The cultivation of your own place of wintry delights Seasons: The garden is no less beautiful now -- just different. Plus, there's no mowing, and it's a great time to plan.

January 18, 1998|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It doesn't occur to people very often, but winter can be a great time to enjoy a garden.

There is no grass to mow, for one thing, which recommends itself highly to me to begin with. Or weeds to pull, except for the most paltry sorts, and actually this is rather nice, too. It gives one such a virtuous feeling to pry out a few infant yellow dock (rumex) weeds.

Of course, not very long ago, my garden might as well have been dead in the winter. But was it rewarding to amble about in on a December, January or February day? Hardly. All I saw was a place in dormancy, as dull as ditch water, a place that not long ago was full of color and fragrance.

Well, why stop for winter?

In winter the palette is different, that's all. The things that give a garden attractiveness are the same in any season: form, mass, color and texture -- and fragrance. The time to plan for a great winter garden is in the depths of winter itself.

Mark spots now

Don't wait for spring. The bare spots will have been filled in with early bulbs and foliage. It will be difficult to remember exactly where in the mass of daylilies you wanted to plant some autumn or winter blooming crocus. The perfect place for the bright crimson bark of the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku,' or the red twig dogwood, Cornus alba 'Siberica,' will have disappeared in a profusion of new growth.

If the weather is too raw, consider spending just a few minutes outside on a clear morning or afternoon with a camera. With a set of pictures you can do your planning from the comfort of an armchair, yet have the garden clearly in front of you at the same time.

Take shots of your garden from all the usual angles you see it from, and perhaps include views from places you don't often have reason to visit. Overhead views from a second or third floor window are extremely helpful for design purposes -- and, of course, you should have something nice to look at from all your windows.

Remember, also, that areas obscured by shade or deciduous planting in other seasons may offer surprising opportunities to show off in the wintertime.

An otherwise darkish corner could, for example, be highlighted with witch hazel blossoms in the low golden sun of January or February afternoons.

Or you may decide a miscanthus or other ornamental grass is just the ticket to define a corner or fence line with its graceful, frost-blonded tresses.

Start with evergreens

The classic basis of an attractive winter garden begins with evergreens. These provide not only welcome spots of living green, but a dark, solid background, which helps immensely to showcase other plants.

A selection of conifers in a medley of shapes, sizes and color variations is ideal. A weathered wooden fence 6 to 8 feet high works well, too, especially if adorned with English or Boston ivy or the like.

Where uniformity is desired for effect, boxwood, holly, arborvitae and yew are all good.

Many of these even have self-regulating growth habits and need only light clipping once a year or so to maintain their shape, making them easy-care members of the landscape.

From the softly whispering, long needles of a white pine to the sharp, crisp outline of a Norway spruce or a holly, evergreens easily create outstanding textural effects which make them a genuine joy in the garden all year long.

Consider the potential of those whose foliage comes already brushed with sun-tipped brilliance to light up an overcast day. Picea glauca 'Rainbow's End' or 'Mother Lode' horizontal juniper, or any of the so-called golden evergreens are a welcome beacon of light.

Because of this characteristic, they can be used to create rhythm and interest points in the winter garden. Other plants, such as variegated liriope and golden sword yucca, also make delightful accents this way.

Maximum contrast is another goal, both in texture and color. Playing light against dark, and rough textures against smooth, is the particular forte of several trees with exfoliating bark.

Lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana, is a long-needled, multitrunked evergreen growing slowly to 30 or 40 feet tall with beautiful bark ++ that flakes off, revealing light interior bark.

Many of the birches also have exfoliating bark that peels off naturally in great, silky curls; Betula nigra 'Heritage' has the added advantage of being resistant to birch bark borers.

If it's a flowering tree you're interested in, consider one of the smaller cherries, Prunus mackii, which has very showy, reddish-brown exfoliating bark in the winter and lovely racemes of white flowers in the spring.

Crape myrtles, Japanese Clethra trees, sycamores and Stewartia also have handsome bark to augment their use in the summer landscape.

Sweet smells

A garden in winter can also be a fragrant garden, something that surprises many people.

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