Sticks and Stones Will Build Your (Garden’s) Bones

Oregon grape holly & miniature fountain grass

For added winter interest in your landscape, work on building strong bones, another one of the four ‘B’s as I had mentioned in my last post.  One way I would describe the bones of a garden is anything within it that is still standing during winter’s battle upon it.  Garden tools and soil amendment bags aside.  But of course I would never leave such things outside…

I’m referring mostly to plants here, but also to garden ornaments, hardscapes, boulders, etc.  A well-planned design will take into account the plant life that fades away this time of year, or any changes, and make sure the garden still adheres to the principles of design.  Some of which are particularly at risk this season, namely balance, rhythm, proportion and focalization of interest.

Evergreen trees and shrubs, whether needled or broad-leafed, are an obvious choice to aid in this problem.  Like faithful garden sentries they stand strong and also act as great cover, and sometimes food, for your furry or feathery friends.  There are many great things to be said about these plants, however, an over-abundance can also make a garden feel a little stiff.  Evergreen perennials, which in this case I’m referring to plants other than shrubs or trees that retain their foliage through the winter, are another great, but more obvious option.

From top left clockwise: tufts of Ophiopogon (Mondo Grass), groundcover Sedum (Stonecrop), and Bergenia (Pigsqueak)

So, looking beyond evergreens what else can help make strong garden bones this time of year?  Deciduous trees can still have a great impact this time of year, not just for their bark, as highlighted in my last post, but also for their form or skeleton.  Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, is a great example of this with its twisted, gnarly branches.  I don’t know much about the namesake, but I imagine he must’ve been quite the comic using one of these branches as his walking stick.  This is also a great winter specimen because of the greenish-yellow pendulous catkins it produces mid to late season.

Other great deciduous plants with twisted branches are the Twisty Baby Dwarf Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lace Lady’) and the Corkscrew Willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’), both with more upright habits.  Both of these trees are fast growing and will get much larger than Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.  Also, the branching habit and silhouette of deciduous trees and shrubs can have great appeal as well.  Many dogwoods have gorgeous skeletons, gracing gardens this time of year with their elegance.  The Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a unique, beautiful specimen with its wide, angular and tiered branching pattern.  Many Japanese Maples also have great architectural forms; a mature Threadleaf Japanese Maple, such as Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, is a real sight to behold in winter time.

A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portla...

A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portland Japanese Garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also, what about those dried out, lifeless-looking perennials?  The changes they undergo this time of year can make some of them just as appealing, or even more so, in this season as in the prior ones in my opinion.  Just take a look at these ornamental grasses:

Part of what makes these grasses so appealing this time of year are their fluffy seed heads that glow in the light.  Cut and dried these also look great decorating the interior of our homes.  Other perennials with great winter seed heads include upright Sedums, Echinacea and Phlomis, just to name a few.  The birds will appreciate them too.  However, with some of these you may want to cut down a portion of the stems earlier in the year before seeds form, as whatever energy is spent on seed production this year can have an effect on how much is available for subsequent flower production.

From top left clockwise: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Northwest native Spiraea douglasii (Western or Rose Spiraea), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Miscanthus sinensis (Eulalia or Maiden Grass), and another shot of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ with low-lying stonecrops.

To help retain a focalization of interest this time of year, garden ornaments go a long ways. Even something as simple as a thoughtfully placed ceramic ball.  With an Asian/Zen garden, rock cairns (rocks stacked one on top of another) or bamboo art would work nicely.  Or if you have a cottage garden a bird bath or wood tuteur may be more appropriate.

Lastly, it’s hard to deny the appeal, or even necessity, of stone in a garden, whether it be a dry riverbed, gravel or flagstone pathway, or boulders placed throughout your garden rooms (which can also help establish a rhythm and balance).  Boulders can act as a backdrop to plants, provide habitat, make the garden look more natural, and even be used as a chair when weeding, maintaining or just relaxing.  They will never grow out of their allotted space or require a feeding.

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