Harbingers of Spring


March 20th marked this year’s Vernal Equinox – better known as ‘The First Day of Spring’!

I don’t need a calendar to tell me it’s spring though. There may still be frost in the ground, but spring is in the air – literally. Just look up – the trees are telling us it’s spring. You can see the subtle flush of colour, a slight aura emanating from their branches – leaf buds are beginning to swell. As spring gathers momentum the buds continue to swell, thousands on each branch, so when backlit by late day sun the trees appear adorned with jewels.  Closer inspection will show the buds to be plump and fleshy – life will soon burst forth. This multitude of bulging buds adds a dazzling texture to our skyward view.

Shrubs too are showing life in their branches – rounded buds, like colored baubles, cling to each branch and everything takes on a rich layered appearance.

A shimmer of colour rests atop Salix pentandra on a March weekend at Confederation Park.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

The deep red hue of Betula papyrifera branches intensifies as buds swell and life returns.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

The buds on this Acer negundo look like tiny pearls against an ocean of sky. The Manitoba maple, often maligned for its weedy growth habit and tendency to aphid infestation, is one of the earliest trees to bud out in the spring. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Acer negundo ‘Sensation’, a cultivar of the Manitoba maple, is a lovely tree with yearlong interest. Though debatably hardy here, this specimen has been growing in a protected spot in Northwest Calgary for many years. Viewed up close Manitoba maple buds are soft and fuzzy – this cluster of buds is reminiscent of puppy paws or bunny feet. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The ruby-red buds of Viburnum trilobum rival the colour of the berries that will be produced at season’s end. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Fat rounded buds like tiny soccer balls, line the branches of Larix sibirica. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The new growth on Crataegus mordenensis, both buds and branches, is rich plum red – shiny, supple and leathery in appearance. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Syringa buds almost ready to open: from left, Syringa meyeri, Syringa vulgaris, Syringa prestoniae Photos: Sue Gaviller

Ulmus pumila, the Siberian Elm, has pea-sized spherical buds – here they glow copper in the late day sun. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The enlarged buds of this Populus sp. embody the delicate colour and texture of spring. It won’t be long before these buds open to become the leaves of summer. Photo: Sue Gaviller

 Yes indeed spring is in the air.

Just look up – the birds are telling us it’s spring. Our red breasted friends are back – there are few sounds quite so heart warming as the first Robin’s chirp each spring. I heard it a couple of weeks ago, which seems quite early to me, though birding enthusiasts tell me that a few of these passerines actually overwinter here in Calgary. That may be true but I doubt many of us have witnessed this – for most of us the robin is still the quintessential sign of spring. Soon we will hear them singing their merry song each morn before dawn breaks, and little blue eggs will turn into tweeting baby robins – how very sweet that thought.

The American robin or Turdus migratorius (I dare you to say that with a straight face) is one of our country’s most beloved birds, likely because they herald the coming of warmer weather.
Photo: http://www.naturespicsonline.com/

Other birds have returned as well .

I’ve seen and heard Woodpeckers and Flickers hammering away on whatever hard surface will make the most noise – this is part of their courtship behaviour.  Merlins too, are squealing overhead as they call to potential mates. These are all such noisy birds, but so full of character and personality that one can easily forgive them the racket they make.

A male red-shafted flicker perches high up in a poplar tree in Centennial Park, Calgary
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Yes indeed spring is in the air.

Just look up – the sky is telling us it’s spring. Well, more specifically the sun. Today, March 27th, the sun rose at 7:22 AM and will set at 8:02 PM. Tomorrow, sunrise will be at 7:20 AM and sunset at 8:04 PM. The following day – 7:17 AM and 8:05 PM. We  are currently gaining approximately 4 minutes of daylight every 24 hours, and the angle that the sun’s rays strike the earth is increasing daily.

Angle of sun at Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox and Summer Solstice.

Of all the harbingers of spring, the native Salix discolor is for me the most poignant – this pussy willow resides in a school yard in Northwest Calgary and is covered in these sweet little fluff balls.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

The air is rich with new life and new possibilities – yes indeed spring is in the air.

Just look up!

