In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
September, 2004
Regional Report

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Birch bark looks great winter and summer.

A Skewed Winter View

At first, winter interest in the garden or landscape sounds like an oxymoron. But over the years I have learned to appreciate that season, or at least what I can glimpse of it through the window.

Evergreens are a first line of defense against the visual boredom of the season, but in truth I find most of them too static. Some people would argue with me on this. One can mix the textures of needled evergreens (think pine or spruce) with broad-leaved evergreens (think rhododendron or holly). There are some among the needled types with a silver cast or blue cast or golden cast, plus many shades of green (think junipers and chamaecyparis). There are even variegated cultivars and some that change color, perhaps to bronze (think arborvitae), during the colder months.

Nonetheless I find the pudgy and clunky shapes of most evergreens inelegant. And their slow growth rates mean they stay mostly the same, day in and day out, summer and winter. Until, that is, you wake up to discover that little by little, imperceptibly, your cute dwarf evergreen planted along the front foundation has finally grown up to its mature size and is scraping at the eaves!

So overall I prefer the deciduous woody plants during the colder months. Leafless and bare, yes, but never boring. They offer far more variety in outline, branching pattern, texture, and color. It's during that leafless period that we may study the overall outline of their canopy, the heft of their branching framework, the finesse in their twigs and delicate buds. We can appreciate how they are built to handle the wind with both supple grace and strength, and we may find visual delights in their embellishment with ice and snow.

Appreciating Subtlety
Winter reveals the subtleties. Bark, for instance, offers contrasts of texture and color with endless variation, the patterns and shadows changing with the time of day and weather. The rugged bark of a river birch (Betula nigra) is at its absolute prime in winter, and the silky smooth, silver bark on a deciduous magnolia is at its finest then, too.

I suspect that the real reason I prefer deciduous plants is that I can watch their buds all winter. At first they are tight, shut up like a drum to keep out the cold. Gradually, as the season progresses, they seem to change right before your eyes. Little by little the buds begin to swell, and that is the signal that spring is on the way!

Among the first to explode are the frilly-looking, red maple tree flowers. On a tree with good blooming characteristics you can see a magnificent reddish haze from a distance. Now such a display in midsummer would be laughable but in late winter I find it thrilling -- even if it does jump-start my seasonal allergies.


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