in this cold season
As I write this we are in the midst of some nasty weather. The wind is howling, it’s cloudy and very cold. I hope when you read this the weather is seasonal again and you can go outside comfortably and be with your garden in winter. The winter garden is quieter and offers far different things to look at than the gardens of spring, summer and fall. Yesterday was sunny so I bundled up to get some fresh air and see what things looked like.
First, I was really surprised at how much was green, in spite of the freezing temperatures. A mixed bed of Euphorbia and Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) is not robust but definitely bright green. My beloved Hellebores (also known as lenten rose) are a little droopy but as green as ever. I didn’t check for buds – I didn’t want to be disappointed. I will do that in about four weeks. The variegated Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’ (commonly known as lilyturf) has some brown but still lots of green and white striped leaves.
Mixed in with the bare branches of deciduous shrubs and trees are several spots of color. Small Nandinas (heavenly bamboo) are burgundy red and the tall one has bright green leaves and heavy clusters of bright red berries. The Magnolias and Viburnum that are evergreen are glossy and strong. Somehow the deer have left the Rhododendron down by the creek alone for the second year in a row. It has bright green leaves and loads of buds. The two pussywillow trees were not as fortunate. The deer rutted on almost every branch of one of them. In spite of that, they both have pure white catkins (slim cylindrical flower cluster) lined up on dark red stalks. Against a bright blue sky this was special. Years ago we planted Foster hollies (Ilex × attenuata ‘Fosteri’) and Forsythia to screen the shed where we keep the mowers. We planted Foster hollies because they grow tall quickly and speedy growth was important. They have flourished with no special care from us and are bright green, glossy, and loaded with red berries.
Some plants change color in winter. The coral bark Japanese maple tree (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’), on the border of my perennial garden, has pinkish brown bark in the “green seasons” but in the winter the bark becomes almost neon pink. The first time I saw one I thought they had painted it! I was determined that anything that bright pink in winter was going to be part of my own garden. I have planted a few in other yards and I hope their owners are enjoying theirs as much as I am mine. Some of the evergreens, mostly junipers, change color from dark green to a green/purple/blue. Planted with the bright red stalks of a red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) that is a dramatic winter color set.
Evergreens love cold winter temperatures. Every year that we have had a mild winter I have worried about my white pine trees. They need a spell of cold weather each year to thrive. I am certain they are happy now. Two or three years ago I planted a yellow tipped juniper behind the blue bench in my garden. Without the roses, iris, hydrangeas, and coneflowers competing for attention it is a standout now. More than 10 years ago I bought an evergreen that was in the discount section of Merrifields. It was small, low and had the fascinating name of Snow On The Mountain. For $10 it went home with me. I planted it in front of my house. My brother in law, who landscapes professionally, told me to dig it out, saying, “they never grow.” I didn’t. It grew. It puts out rogue branches that end in white. I took cuttings of these to flower shows and always got a blue ribbon because the judges said, “they are hard to grow.” Snow On The Mountain got too big for the front bed so I moved the plant that never grows to my perennial bed in early fall three years ago. I knew I was taking a risk because it was still fairly warm weather and I respected its reputation as a picky plant. I poured a bucket of water on that tree every day for weeks after it was moved. I am proudly sharing with you that it is over six feet tall and has its own lovely white snow on its branches. I have watched a lot of plants dwindle and die for whatever reasons but this one is a success.
Over the years I have tried to convince myself that winter has positive aspects to it. After living in central New York for 30 years I have had enough winter for a lifetime, so being patient with this season is sometimes an effort. My most repeated phrase is “Winter redeems itself with the architecture of trees.” This is true. Catch sight of a sunset behind a large bare tree in the middle of a field and you will share that sentiment with me. When the trees are bare is also a great time to study the differences in how each one grows and the individual characteristics of bark. It is also a good time to make written or mental notes of branches that should be removed. I see some branches on my crabapples that are crossing through the middle (inward facing branches need to be cut back to allow good airflow in the center of tree to help prevent disease and rubbing branches which may cause a wound on a branch) and need to go. Now that we have had this cold spell, you can feel free to prune a tree when we get a warmer day.
There is one Snowdrop bulb (Galanthus nivalis) that has survived from a batch of ten or twelve that I planted some years ago. Why this one and not the others I will never know. Yesterday I thought to check to see if any green was starting up and I found it in full bloom already! It had four sad white flowers. But in the midst of all of this cold and wind it had bloomed. So bundle up, go outside and look for the special pleasures in your winter garden. They are there.