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.

Form

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?)

Colour

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.

Texture

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

© 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.

ANOTHER GARDENING BLOG…….seriously?

Yes indeed…..another gardening blog. Bear with me though, as I present a designer’s perspective of what is for some, a minor hobby, and for others an obsession so grand they forget to eat, bathe or feed their children……. the garden.

My intention had been to start blogging on Jan 1st – New Year, new endeavour. But honestly, I just couldn’t get excited about garden writing when the darkest days of winter were still upon us, regardless of the above average temperatures we’d been experiencing. Then when winter truly hit and we plunged into the deep freeze, so did any ambition to write about all things spring and summer.

Temperatures have since moderated – in fact the days are again unseasonably warm and the promise of spring is actually believable. There are still weeks of winter ahead of us though – Balzac Billy saw his shadow. So…. what better to write about than the garden in winter?

Many gardeners don’t see winter as a ‘gardening season’ and I guess, considering nothing is growing at this time of year, we don’t really garden. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, design our gardens with winter in mind. In fact as a designer, when I‘m choosing plant material for a landscape plan, I always start with winter appeal – evergreen plant material, trees /shrubs with colourful bark or berries, plants with strong form or interesting texture. All these things allow us to extend the beauty of our garden-scapes beyond the growing season to fill much of the rest of the year.

These first blog posts then will address how we might plan our gardens for winter interest.

Focal Points in the Winter Garden

A Focal Point refers to an element in the garden that is constant, unchanging. This means it is a ‘hard’ feature, i.e. non-living. A non-living element doesn’t grow, or change colour, or lose its leaves. It simply remains the same – drawing the eye and giving it a place to rest, throughout the seasons. Never is the importance of focal points more evident though, than during the dreary winter months when there is often little else to capture our attention. A well placed bird bath or piece of sculpture in the dead of winter can be as lovely as any summer garden scene, albeit more subtle. The presence of a focal point reminds us that the garden is still here, still beautiful in its simplified form.

But just plopping the aforementioned feature anywhere in the yard will not necessarily create the postcard winterscape we’re after – a focal point is most effective when properly staged. Too often I see a unique garden element with no visual support – stuck out in the middle of the lawn or a part of the garden that is completely barren from fall through spring. Of course everything is picture pretty when covered in snow, but in the austerity of a snowless landscape (as is often the case in Calgary), more artful planning is required. Plant material that maintains a presence throughout the year will provide an effective prop for your garden ornament. This means using woody plant material (trees and shrubs), ideally some of it evergreen, in the vicinity of or surrounding your focal point.

I drove by this garden recently while taking an alternate route home - this charming lady presents an elegant focal point and would be equally lovely even in the absence of snow. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I drove by this garden recently while taking an alternate route home – this charming lady presents an elegant focal point and would be equally lovely even in the absence of snow. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A single boulder, ideally with a unique shape and textural interest, can serve as a focal point. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A single boulder, ideally with a unique shape and textural interest, can serve as a focal point.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Containers are a valuable addition to the winter landscape - the container itself serves as the focal point and also allows for the use of seasonal arrangements, as this homeowner has created. In this example the rocks play a supporting role rather than focal. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Containers are a valuable addition to the winter landscape – the container itself serves as the focal point and also allows for the use of seasonal arrangements, as this homeowner has created. In this example the rocks play a supporting role rather than focal. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This wintry scene as viewed from my back window illustrates how a focal point can be so well merged with its setting that it appears to have ‘grown there all by itself’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This wintry scene as viewed from my back window illustrates how a focal point can be so well merged with its setting that it appears to have ‘grown there all by itself’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Another photo taken by my sister on one of our walks - not sure if the colour of the gazing ball was purposefully chosen to echo the golden inflorescence of the reed grasses in the background, but the result is quite effective. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Another photo taken by my sister on one of our walks – not sure if the colour of the gazing ball was
purposefully chosen to echo the golden inflorescence of the reed grasses in the background, but the result is quite effective. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A focal point, in any season, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene. This gazing ball is surrounded by woody and evergreen plant material surround, so will have the same effect in winter as well. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A focal point, in any season, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene. This gazing ball is surrounded by woody and evergreen plant material, so will have the same effect in winter as during the growing season. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bear in mind that your focal point needs to be level. If your bird bath is leaning, get out your level and straighten it, otherwise it just looks sloppy.

And don’t be tempted to overuse focal points – this is probably the most common mistake gardeners make with garden decor. Too many of these in close proximity will create competition for the viewer’s attention, hence visual unrest. So how many is too many? Unfortunately there is no formula for this – it depends on the particular focal point, the overall landscape design and the size of the area.  Generally speaking though, for an average size front yard, one bold focal point can deliver sufficient visual ‘punch’ – there will be other ‘soft’ (i.e. living) features drawing the eye as well. I’ll discuss these in my next post.

Consider too that there are superfluous elements in the garden that may inadvertently serve as focal points, e.g. a couple of my personal pet peeves – bright blue security system signs and outdoor lighting fixtures.  I don’t mean elegant post lamps or subtly placed spot lights – rather I’m referring to the cheesy sets of lights gardeners poke haphazardly into the ground, forgetting that the purpose of garden lighting is to draw attention to the lovely light that is cast, not the fixture that is casting the light. But more on garden lighting another time. As for security system signs, I appreciate that they serve an important purpose and hence need to be visible, but to me they are beyond visible, they are visually distracting– just keep this in mind when placing them.

I often pass by this well done landscape on my neighbourhood walks – though it’s especially attractive at this time of year, I doubt the homeowners intended for the light fixtures to be the focal point in this composition, especially since one is noticeably lopsided. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I often pass by this well done landscape on my neighbourhood walks – though it’s especially attractive at this time of year, I doubt the homeowners intended for the light fixtures to be the focal point in this composition, especially since one is noticeably lopsided. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Well, so ends my inaugural blog post. I realized when writing this that I ought to practice what I preach – the bird bath in my front yard could use some evergreen plantings around it. That will be my first purchase come spring – ah yes, spring………….so close, yet so far.

Til next time,
Sue

© 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.