You know that the gardening bug has truly bitten when you start really appreciating the winter landscape and then begin to tweak your own garden for that season. Appreciate the winter landscape? In the Deep South? For many, the concept isn’t obvious unless perhaps it snows. Everything looks like a picture postcard when that happens, but since it’s not the norm here, what else can brighten things up?
Most designers agree to start with the garden’s “bones” or structural elements. During the dormant season, they will be the most prominent features. In a setting like the historic Ferrell Gardens here at Hills & Dales Estate observing them is easy, for the old boxwood parterres, gravel paths, stone walls and huge trees comprise the structure. The same will be true for your setting as well, although perhaps on a smaller scale. Look from your favorite winter vantage point—which may likely be from a window in your warm house. That’s perfectly fine, because the primary point of your garden should be to please you when you look at it. So what would give definition and structure to your view—evergreen shrubs or trees, a beautiful path, an outbuilding? Planting evergreens in the garden means that there will always be foliage to gaze upon even in the middle of winter. And my, the choices there are for beautiful evergreens—hundreds of conifers, numerous magnolias, hollies galore, laurels, nandinas, and on and on. There are large ones, small ones, medium and tiny, gold or yellow evergreens, variegated and those with blue, bronze or burgundy hues—definitely something for any taste. Also of cold weather fame are the camellias which have the audacity to bloom at this time of year. Walls, whether created of hedges, bricks, stone or wood, lend year-round permanence to a landscape design, forming a backdrop or even a garden “room” to decorate. All of these elements give a garden cohesion, especially in winter.
After the structure is settled, the real fun begins as you strategically add drama. What about an interesting silhouette? There are plants that are even more arresting in their leafless, naked form. An example growing at the estate is Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, whose whimsical, bizarre form is reflected in its common names of corkscrew hazel, contorted filbert, or the more humorous, Harry Lauder’s walking stick. Situated in the garden on an avenue called Florida Lane, it is hardly noticed until its curled limbs are bare. Guests who see it dormant are usually delighted by its wow factor at this time of year, as well as the fact that it is a great shrub for southern gardens. Another plus is its ultimate size of 10’x10’, which makes it an appropriate choice for all but the smallest gardens. One highly effective way to emphasize the twisting branches is to up light this shrub at night after the leaves have been shed. Doing this allows more hours to enjoy its uniqueness during the dormant season’s long evenings. The dangling male catkins that adorn it in late winter only add to the appeal.
Weeping forms of trees are also spectacular year round and are very popular landscape choices. Weeping cherry, willow, and Japanese maples immediately come to mind, but there is an amazing array of weeping plants available to the adventurous gardener these days. Like the hazel, their fantastical leafless forms are quite arresting. One very distinctive specimen that Alice Callaway added to our garden is a weeping dogwood, a very unusual form of the familiar native. It is quite a conversation piece, one tree whose identity is seldom recognized by visitors. Eye-catching growth habits aren’t confined to deciduous plants, however. Some of the rich variety of evergreens also include weeping and gnarled specimens that often add welcome punch to a design, particularly in winter when there is less visual competition. Of course, the use of dramatic forms should be limited by the scale of the garden. In other words, a little goes a long way with unusual plants, and as Mrs. Callaway observed, restraint is probably the hardest part of design.
Bark and berries can effectively take center stage this time of year, too, especially when woven into your design for that purpose. Examples of trees with gorgeous bark are crape myrtles (especially some of the modern hybrids), river birch, coral bark maple and, if you have the space, sycamore. The latter’s white and tan trunk with its white branches against a gray,wintry sky is soul stirring in its beauty. A staff favorite in the outer landscape here is an ancient Chinese quince tree that bears the large yellow fruits that older generations called “quince apples.” A walk on a brisk day to admire its patchwork of peeling bark is worth the effort. Most correctly known as Pseudocydonia sinensis, it is a small, often multi-trunked tree that is being re-discovered by the gardening world for its ease of care and multi-season interest. As for berries, of course there are nandinas and hollies, with many evergreen ones and many size options to choose from, as already mentioned. However, increasingly popular are the deciduous hollies with telling cultivar names like ‘Sparkleberry’, ‘Winter Red’, and ‘Finch’s Gold’. Purchasing these with berries on them will ensure that you have fruit-producing female shrubs to go in a prominent spot, but be sure to plant a male pollinator in the background for good fruit set. When deciduous hollies lose their leaves, their brilliant berries remain on the bare stems. They are so attractive, you’d be wise to plant several in order to have extra stems to cut and arrange in a vase. The same is also true for American beautyberry. Be prepared to share berries with the birds, though, realizing that their presence gives you more to admire.
Time and space limit the possibilities that can be covered here because the list of worthy candidates really does go on and on. Hopefully, some of this has served to inspire a fresh look at your dormant landscape and will encourage you to take stock of it, consider how to improve its “bone structure”, and plant it for interest in every season. Who knew restraint might be a problem in winter?