Are you one of those people who dread that time of year when they feel their garden is finished? One SavATree arborist used to feel the same way until he lived in a house which had a magnificent sugar maple in the rear yard. Each September, he would eagerly anticipate the arrival of its splendid golden fall foliage. However, the joy which came with this anticipation was usually quelled by lingering thoughts of the grayness which would follow in November.
The fact that his birthday was in November always gave him some respite from the gloomy anticipation of winter and the loss of garden activities. Oddly enough, his transformation into a lover of winter gardens came after living several years in the tropics, where the passing of the seasons was hardly noticeable beyond the different fruits that might arrive in the marketplace throughout the year. Through that experience, he discovered that he missed seeing the change of forms in the plants and the way parts of the landscape, no longer shrouded in foliage, came to the forefront.
Today, there are a whole line of sugar maples in a promenade in front of his house. They are magnificent creatures that provide most welcome cooling in the summer and fabulous fall colors. However, they are appreciated most in the winter when the framework that supported those warm weather functions are exposed. These trees are massive, healthy specimens. They form about 15 feet off the ground into several large upright limbs. These limbs extend upward about another 60 feet at which point they are diffused into a web of fine branches. The fine tracery of the branches in the outer crown is a perfect counterbalance to the strength and majesty eluded by the very large wood of the inner crown of the tree. This naturally beautiful marvel can only be fully experienced in winter.
The apple trees on the property are in the same category. They have been cultured in a way as to promote a good harvest in the fall and have always been a lot of fun for him to work in throughout the growing season. He never found anything very exciting about an apple tree in its summer foliage. For him, the tree is most handsome after its winter pruning. Years of careful pruning are beginning to build a sturdy framework of arching limbs with some growth of the previous year’s water sprouts. The trees will need about another decade before they are really where he wants them to be, but are far more interesting to stare at during winter than in the summer.
Through this experience, he also learned to appreciate the lower plants in his clients’ gardens in the winter. There is a garden where the evergreen shrubs, mostly red cedars and yews, are indistinct throughout the growing season. In winter, however, the slight difference in colors and textures between these plants, which stand on a slight rise in a hedge row, is outstanding; particularly because there is no distraction from any other green foliage. We now work very hard on maintaining the form and health of these plants, which are often the forgotten cousin in many gardens.
Another discovery made in recent years, is the aesthetic value of a service provided for plant health rather than ornamental purpose. Antidesiccants are a waxy substance applied to evergreen shrubs to prevent winter drying. This same treatment, however, makes the plants glisten in the winter sun. One day during winter, he was walking through a garden of large azaleas and rhododendron that had recently been treated with antidesiccant. There was snow on the ground that reflected the light back on the plants in a way that made them seem like opaque sources of light themselves.
A favorite plant in many winter gardens are grasses. Some of the tall prairie grasses standout even more when left tall and completely browned out in winter gardens; if slightly broken by the winter snows and with their heads just barely above the snow line, all the better. On the other hand, careful planning of the composition of grass species in your lawn, and the absence of winter snow will help ensure that these grasses will not brown out and be the richest looking part of your landscape during those desperate winter months.
One should also never forget those plants that have special winter forms and functions. Chinese witch hazel, for instance, will flower with winter snows around it in mid-February. Sweetgum trees lose their leaves to reveal the spiked balls that hang on like ornaments through the winter. Red-twig dogwood is an elegant shrub whose red branches are only revealed after their foliage falls off.
Japanese maples are great four season trees, particularly the weeping varieties. On many specimens, the intricate weeping habit is only distinguishable after the leaves have come off. What can you do to enhance your winter garden? Prune with the winter form of the tree in mind or even better, prune in winter. Avoid making cuts, such as topping, that may have value during the growing season but will look vulgar with the leaves off. Ensure that the integrity of plants whose form becomes prominent in winter is not compromised by the competition around it. For instance, if your prize Norway spruce is becoming thin because of all the shade trees in front of it, consider pruning back or thinning the canopies of the trees with which it competes. Apply antidesiccants in late fall to protect and accent the winter foliage of evergreens. Finally, plant with the winter landscape in mind and revel in having a year-round garden.
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