The garden seems bare. It is the middle of winter. A thin white veil of frost covers the ground, revealing tracks of wildlife I know, and did not know, were visiting my yard. The sky is overcast with puffy gray clouds, reflecting the stark gray of the leafless trees below. Summer’s riot of colors with garden beds bloated with flowers seems like a vague memory.
But it does not have to be this way. In fact, winter, when the eye is not distracted by leaf and flower, is the best time to take stock of your yard. If indeed during the winter your garden is a bleak memorial to the summers passed, then it is time to spice things up.
Winter is a perfect time to see the bones of your garden. By bones, I mean structures, permanent and temporary, living and man made. Creating structure in the garden not only provides for an interesting display during winter, but also adds depth and personality to your garden during the rest of the year. Taking a close look at what kind of garden you want to portray is easily done in winter when structure, or the lack of it, is more apparent and when other garden chores are not yet demanding of your attention.
What does your garden convey? Does it beckon visitors to come in for a closer look? Does it reveal itself all at once, or does it possess hidden treasures and secret pathways that can only be discovered through exploration? Does it lead its visitors to vistas, seating areas, or other focal points? Does it show your personality and put a smile on your guests’ faces?
You don’t have to have a lot of money or a large piece of land to incorporate basic elements of style and design into your landscape. And you can add parts to your garden a bit at a time, spreading out the cost and labor over several years. Here are some elements to think about for adding winter interest and structure to your garden.
Give it a rest.
Most homeowners incorporate a patio, deck, or other seating or dining area for relaxation and entertaining outdoors. However, in addition to a main area of entertainment, consider adding smaller seating areas elsewhere in your garden. Is there a nice spot in the garden with a view? How about a shady spot under a tree? Or a bench placed judiciously along a pathway, urging visitors to stop and take a closer look?
Adding benches, chairs, or other structures, such as a hammock or chaise, to your garden will give visitors a place to relax and enjoy the view. Seating areas can also create focal points and complementary color combinations, such as a yellow bench situated in a garden bed full of yellow goldenrods, purple blazingstar, and red beebalm.
Additional seating areas should be low maintenance, so consider the placement and what the seat is made of. Benches, tables and chairs made of cement, wrought iron, aluminum, and stone are easy to find and need no extra care. Using natural materials, such as tree stumps or large stones, can add a natural yet whimsical feeling to the garden.
Also consider the flooring of your seating area. There are many choices from expensive to low or no cost alternatives, so before deciding on the material, do some research. Cost and upkeep should be at the top of the list when deciding. For a low maintenance option, consider a floor made of pavers, stone, or a composite material such as Trex.
For an inexpensive, but possibly more laborious alternative you can use mulch. But be aware that mulch will need to be replaced on a yearly or bi-yearly basis. Gravel or a ground cover, such as creeping thyme or blue star creeper (‘Steppables’) is also less expensive. All of these alternatives, however, require keeping up with weeding, even if using plastic or weed paper as a barrier underneath. The barrier will only work for a year or two at most and then it will be important to keep up with the weeds. Seating areas can also be placed directly on the lawn, which will require some work when having to move the furniture in order to mow.
Whatever seating area you decide on, be sure to consider a floor that is pervious and allows rain water to soak in. Rainwater that does not soak into your property, but rather washes away (or moves from where it originally landed) like, for instance, when it runs down the driveway or off your roof, is called storm water runoff. Storm water runoff is exceedingly damaging to the Chesapeake Bay. When rainwater does not soak into the ground, it is not filtered and all of the contaminants and pollution drain into the bay causing much harm to the ecology and creating dead zones.
Where does your garden go?
Most home gardens lack paths, except for a single walkway that leads to the front door. However, pathways are not only functional, but are an important ingredient to create a more inviting garden. For functionality, pathways should lead visitors to seating or dining areas, keep feet clean, and should be stable and safe to walk on. But for design, pathways add year-round structure and character to your garden. When pathways are created, they instantly beckon visitors to go on, like a green light on a roadway.
There are many ways to create a path and many materials that can be used. Paths can be more permanent and therefore higher cost, and made of cement, pavers, brick or wood. Or they can be low-tech and easy for the homeowner to do him or herself, with materials such as mulch, pine straw, stepping stones, or even made from a groundcover.
When adding pathways, consider creating soft and flowing curves. A curved path allows the visitor to slow down and take the time to explore. If possible, create a path with a bend so that the remainder of the path is not seen until the approach. This can be done by strategically planting something tall, like an ornamental grass, to hide the view of the path at the turn. By not revealing the destination immediately, the visitor feels a sense of mystery and is enticed to keep moving forward and continue to explore. If you do not cut back the ornamental grass until March, then you get to enjoy the path with the mysterious bend all through the winter.
Function begets art.
Fencing is another way to add definition to your garden. Fences can be functional by hiding a view, delineating property lines, or keeping animals and people in (or out) of the garden. Fences can also be used to express art.
Individual panels of wood or picket fences can be used to add definition to a garden bed or to hide an unattractive item, such as an air compressor or propane tank. Just be sure to add posts a few feet into the ground in cement so that the wind doesn’t carry your fence away. Or consider embellishing your existing or new fence by hanging a few outdoor objects of art, painting it with vibrant colors, painting a mural on it, or adding windows to it.
Other structures that are not only functional but also a place for artistic expression include arbors, pergolas, trellises, gazebos, and sheds, to name a few. All of these add the ‘bones’ to your garden, giving your winter landscape personality and charm.
Even the most boring object in your yard can still add drama to your garden. Add a trellis to your shed and plant native clematis on it, such as virgin’s bower, Clematis virginiana. Add some paint to your birdhouse to match the flowers that bloom nearby in the summer. Or add a welcoming touch to a gate with an arbor covered in trumpet honeysuckle vine, Lonicera sempervirens.
Focus your attention.
If you want a garden that really stands apart from the average yard, then consider creating a few focal points. Focal points can be made with either plants, such as a beautiful specimen weeping redbud tree, Cercis canadensis; or with items, such as pots, benches, or statues. When creating a focal point, think of where your eye is naturally drawn to. Good places for focal points include; a bend in a walkway, the end of a walkway, or in a garden bed. Focal points do not have to be centered; in fact, it is more interesting to offset the item, or to even place it in a spot that is not immediately noticeable.
Consider adding focal points that can withstand winter freeze/thaw cycles, so that the focal point becomes a part of the winter garden. Birdbaths are great for focal points during the warm weather, but most need to be hidden from the elements in winter. Consider adding pots, benches or other items made of wrought iron, stone, cement or some other weather resistant material. My husband found an old plow left by our neighbor when he moved. After a few cans of paint and finding the perfect spot, an interesting focal point (and conversation piece) emerged.
Gardens are fun. They are a personal expression of who you are and what you like. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to find interesting elements to add to your garden. Just because you add a few statues to your yard, don’t be afraid that the neighbors will think your garden is starting to look like the Parthenon. However, be choosy when you shop. Think the purchase through and try to avoid impulse shopping. Think about where the item would go in your garden before purchasing it.
Remember that ultimately your garden is your own. Have fun with adding garden ornaments and structures and embellishing existing ones. Used correctly, they not only add depth and charm to your summer garden, but add necessary color, interest and form to your winter garden as well.
So go ahead and take a walk through your garden this winter. And think, does your garden have bones? Or does it need a little something to spice things up?
By Natalie Brewer University of Md Extension, Howard County Master Gardener