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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.
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