Happy Spring,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Form, Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden

I had hoped to follow up with this second post on “Winter in the Garden” before now, but photo shoots take time, especially for a beginner photographer like me. However, this is Calgary and winter will be sure to hang around for a bit longer, so the topic is still timely.

In my last post I discussed Focal Points and their value in the winter garden. You’ll recall from that discussion, that a focal point refers to a ‘hard’ or non-living feature that draws the eye. We can also employ ‘soft’ or living elements in the garden to create winter interest – plant material that contributes form, colour and texture.


Plants with strong architectural form offer a unique kind of winter interest – naked of foliage from fall through spring, their distinctive silhouette draws the eye in much the same way as a focal point, hence many of the same guidelines would apply: don’t overuse, make sure they are planted perfectly upright (they will sometimes lean over time so need to be straightened periodically) and stage them for maximum visual impact.

So what constitutes ‘strong architectural form’? There are a number of plant shapes that fit the bill.  I find that ‘weeping standards’ are among the most dominant of plant forms – small weeping ‘trees’ which are developed by grafting a pendulous or prostrate form onto a standard, e.g. Malus ‘Rosy Glo’, Betula pendula ‘Youngii’. These little beauties bring real elegance to a composition. Not surprising then that gardeners often make the erroneous assumption that because one looks awesome, two will look even better. More is better? This may be a great philosophy – when it comes to lobster, or cheesecake, but not here. I made this mistake in my own front yard a few years ago. On one side of the yard a Royal Beauty weeping crab took centre stage and I wanted something interesting to balance it on the other side. Off I went to the nearest greenhouse to look for the perfect garden addition. A beautiful Young’s weeping birch caught my eye. Oh yes, I thought, that will be perfect for that spot. I should really know better – in fact even as I stood in line I was having an internal dialogue: “Sue, you already have a weeping standard in the front yard – another one would be overkill”… “But, but it’s such a perfect specimen and the bark will look lovely against the cedar fence in the winter”. Well, the gardener won out over the designer – I bought it and had it planted within an hour. I guess it looked okay, but it didn’t take my breath away. The real effect was that each of the two similarly strong features diminished the impact of the other, even though they were 40 feet apart.

As I scrutinized this over the next few weeks, I eventually decided that it wasn’t ideal but it would have to do … for awhile anyway. It has of course, now been replaced – like I said I should know better. Weeping standards are definitely best used as single specimens. But enough about my garden challenges.

This attractive little Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ has been nicely staged by underplanting with a Juniperus sabina cultivar and framing with 2 Juniperus scopulorum specimens – likely Wichita Blue. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Additional plant forms that are distinctive and provide winter appeal would be:

  • other top grafted standards, e.g. top-graft Syringa meyeri
  • columnar trees, e.g. Populus tremula ‘Erecta’
  • vase shape trees e.g. Caragana arborescens ‘Sutherland’, Malus ‘Pink Spires’
  • tall upright grasses e.g. Calmagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ or ‘Avalanche’
  • evergreen topiary e.g. Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’(pom-pom)

These can be used as single specimens, and with the exception of certain topiary forms (e.g. pom-poms), they can also be grouped, used to frame entrances/views or planted sequentially to direct visual movement and reinforce design lines. And while more than one can be used in a composition, they too if overused, will create visual unrest.

This ‘pom-pom’ topiary pine is appropriately used as a single specimen. Here, it needs very little staging as the detail on the house is an effective backdrop. The upright blue juniper supports visually too, although appears to have once been a topiary specimen itself – it would be best if allowed to revert to natural form so as not to compete with the pine. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This grouping of spire-like Populus tremula ‘Erecta’ creates a stately feel in an otherwise informal landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The upright form of these Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Avalanche’, effectively directs visual movement along the pathway in one of my client’s front yards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Top-grafted standards like this Syringa meyeri, provide strong form while allowing a view beneath it to what lies beyond.

You can get away with using numerous strong forms if they aren’t all the same shape. For example when I removed the Young’s weeping birch, I replaced it with a Pink Spires Crabapple – a lovely vase shape tree. In front of this I placed a bird bath – these two together created a co-dominant ‘focal vignette’, completely different in appearance from the weeping crab. Hence the effect is that they support rather than compete with each other.

