Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Designing the garden for winter interest

As winter arrives in the midwest, plants rest and their bright colors dissipate, leaving a palette of white and gray.  If you can adjust your vision to appreciate winter's minimalist palette, you can begin to notice the beauty of subtle differences in texture and whispers of color.

Now that you are spending less time in the garden, a bit more time can be devoted to critically assessing progress in the garden and planning changes to be made in the coming season.

A more formal design process could involve utilizing a base map of your property showing property lines, permanent features (house and garage).

Decks above patio at back of house provide a variety of
different vantage points to view yard and neighborhood
The rock retaining wall has become essentially a permanent structure
in our yard due to the huge size of the boulders stacked with
heavy machinery to create it.

A transparent overlay can be used to indicate slopes, drainage pathways, sunlight exposure, and wind direction observed during the season.  Existing surfaces and structures, including driveways, walkways, steps, patios, decks, retaining walls, and raised beds can be sketched onto an overlay.

Arbors, statues, fountains and other architectural
 elements can help bring life to a dormant garden.

Wooden arbor and bench provide focal point
and a chilly spot to sit and observe winter activity out on the lake.
Consider the property's relationship to neighboring properties, local plant communities, views, noise, and light. Review the needs, uses, and goals of the family and pets over the seasons of the year, making "goose egg"sketches to represent the activity areas.  Review circulation paths available through the snow and mud, views to consider screening and framing, winter winds to block, and how sun exposure changes over the course of the year.
Now that leaves have fallen from the trees, it's a good time to review the current line, form and size of trees and shrubs that have grown since they were planted. Conditions of the site will change over time, with light and wind exposures changing as plants grow. Deciduous trees on the east and west sides that can cool a structure during the summer, allow passive solar heating in winter, that evergreens would not facilitate.
If drifting snow is a problem in the winter, windbreaks of trees and shrubs can act as living snow fences to control drifting. Lower shrubs planted on the windward side will trap snow before it blows next to the house. Because of the decrease in wind speed, snow will settle immediately downwind of from a windbreak or snow fence, so the windward row of the living snow fence should be at least 100' from the building or area to be protected from snow drifts.  A minimum of two rows of evergreens and one row of shrubs is most effective for snow control. Winds will funnel around the ends of a snow fence. Avoid placing a row of evergreens along the west side of a driveway to avoid inadvertently causing snow drifts to form in the driveway.  Some years we have found huge drifts to plow on our driveway as the wind blows off the lake up over that back side of the house dumping snow in front of the house, as more snow is funnel around the sides of the house to the front yard.

A diagram of how wind and blowing snow are dispersed by a living snow fence.
Consider using a "backward" design process involving sketching existing plants along a horizontal line and determining what areas might be filled in and researching what plants might be options. This rendering can then be transferred to a "plan view" (bird's-eye view) allowing consideration of depth in addition to height and width.

With google maps I am able to get an aerial satellite view of our neighborhood zooming in to see the permanent structures and existing planting beds in relation to neighboring houses:

Sherwood Google Map

And borrowed views can become more compelling as bare branches reveal broader expanses of the surrounding landscape. Designing a garden using shakkei (sha-kay) or “borrowed landscape,” is a centuries-old Japanese concept of incorporating elements of the surrounding landscape into the garden. It can make small gardens seem larger and promote harmony between a garden and the larger landscape and the garden. Shakkei can add depth and perspective to the garden by borrowing enough of the outside view to enhance the garden, but not so much that it is overpowering.  To implement shakkei in the garden, choose the feature or aspect of the surrounding landscape you want to focus on.  Determine where the best view of it will be (a sitting area, widening in the pathway,...) to facilitate creation of a vantage point. The focal point can be framed using trees, shrubs, fences, screens or walls, while masking out undesirable parts of the view. To complement and enhance the borrowed feature use elements that echo it in either material, form or color, drawing the eye to make the connection to the borrowed view. (For example, if rolling hills are the focus, trim a hedge to echo their shape or if the neighbour’s pink-flowering apple tree is framed, plant some smaller shrubs with pink flowers that bloom at the same time,...)

Winter view from our deck across street and empty lot to Lake Winnebago
View to the old boat landing to the northwest
from our deck
With some foresight and careful planning a beautiful landscape can be designed to shine against the stark relief of the restful season.

Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle ...
a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl.
And the anticipation nurtures our dream.
-Barbara Winkler

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