Winter in the Landscape

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Winter in the Landscape

Maxwell Arboretum: The Garden in Winter    |    Book List     |     Gallery
"Deciduous Trees in Winter" from Garden and Forest, 1894 (PDF 668K)

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[OE. winter strong m. = OFris. winter, OS. wintar (MLG., MDu., LG., Du. winter),   OHG. wintar (MHG., G. winter), ON. vetr, earlier vettr, vittr (Sw., Da. vinter, from LG.), Goth. wintrus:*wentrus, prob. f. nasalized form of the Indo-Eur. base wed-,  wod-, ud- to be wet, found in WET a., WATER n., OTTER.----Etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary


Maxwell Arboretum: The Garden in Winter
Most experienced gardeners know to plant for season-long bloom, from the first bulbs to the last Aconitum, from April's Amelanchier blossoms to November's Scarlet Oak leaf. But it is equally important to plant for year-long beauty. Winter is an neglected season in the garden. We tend to move indoors and all too often think of winter only as a time for perusing seed catalogs.

Once the last blazing maple leaf has floated to the ground and before those first spring blossoms burst forth with their renewing fresh life, what is there to capture our interest, engage our imagination; what is there to stir our souls?

As bright colors fade along with the warmth of the sun, what do we begin to see that the imposing, impressive hues of spring, summer, and autumn have overwhelmed and made secondary? All of the things that make the winter garden and landscape so special:  


  shadows and silhouettes; bark
  color other than bloom
  seedheads and persistent fruit and berries 
  the variety of evergreens

  and, yes, flowers

Maxwell Arboretum has all of these things to offer us in abundance. The wood chip paths of the arboretum aren't plowed, so put on your snow boots, come see Maxwell in winter, and pick up some ideas for your own yard.



                                                         "Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them."
Vincent A. Simeone




While a lot of winter in the landscape is rightfully concerned with The Large--the towering dark forms of coniferous evergreen trees, the tracery of Kentucky Coffeetree branches against a brilliant January sky, it is also a time when we are naturally drawn to the details of plants. Often etched with frost or outlined in a casing of ice, the intricate remnants of last year's blossoms and the buds of next year's growth reflect both the bittersweet poignancy and the promise that are central to gardening.

Blossoms and buds of an azalea in the Arboretum's collection.



During the "growing season," coniferous evergreen trees serve as a good backdrop to show off the colors of other plants, and evergreen herbaceous plants are noticeable for their blooms. In winter, when most bold color fades and the omnipresent green of turf and leaves disappears, our familiar evergreens take on new importance. They come to the forefront as the most visible of our plants and when there is snow on them they take on an added dimension and provide the familiar iconic visual definition of the season.

In the winter, the various shades of "green" in our evergreens become apparent. Evergreens are also one of the most important components of form and definers of space in the winter landscape. Look at the line of Norway Spruce (Picea abies) east of the creek that shields the view of the cars in the Dental parking lot. Or the green wall created by the spruce, pines, and firs between Holdrege Street and the East Campus Loop. Even when other trees lose their leaves, these old giants and young replacements screen the traffic noise and bustle from the arboretum visitor.
The addition of dwarf evergreens in the perennial border or other herbaceous beds serves to ground the planting in the wintertime and adds substance to the dried flower growth.

One of the most important functions of evergreens in the landscape is texture: whether it's the wispy soft needles of the white pine or the prickly stubs of spruce branches, this addition of texture is a respite from winter's soft snow.

There's not much to smell in the winter garden. There's cold. There's snow. But the needles of Abies balsamea (Balsam Fir) or Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-Fir, not a true fir), bruised between one's fingers, can transport a person to the mountains or north woods with one inhalation.
Evergreens add much more to the arboretum during the winter months. Read more about their contributions in some of the categories below.

 norwayspruceform.jpgThe green wall of towering Picea abies (Norway Spruce) along the arboretum's Holdrege Street frontage provide screening even in the winter and illustrate the power of form in the landscape.

pinus in snow
Here are ice covered Pinus nigra (Austrian Pine) just north of Maxwell's prairie.


Grasses are an indispensable addition to the winter landscape. Form, texture, pattern, color, detail, movement---all the elements of winter gardening are exemplified by ornamental grasses.


Straw-colored Miscanthus sinensis, topped with its floppy plumed seedheads, is set off when placed against the dark branches of evergreens at the Fleming Slope.


 schizachyriuminsnow.jpgIn the Yeutter Garden, Willa Cather's "shaggy red grass," Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) stands upright, supported by the snow


   Ice covered grass stems at the arboretum's prairie  


  Pattern and contrast:




The strongly upright stems of Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' are backed by the snow-covered seedheads of Miscanthus sinensis on Yetter Berm.

schizachyriuminsnow4.jpg      shizachyriumposteredges.jpg



We've seen the importance of evergreens in introducing texture to the winter landscape, but many other plants reveal their textures at this time of year as well. Grasses are especially noticeable for their soft or bristly stems, their plumes of seedheads, or their sharp spikes.
Of course, tree bark captures our attention more when the leaves are off the trees. Whether it's the rough furrows of the old cottonwood that anchors the center of the arboretum, the smooth skin of a young maple, or the especially interesting barks of the Three-flower Maple (Acer triflorum), Seven-Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides), and Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana), winter is a good time for us to pay attention the wide variety of bark of the arboretum's trees.