For the average gardener it can be hard to predict how certain plant forms will work together – just keep in mind that the more striking or unusual its form, the more likely it is that it will need to stand alone.

I will be discussing plant form in more detail in a later post, but in the meantime the best advice I can give you is to practice some restraint. (Really? Is that even possible for a gardener?)


There is of course a limited palette available to us at this time of year – let’s see, gray, brown, grayish brown, brownish gray, sometimes white, some green, a bit of blue. Anything else? Well yes actually – take a look:

Many trees have colourful bark, in varying hues of green, yellow, orange, red and purple. These colours may be less saturated than the colours of summer, but because they are exhibited by an entire tree or shrub, the effect can be quite dramatic. Photos: Sue Gaviller

The beautiful bronze bark of this Prunus mackii picks up the warm hues of the wood and stone on the house. These same colours are seen again in the boulder in the foreground. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This landscape was also featured in my last post. I’ve included another photo, (minus the lopsided light fixture), because it’s an excellent example of how colourful a winterscape can be. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Berries too can provide winter appeal. The visual impact will be determined by the amount of fruit and it’s size – this may vary from year to year. As well, berries with little water content, like the above examples, will retain colour better through the winter than juicier fruits.

The abundance of Hippophae rhamnoides berries caught my eye when driving by this landscape – a good illustration of the use of form, colour and texture to provide winter interest. Photo: Sue Gaviller

While all conifers provide winter interest, it is the rich green of several Pinus mugo that enlivens this scene. Imagine how drab it would appear without them. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Evergreen Colour

I aim for at least 1/3 of the plant material in a composition to be evergreen – and I mean evergreen, not everblue. Not that I don’t love blue spruces and blue junipers – I do, and they should be used, but not to the exclusion of green. Blue-grey foliage has less pigment than green foliage, hence can contribute to the washed-out look of a winter landscape, especially in the absence of snow. If you’ve ever been to one of my Colour Theory lectures, you know my thoughts on green – it’s the most important colour in your landscape, the colour which allows other colours to have significance.

Green is the colour of life (plant life that is). It can tame the most unruly of hues, add visual depth and infuse richness into your landscape year round. So for every blue conifer you use, plant a few green ones. You’ll see how much more alive your garden will look in the dead of winter.


Textural contrast is another important consideration when planning your garden. Texture can be fine or coarse – during the growing season, fine texture generally refers to small leaves or flowers that are grouped closely together, and coarse texture would be large leaves or flowers spaced further apart. During the winter months though, we need to look at texture differently. Since most herbaceous perennials have little or no presence in the winter, and most deciduous trees and shrubs lose their foliage entirely, then it is the texture of their bark and branches we see. Spiraea and Potentilla, for example are fine textured – their branches are small, twiggy and tightly spaced. Syringa and Fraxinus (especially males) have much coarser texture – their branches are beefier, and more widely spaced. At any time of year too much tiny, tightly packed foliage, flowers or branches will end up looking busy, so punctuating with some coarse texture will create both emphasis and contrast.

Texture can also refer to the surface of something – is it rough or smooth, shiny or matte. In the winter this will refer mostly to the bark of trees and shrubs.

Compare the very different texture of the above three trees – the oddly flaking bark of Pinus sylvestris (left), the twisted striated bark of Crataegus mordenensis ‘Toba’(centre), and the shiny peeling bark of Prunus mackii (right). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Evergreen Texture

All evergreen foliage is considered fine textured – narrow needles spaced closely, and yet they appear texturally quite different. Some appear weightier than others – they may be denser or the needles longer, or stiffer. Use of contrast in this regard will produce superior results to utilizing a single type of evergreen. Yet another example of me not practicing what I preach – I have too many junipers in my backyard, with few other evergreen foliage types (that and my Rosy Glo has developed quite a lean).

These conifers are all fine textured, but they differ in perceived weight. The lacy foliage of Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’ (right), appears lighter and airier than the stiff needled Pinus mugo (left) and Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ (middle). Photo: Sue Gaviller

The beauty of winter is that it offers us a glimpse of colour and texture combinations that would be obscured in other seasons by branches clothed in foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I invite you to open your eyes to the beauty that is winter – at least for a few more weeks.

Spring is coming.

Til then,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.