THE CHALLENGE OF WINTER
by PATRICK CHASSE
I was born and bred in far northern Maine (USDA Zone 3). My father had a standard reply when family or friends visited and expressed envy over the richness of four seasons: “We really only have two seasons,” he’d say, “nine months of winter and three months of darn late in the fall.” He was a farmer and avid vegetable gardener, and it seemed to him that serious gardening in the north was impossible most of the year, and when it was possible, it was a challenge that tested one’s mettle. I have evolved into an ornamental gardener and garden designer, and I face the same challenges growing things in Maine, but aesthetics are easier overall than food production. For me, the challenge is to create compositions of plants and structure that please the eye in all seasons—regardless of limited flower and foliage display.
Winter brings a different and more analytical lens to the way we see landscapes. A gentle snowfall becomes a scrim, filtering out most of the color and reducing the landscape to a misty black-and-white graphic, like a Japanese woodcut. A light dusting of snow on trees, shrubs, and structures distills the images to spare-lined skeletal armatures. Serene and sublime, these visions need no punch of floral color to hold your interest. Winter’s other embellishments—hoarfrost on surfaces and fluid coatings of clear ice—are more accidental but bring a rich wonder to the landscape. With its special effects and downlike upholstery, winter is actually an easy scene to compose for the garden. Just as the crystals in a chandelier catch the light and bring it to your eye in a new and exciting way, so any structure or texture in the landscape that can catch and hold the snow becomes graphically amplified. Design emphasis, therefore, should be on structure: the macrostructure of land-forms, walls, pergolas, terraces, hedges, and trees, and the microstructure of branching, evergreen leaf textures, and herbaceous remnants such as grasses. Good “bones” in the garden make for good snowscapes. The trees and larger shrubs form an important armature around which the winter composition is draped. These woody plants can also provide texture in the form of fine or coarse branching, smooth or rough bark, and even some color interest, with richly colored bark or persistent fruits.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
The unkindest season of all in the northern garden is the gray and muddy time between true winter and verdant spring. In Maine it’s called mud season; I call it the “twilight zone.” In addition to its regular yearly appearance, this gray zone can also occur intermittently during the winter whenever a thaw or rain reduces the snow cover to bare ground. Good structure holds up well during these periods, if the scale is intimate enough to hide the barest gaps. I use the ancient stage-design technique of creating a series of layers, or “flats,” built of sturdy plant or architectural stock to mask the gaps left by herbaceous beds.
To continue the stagecraft analogy, great “sets” are needed to hold our visual interest when the colorful players and dancers are offstage waiting for their moment in the spotlight. Classic parterres, perfected by Dutch and French gardeners over the centuries, provide such a setting. Most are bordered by low evergreen hedges, and often contain some internal broderies or geometric hedging as well. This framework is compelling in snow and in the twilight-zone period, and gains added richness when filled in with bedding and perennial plantings during the warm season. Though many modern gardeners criticize gardens like Versailles as too cold and formal, we shouldn’t dismiss the structural idea that makes these gardens work in all seasons. That framework can also be expressed in much more informal or naturalistic ways to achieve our twilight-zone visual goals.
WHAT’S ON THE GROUND
The ground is also important to the winter landscape, and evergreen groundcovers—such as mosses and evergreen creepers, as well as persistent out-of-season perennials like grasses and sedums—can capture snow and provide intricate shadows in the monochromatic scene. The texture of the ground is a key to the visual interest of the whole composition. In Japanese gardens, which are designed to be viewed in all seasons, there is widespread use of river pebble mulches, stone edgings, textured pavements, rock outcrops, and even crushed granite (not sand, as is often assumed). These elements, and the architectural structures and plantings that surround them, form a composition that pleases the eye in any month. The dramatic displays of spring, summer, and autumn color become bonus moments of pleasure that mark and punctuate the seasons.
The successful year-round northern garden usually exhibits these characteristics. Modern use of decorative gravel (beautiful river pebbles, not white marble chips) has been popularized by the British garden designer John Brookes, among others, as an interesting textural base for plantings as well as a way to provide a functional lower-maintenance mulch for planting beds and sculpture settings. Gravel beaches in nature are beautiful in all seasons and all weathers, and we can take a cue from these effective examples of textured surfaces. The more traditional use of decorative edging tiles rewards gardeners with a strong framework that embosses a snowy garden with the geometry that inspired it. Color, texture, and pattern all play a part in the boldness and individuality of paths and paved spaces. Stone, brick, and even synthetic paving materials, when used skillfully, can dramatically strengthen a composition, and their richness is even more evident through a wet glaze of rain or melting snow.
LEARNING FROM JAPAN
Another clever twist that Japanese gardeners have brought to the winter garden is their use of protective seasonal structures, which are not only functional but also serve as decorative elements in their own right. The “snow capes” used to protect tender plants are beautiful straw sculptures, far surpassing the lumps of burlap and wooden A-frames we employ. They become symbols of the winter garden, just as roses epitomize our summer gardens. The weight and stress added to horizontal tree branches by snow and ice are anticipated in Japanese arboriculture. Branches are reinforced to take the load by ropes individually attached and strung from a central supporting pole. The resulting “teepees” of rope are a stunning architectural—and snow-catching—form in their winter settings. If we turned our burlap tents and wooden plant shelters into sculptural garden elements—making them into obelisks or drum forms, for example—they could complement, rather than detract from, the composition of the garden.
THE ROLE OF ORNAMENT
Ornaments and containers are another easy way to add visual interest to the winter garden. Whether the piece is lightly flocked by a passing snowstorm, or becomes utterly transformed by yard-high drifts, it still catches the eye and provokes thought—and memories. Gardens are all about memories: of seasons, of stopped moments, of cherished times with family and friends. In winter, even the furnishings of our gardens can bring a wave of reverie, along with a moment of admiration for a still life. For those not lucky enough to have snow in their palette of garden materials, the structural principles that make a good winter garden apply to gardens in any climate. In warmer climates, gardeners are often seduced by the sumptuous array of floral and botanical material at hand and skimp on the garden’s structure. The newer trends in water-conserving gardens bring us back to the importance of structural basics in creating memorable garden spaces. Even without snow, you can have a “winter garden.” H