Gardeners attack the spring with energy and enthusiasm, adding lots of color, bulbs, perennials, flowering trees and shrubs.
We wilt in the summer heat, and by fall we barely have the spirit for a pot of mums. Winter, we think, is for catalogs by the fire. It’s also when you stop working in the garden and just think about it.
Not so for Christine Killian of Annapolis, Md., and Alice Ryan of Easton, Md. Both gardeners have made it a point to create winter interest in their gardens, if for no other reason than they want something lovely to look at from the warmth of the house.
“When I worked with a designer 28 years ago,” Killian said, who lives in an 18th-century-style farmhouse and takes her cues from Williamsburg, Va., and Old Sturbridge Village, “I made it clear I wanted 12 months of interest. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew I didn’t want to look at a barren landscape.”
When Alice Ryan purchased the 80-acre Knightly estate outside Easton nine years ago, of which almost 3 acres are formal gardens, she was intimidated by the work that the previous owner had done.
“Just make it your own,” a gardening friend told her.
Part of that process has been to create a “winter garden walk,” a path for her daily constitutional through and around the formal Edwardian gardens. It is a path lined with color, texture and blooms to warm the heart of the gardener on a cold day.
Ryan sees the color of the gold thread leaf cypress, the dynamic shape of the diadora and its upright cones, the spidery winter hazel, the swollen buds of the magnolia, a huge and rare round leaf ozmanthus and berries everywhere.
“The garden is hot as blazes in the summer,” said the longtime Easton philanthropist. “It is actually wonderful in the winter.”
Nancy and Pierre Moitrier of Designs for Greener Gardens in Annapolis began working with Killian about four years ago to refine her mature garden, one much smaller than the canvas Ryan has painted.
“I wanted to look out every window and see something,” said Killian, who would give directions from the bedrooms upstairs.
“You need to have collections and repetitions that are legible in the winter,” said Nancy Moitrier.
Even when snow covers everything, the evergreens that form the bones of both the front garden and the plantings around the water fountain give both structure.
So does Pierre Moitrier’s hand-hewn fence. That’s because winter interest doesn’t simply include plantings and vegetation, but extends to structures like the obelisk on which Killian’s honeysuckle grows or an aqua metal bench that is tucked into Ryan’s garden near statues of herons. Arbors and brick walkways count, too.
Adding to the scene in Killian’s garden are pots planted with evergreens and violas that sit on a porch and huge stones in her rain garden. The browning tufts atop Killian’s Annabelle hydrangeas catch the snow and look like ladies in hats.
All of these elements can distract the gardener from the dormancy of the winter garden. “And birds,” said Killian. “I wanted trees and shrubs that would attract birds in the winter.”
There can be fragrance in the winter garden, too, with sweetbox, witch hazel and winter jasmine.
Summer’s abundant foliage can obscure the peeling bark of river birch and oakleaf hydrangea or the mottled bark of crepe myrtle, as well as the red stems of red twig dogwood. Clusters of red berries on winterberry and the texture of the aptly named leather leaf viburnum along with the twisted stems of Harry Lauder’s walking stick become dramatic features in the winter garden.
Killian has retired from Xerox after 35 years and she plans to spend a lot more time in the garden. And there is plenty to do in the winter.
Winter is a good time to do structural pruning because the forms of the trees and shrubs and ill-placed branches are easy to see. It is a time to check for heaving roots and press them back into the earth so they will not dry out. When the ground is not saturated and vulnerable to the compression of a gardener’s footprints, it’s time to cut back the seed heads, pods and foliage from last season’s perennials.
“People are in such a hurry to cut back everything in the fall,” said Pierre Moitrier. Although he and Nancy “clean up” around the entrance to their Annapolis home, they leave much of the rest for food and shelter for birds.
And, of course, it is always time to weed. Chickweed is actually a winter perennial that can grow into large mats by the time a gardener might notice it in April.
“It is a great time to assess the garden,” Killian said. “You have a clear palette, without things blooming and moving to distract you.”
The formality of Ryan’s garden on Leeds Creek, where it empties into the Miles River, with its close cropped boxwood and bayberry hedges, belies her personal ease and warmth. But it makes it perfect for the fundraising events she often hosts.
Centered around a fountain, it is designed with axial symmetry that creates four garden rooms, or destinations, each with its own theme, including a place for exotics and tropicals, a rose garden and a grassy spot for croquet. And there are paths of gravel or pine needles and allees of trees that make navigating the garden easy and a pleasure for guests.
Ryan is introducing lots of color into what had been a garden of shapes. More than 10,000 bulbs were planted last fall under the supervision of Hans Bleinberger of McHale Landscape Design, who has helped make this garden “her own.” They will bloom in a riot of color over time. Tulips, allium, lilies, narcissus and iris. And in the summer, his staff will plant 500 Wave petunias in bright pink along a holly-lined lawn path that leads from the house to the fountain.
“It is more in keeping with me,” Ryan explained. In the summer, she patrols her garden on a tractor, mowing areas of grass and taking stock. But in the winter she walks it, only lightly bundled against the cold.
5 TIPS FOR WINTER INTEREST IN THE GARDEN
• Evergreens: These trees and shrubs are the backbone of the garden, but you might want an expert to help you place them. They are a significant and long-term investment.
• Bark: The leaves fall and the exfoliating bark on the river birch or the oak leaf hydrangea or the paper bark maple becomes the focus. The thin, vibrant branches of the red-twig dogwood or yellow-twig dogwood look wonderful against the snow.
• Berries, flowers or cones: Hollies, beauty berry, coral berry and winterberry provide color and attract birds, whose presence also livens the winter garden. Pansies and violas will bounce back quickly as winter fades. Coral bells with leaves in deep purples and bright green hold their color during the winter. Hellebores, or Lenten Roses, will begin to bloom in February. Liriope and mondo grass are an evergreen carpet and taller ornamental grasses provide movement in the wind. Snowdrops, crocuses and early daffodils will bloom at the first sign of spring.
• Fragrance: The garden can be filled with fragrance even in winter — sweetbox, witch hazel and winter jasmine
• Structures: Painted fences, trellises, obelisks or arbors. Benches and chairs. Pottery and statuary. These can all add interest to the garden in winter.