Growing Into the Winter Garden

Growing Into the Winter Garden

Insulated from the nearby airport and interstate, sound can only travel a short distance before floundering against large flakes. What sound there is has become deafening – each flake hitting my coat and gloves seems magnified, or at least all that more noticeable to my ear. If you’ve sat outside in a heavy snow you know this moment well – huddling for warmth and isolated, yet somehow more comforted and alive and aware than even summer moments when the chaos of hungered life swirls in a green cacophony.

If you convert a color photo of a garden bed to black and white, it’s a lot easier to decipher the bones, textures, and structure of the space. Many garden makers perform this artistic introspection. For me, that’s what the winter garden is – one mass, long-exposure of the fundamentals. The silvery trunk of a sugar maple, the gothic leaves and puffed seed heads of Baptisia, the rusted arch of an arbor, the burdened sheaths of little bluestem. I have never felt more at home than when I’m in the winter garden, and no season better prepares me for living in the garden – as designer and as visitor – than the glorious autumn transition.

We tend to ascribe fall color primarily to trees, which is a shame. There are so many more layers in nature. If you’ve never seen a Liatris pycnostachya or L. ligulistylisturn color you’re missing out on a couple gallons of rainbow sherbet ice cream. Eryngium yuccifolium, too, whose leaves are like vellum. Coreopsis tripteris and Amsonia illustris become the brightest yellows in any part of my landscape, and Monarda fistulosa goes into some half-translucent, espresso-rose-mahogany-gold I can’t begin to adequately describe. The color and texture of herbaceous perennials is intense and stretches over a much longer period than any tree or woods I’ve ever seen. As I write this, on a strangely-warm, late November morning, even the Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is still turning shades of yellow, salmon, orange, and crimson depending on each individual leaf. In a little while that shrub-like perennial will become a mound of copper foliage with hundreds of tan pompom seed heads that last deep into the new year.

And then there are the bracts left after seeds have taken flight. Oligoneuron rigidum and any Vernonia come straight to mind. Have you ever seen a mass of either plant in winter? Many of the leaves are still present -- crinkled parchments of black, brown, and grey – attached to stout stems that few winter storms can break. Atop those stems are umbles of echoes, bright cream and white accents set off by the dark foliage below, frozen stars that last until the spring trimming.

And you don’t have to sit outside in a snowfall to hear the winter chorus. I can’t see them but I can hear various bird species searching for food in the dense, layered beds of my meadow gardens most every day. They’re using their feet to scratch at the ground. Welcome home, brown thrasher.

Garden designers often employ something called negative space, which helps the eye both rest in and read a landscape. Negative space can be a spread of lawn, a sitting area, a small pool or pond – but its primary purpose is to help you enter the garden cacophony, to gain access to what may at first glance appear inaccessible. I think for many, a winter garden is unnecessarily inaccessible. Brown is a color, too!

Get out there in your beds and shrug off the cold. Celebrate the many textures and hues. Look at how the grey matchsticks of Dalea purpurea rise from the waving mounds of Bouteloua curtipendula, or how the smooth shaft of an ironwood trunk echoes the ash of Pycnanthemum seedheads nearby. Everything is as tied together now as it is in summer. Winter is an inversion that forces us to be more honest about what’s working and what isn’t. For me, I’m more desperate to see larger sweeps and masses followed by a stone or concrete wall that vanishes into the distance, and I would not have sensed or seen this as clearly in the growing season when everything was covered up and blended together like a tossed salad.

Snow can accent Echinacea seed heads and balance precariously on willow branches, but nothing sticks to the plants like a halo as much as a good hoarfrost or icing. Get out there early in the morning as the sun rises and the space will glow in a way you’ve not seen even in your dreams. Sparkling and shimmering, frosted by the earth’s breath itself, you’ll become a winter gardener in a heartbeat, desperate for the first cold autumn night.

When I rise from the floundering garden bench and dust snow off my shoulders, my feet compress pockets of air the thick flakes create, and I crunch my way loudly back to the house. I feel more like a disturbance than a player in tune with the band, wondering how I might be a better steward of a landscape that isn’t as much about me as it is what I can set in motion for other species around me. As soon as I go inside three bonded cardinal couples streak into the Viburnums, each pulse of their calls to one another in sync with the flakes landing around them. This is their time, too. I grasp a cup of hot tea that relieves the tightness in my fingers, smelling the earthen musk of brewed leaves. There is a stark sweetness that descends upon us when we let go of the summer’s flowers and begin learning from the absence, which is a fuller presence than we’d perhaps like to admit. I don’t know about you, but I see so much possibility to play with that I’m not in any hurry for spring. I am home.

All photographs are © Benjamin Vogt / unless otherwise annotated.

Benjamin Vogt is the author of A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future and the forthcoming Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design (October 2022). He is owner of Monarch Gardens LLC, which offers online garden design services, classes, and a specialized forum for native plant gardeners. His designs have been featured in The American Gardener, Fine Gardening, Garden Design, Houzz, and Midwest Living. He lives in Nebraska dreaming of prairies swept in golden Sorghastrum nutans.

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