Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Surviving the Winter Landscape

“Dad, dad!  We drove past the mountains today!  And a snow cave!”
 My son raced into the house past his sister, dropping his ski jacket on the floor and pulling out his cracked iPod to show me a photo.  There on the tiny screen was proof the winter hadn’t stifled his young imagination or dampened his spirits.  It has, after all, been a long winter.

From his eye level view in the back seat of my wife’s Toyota, he’d snapped some pictures of the snow piles I drove past each day, wondering when this winter would end.  The piles I had shoveled to the end of the driveway, which the city plow trucks had made tall this year.  But from his vantage point, he’d seen in them something I’d missed in the busyness of my “grown-up” world—the simple beauty of a winter landscape.  He’d seen into them the honest beauty that can be overlooked in a hurry to get indoors, where wind chills don’t threaten.  He and his sister saw how beautiful winter can be, and reminded me to do the same.

Looking ahead in the forecast, I know this winter will end, but it might take a little longer than most of us would like.  So as the next weeks draw on toward an eventual melt, here are a few ideas for enjoying—not just ‘surviving’—the winter landscape:

Winter Views
I’m a landscaper, married to a landscaper, who works with landscapers.  (Notice a trend?)  We use plants every day to frame views; the way an artist uses paint.  We place plants as compositions viewed from multiple vantage points, but the most common is from inside the home.  “Inside” is our default vantage point, because it’s the view our clients see every day.  Waking up, eating breakfast, waiting for the rain to stop, enjoying a cocktail, working from home—most “viewing” happens from the inside looking out.   Using a palette of plants to frame a view is our version of a computer screen’s background—always there behind the action, but not overshadowing the action itself.

Plants with Winter Interest
A great planting border contains both evergreens (stay green all year) and deciduous plants (leaves drop off in winter).  Evergreens “disappear” during summer amidst a sea of “other green things,” but shine in winter as they continue to provide screening and privacy for winter views.    Deciduous plants fall into two levels of winter-appropriateness: “none” and “amazing.”  Plants with no winter interest may look great when growing, but in winter have a weedy appearance, are drab in color, or don’t have a branching structure with a strong geometric form.

“Amazing” winter plants are their counterparts.  With brilliant colors, strong branching patterns, and compelling textures, they defy the drab brown landscape of late winter. Hawthorns and Flowering Crabapples hold dried fruit late into the year, attracting winter songbirds to land on ice-covered stems.  Ornamental grasses and Baptisia provide textural contrasts, with seed heads shaken by cold winds striking patterned contrasts on the snow.  Winterberry, Red- and Yellow-twig dogwood, and Witchhazels add vibrant colors bright enough to be noticed at a distance.

Thinking ahead
Where I grew up, you can tell a winter storm is coming when the locals clear out the bread and milk aisles of the grocery store.  Straightening up or “battening down the hatches” is simple, yet often overlooked when temperatures drop and the first snowfall shows up like an obnoxious relative you love anyway.  (“I’m excited you’re here because I haven’t seen you in ages…wait, HOW long are you staying?)

Putting away the furniture, adding a winter table cover, stacking away toys, wrapping up hoses and hammocks, even moving a portable grill closer to the back door—this “tidying up” allows the snow to fall and show off the forms of the garden.  Hedges and planting beds, lawns and terraces—the structure of a garden is more beautiful when snow falls upon it and the summer distractions have been put away.  Straightening up visually simplifies a winter garden, allowing snowdrifts and icicles to steal the show.

If all else fails…
…get out of town for the weekend.  On a recent trip to the Mitchell Park Conservatory, my

family and I spent a few hours strolling the warm greenhouses, looking at plants and listening to birds singing in the trees above.  The Chicago Botanic Garden greenhouses have served the same purpose in the past, or the Garfield Park Conservatory, or the St. Louis Climatron greenhouse.  It’s amazing what an hour inside a sunny indoor garden will do to break up a long winter’s day.

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