A subtle season

Seedheads create great winter interest in gardens as well as in arrangements indoors.

Winter gardens and yards play an important part in our gardening aesthetic. If we can’t beat winter, we might as well embrace it

THE JAPANESE have a cultural aesthetic called wabi-sabi, which is essentially the art of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. I am reminded of this aesthetic every winter when confronted with the dregs of the garden: dying hosta leaves melting slowly into the ground; the seedheads of flowering perennials and grasses standing on stiff brown stems; the remains of other flowers and foliage gently disintegrating into the soil to help provide life for next year. These forms are backed by and contrasted with the vigorous evergreens in their various shades, coming into their own with the coming of the cold season. There is elegance, perhaps fleeting and melancholy but beautiful nonetheless, in a winter garden, and it’s important to celebrate this fourth garden season just as much as we do those months of lush colour.

Winter gardening doesn’t have to be all about greys, browns and fading glories, however. This is a season of shine for many plants, when they emerge from their quiet roles as background chorus in the garden to take the lead as star performers.

Embrace the season

Crystal Godfrey owns and operates a unique garden design business near Hubbards, in Nova Scotia. When she meets with a client to plan a garden design, one of the first things she asks is about winter gardenscapes.

“I suggest to homeowners that if they enjoy decorating for holidays and winter, or if they just enjoy looking at the peaceful, sleeping garden, that we need to design accordingly and choose plants that will both provide materials for décor, and provide the all-valuable winter interest,” says Crystal.

It’s a great idea—Atlantic Canadians have at least four months of winter-like weather when there’s no real gardening to be done outside, so we might as well embrace our seasons and enjoy them as best we can.

Among the most important plants in a winterscape are the evergreens, both needled trees like firs and junipers and the broad-leafed evergreens like rhododendrons and English holly. “These plants are the anchor of a garden,” Crystal says. “They provide form and there are so many colourful choices, different leaf and needle textures.Evergreens tend to be very low-maintenance for the most part, and some of them change foliage colour in colder weather.”

Think of evergreens as the quiet, steady background for the year-round garden, coming into their season of shining from November until March, and you won’t be able to resist adding some to your design. As the shrubs and trees grow more mature, you can also harvest a few branches and twigs from them for doing winter containers and window boxes; plus the seeds and cones can be enjoyed by wildlife or added to various décor projects for inside your home.

The seedy side of winter

Regular readers have heard me say this before—don’t be in a hurry to clean up stems of perennials from your garden. If something has attractive seedheads or dried flowerheads, I leave it standing until too much winter weather, particularly wind and ice, but also heavy snowfall, breaks it down. Then if we have a mild spell and I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll go out and trim off the broken stems so there isn’t so much to do come spring.

You’ve also heard or read me extolling the virtues of planting ornamental grasses many times, but it bears repeating. Many of them hold their flowerheads well into winter, borne on stiff stems that hold up well against much of what winter throws at them. Crystal Godfrey agrees, saying, “Ornamental grasses like the silvergrasses (Miscanthus) look great with their silver or coppery heads of feathery flowers. They tend to move in the wind, and the movement and sound adds another aspect of interest to that winter landscape.”

Contain your winter enthusiasms

Container “plantings” are a great way to bolster your garden’s winter interest. You can, of course, plant living trees and shrubs in containers, assuming you have large enough, cold-tolerant containers and get them planted before freeze up. An easier idea is to create designs of twigs and branches of evergreens and deciduous shrubs, embellished with a few sprays of rose hips or evergreen cones fastened in with wire. Crystal uses containers filled with potting soil, which helps to hold the branches in place as well as adding weight to the container so that it doesn’t blow around everywhere. Add a mesh, fabric, or burlap bow to the container in a festive shade if you desire, and enjoy for the winter. “I remind people to water their containers regularly, even if they are full of branches rather than planted shrubs,” says Crystal, “because this helps to keep the arrangement looking fresh for longer.” The cold weather of Atlantic Canadian winters will also help to preserve the arrangements.

The same goes for live wreaths; these will usually keep their colour and form until well into early spring, when the weather begins to warm up. Last winter, my outdoor décor disappeared into snowbanks in mid-February and didn’t emerge until mid-April—still looking as fresh as they did when I installed them in December!