Simply looking at these two evergreens 
explains a lot about texture in the landscape. On the left is Picea  pungens glauca (Colorado Blue Spruce) with short, stiff, prickly needles and a great frosty color. On the right is Pinus strobus (White Pine) with long, soft needles.


Bark Texture:

Acer negundo Boxelder
Acer triflorum
Robinia pseudoacacia Black Locust
Picea abies  Norway Spruce
Tilia americana American Linden


During the rest of the year, there's an abundance of movement: people, cars, birds, squirrels, the wind in the leaves; there's just a lot going on. Come December, the garden, like the world, stills. Because of this, what movement there is, grows in importance. Grasses swaying, dark branches blowing in a blizzard, dried berries bouncing with the weight of a blue jay on a twig--all take on an added significance in winter's quiet.


When the eyes are not distracted by color of things, their shape becomes more pronounced especially when seen against the stark white background of snow. The straight solid trunks of trees, the pyramids of coniferous evergreens; all forms take on an added significance in the winter garden.

Here's the granddaddy Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine) at the north end of the creek:


Again, lacking bright color, the patterns of nature are revealed: 

schizachyriumbwcontrast.jpgA high contrast image of Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) in the snow of Yeutter Garden.

The controlled chaos pattern of azalea leaves in the snow


Snow, caught in the bark of one of Maxwell's mighty oaks.


Jig-saw patterned bark of Pinus bungeana, Lacebark Pine, east of the Gazebo 
Contrast, Shadows, and Silhouettes:

The dark of a trunk against the brilliant snow. The craggy etched outlines of the Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) against the pale blue winter sky. The elongated late afternoon shadows of filigreed shrubs. These sorts of things really jump out at us in wintertime. The skeletons of deciduous trees and shrubs are revealed in winter to show us their branching patterns—pendulous, upright, or horizontal.

Here are the twigs of the arboretum's Tlia tomentosa 'Sterling' (Silver Linden) just east of the Yeutter Garden.


The unique weeping branches of the Morus alba 'Chaparral' specimen just north of the Gazebo are highlighted when edged with snow.


I've been writing about the winter landscape as if it doesn't include color. This is, of course, simply not true; it's just that the colors of the winter garden tend to be more muted, softer. They are the endless blue to green gradiations, shades, and tints of evergreens needles; the infinite browns, yellows, gold, tans, russets of dessicated herbaceous foliage; the sudden black, brilliant red, maroon, or deep blue of berries, hips, and other fruits; the rainbow of colors found in our native Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) at the Yeutter Garden. The twigs of certain shrubs stand out against the snow because of their red, pale green, or yellow color. But remember, there is a myriad of ways to bring color into your winter garden other than planting the ubiquitous Red-Twig Dogwood. Whole books have been written about how to find color in the winter garden.
  rhustyphinainsnow.jpgIce encrusted seed heads of Rhus typhina (Staghorn Sumac) at the northwest corner of the prairie.    

One mistake that inexperienced gardeners make is to clean up their perennial beds in the fall when the herbaceous plants have stopped blooming. When they do that, they not only deprive our winter birds of needed food, they eliminate one of the great joys of the winter landscape. These photographs show the wide variety of seedheads that provide winter interest to the landscape--and bring wildlife. The patterns formed when they are covered in snow are wonderful additions to the winter garden.

Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)



miscanthusseedhead.jpgGrasses really shine in the winter--their seedheads are one of the reasons.
Miscanthus sinensis

Chrysanthemum 'Clara Curtis'
in the Yeutter Rock Garden


asternovaangliae.jpg This is Aster novae-angliae, the New England Aster, on Yeutter Berm



Choosing plants with persistent fruit is an easy way to bring interest and color into your winter landscape. Choose some cultivars whose fruit isn't tasty to birds, so you get to enjoy them all winter while also benefiting from the presence of birds attracted to the berries that they do like.


Malus 'Donald Wyman' at the east end of the Lilac Collection


 Ligustrum or Privet, if its not sheared into a hedge, produces wonderful dark blue/black fruit

Winter Bloom:

Yes, there are plants in Maxwell Arboretum that bloom in the winter months. Shrubs that can bloom in late winter before March 21st include Corneliancherry Dogwood, Pussy Willow and the Witchhazels.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have bloomed in the Viburnum Collection as early as January 24th, although February is more likely. Other bulbs also bloom when it's technically still winter: Scilla, Crocus, Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), and even some early daffodils on Yeutter Berm.
Our earliest blooming herbaceous plant is the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) which can be found east of the Gazebo and in the Shade Garden.

 galanthusnivalis.jpgIn Maxwell Arboretum the Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrops) can bloom as early as January.

 lentenrose.jpg The Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose) usually blooms in March.




The Hamamelis vernalis (Vernal Witchhazel, left) usually blooms in March, while Hamamelis virginiana (Common Witchhazel, right) blooms in the early winter. We have both in Maxwell Arboretum.

The Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum
December 2009


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