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A Winter, Woody Land

A Winter, Woody Land

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The bare branches are stark against the snow's whiteness. No mistake about it - this is winter. Trees and shrubs make up the basic structure of a garden. They are the setting for all else. And denuded of their leafy livery, one may think they have abandoned their purpose. Not so!

Woody plants still define the basic structure of the garden. Their presence is very much there. They are the bones, the skeleton around which all else takes its form. In fact, many plants have quite attractive winter appearance. The winter landscape can be a wonderland of shape and form and color. All we need is to gain an awareness of winter features, and suddenly we see that the plant palette is far more varied than ever imagined.

Here is a great fun and interesting exercise to expand your awareness. Wherever you go take note of the winter character of the plant forms around you. Note the deciduous trees and shrubs (Deciduous means they loose their leaves in winter, as opposed to evergreen.)

Look at the branching structure - is it upright or horizontal, stiff, arching, or weeping. Is it a formal, geometric pattern, or a loose, informal swirl? Are the twigs clustered and broom-like, or open and spaced? I am not giving you all the options. An example is Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), which is identifiable by its sympodial branching - a term meaning the pattern is like a stretched and rounded W or like a child would draw waves or seagulls. (If you don't know what I mean, ask a child to draw waves or seagulls for you...) Look at the plants and make your own descriptions. The important thing is to become aware of "Winter Character".


How about bark and trunk patterns? Look at the texture of the bark. Smooth or rough. Fissured, or blocky, or peeling, or...the possibilities are endless. The mottled, flaking pattern of sycamore (Platanus sp.) or Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) or the choice Stewartia pseudocamellia (I must confess, partial as I am to the name, it really is a spectacular plant in the right conditions. The classic peeling white bark of the birch or the dark of the cherry are both classic. But every species has its own unique bark character.

Winter color is more than just fruits or berries; it can even from a most unexpected source! The bare twigs may be quite bright and ornate. Some willows are yellow or red or purple. Among dogwoods, Cornus stolonifera, the Red Osier Dogwood, has striking red new growth and also is found in a variety called the Yellow Twig Dogwood (for obvious reasons). Not for small gardens, it spreads widely in moist ground, perhaps more than you may want, but it can be controlled by just cutting off the underground runners with a spade. The Red Osier Dogwood favors USDA zones 3 - 7, though it is reported to do well even in zone 9 if the soil is acid and moist enough. Color fades in older wood, so cut out old stems at the ground level to keep a good current growth with the strongest color.

The Siberian Dogwood (Cornus alba 'Sibirica') also has amazingly red twigs, giving it the name Coral Red Dogwood. Also good in zones 3 - 7 or more, the twig color is best when cut back hard to encourage lots of new growth. It is the new growth that really has the clear color. Best in full sun. These dogwoods are not trees, but rather shrubs and reach 8 to 10 feet (2.5 - 3 meters). Place them so the colored twigs are easily seen against the background. The white of snow is a perfect foil, but a very dark background is also effective.

Cornus Stems

Evergreens in Winter

Windburn is an unexpected danger for evergreens in winter. The soil may be frozen, making the water unavailable to the plant. Yet the sun and wind can be very drying. The result of the loss of water from the leaves, but no water coming up from the roots to replace it...burn.

There are other dangers to woody plants in winter. Salt or chemicals used against ice can be very damaging.

Be Very Careful about rock salt to melt ice on walks and driveways. The runoff melt, filled with dissolved salt, can be disaster to whatever plants or soil it may contact.
Snow or ice can be very heavy and, if allowed to build up, can break branches. Proper pruning to create a strong crotch is important. Too narrow of a "V" or too horizontal of branching may break easily. As a general rule, about 60-degree angle is ideal. Note how many conifers (evergreens like hemlock or pine) have flexible branches, often drooping so snow slides off instead of accumulating its weight.

And of course, beware the runaway snowplow or snow blower...

Have a great time just looking at, and appreciating, all the winter aspects of gardens. With a little forthought and planning, your garden can really become a very special place in all seasons. Enjoy!

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