THE GARDEN IN WINTER 2014
THE GARDEN IN WINTER 2014
It has been one tough winter for gardens this year. Some of the weather has been brutal, but we are not going to be able to assess the damage properly until spring releases all of its secrets.
The look of the garden has been extraordinary: glorious, even when the sun didn’t shine day after day after day. The pleasure of the garden helped especially when trapped indoors because of freezing winds and snow.
The garden in winter is incredibly valuable because it’s possible to see holes and errors, the thing things that don’t work well make themselves glaringly evident. The perennials always surprise me. So many of them look great all winter: grasses and the grass-like Carexes are obvious ones. But Yarrow and Eupatorium also look marvelous in winter. They hold up really well, hold the snow and don’t look all beaten up. Cut them back in spring when new growth appears at the base of the plant.
The other day I saw a big fat robin chowing down on all the berries left on a barberry. I was so pleased to know that there was still some good forage left at this late date. Of course you have to think about this well in advance when you want to create a winter garden.
We can get all worried about what’s happening under the snow and ice. But here’s one of my favourites: Helleborus foetidus. It was buried all winter and then bounced back into beauty once again. Okay that’s what being hopeful is to a gardener.
I’ve gone a bit overboard collecting one plant—Sciadopytis spp—and have been adding more year by year because they look so amazing in every season. This year a golden form was leaning over and impossible to help (would have damaged the whorls of needles). I left it alone and it straightened out on its own. You have to trust the strength of your plants not to fool around with them or do something that will lead to damage down the road.
The traditional thing at this time of year is, of course, to start harvesting the garden to force early spring blooms indoors. This is a lot of fun and you can view it as a way of extreme early pruning. Forsythia is the most common one, but don’t forget pussy willows, fruits such as cherry, pear and apple; and experiment with other spring blooming shrubs and trees such as all of the jewel-like stemmed shrub-like dogwoods such Cornus sericea as well as trees like C. mas and C. kousa). Just don’t mash up the bottom of the stems, make a clean cut, change the water often and observe another season emerge before your eyes.
Each year I keep our Christmas tree, chop it up and put pieces and pieces all around the garden perimeter. This year I couldn’t face it and tossed it out on the street to let the city grind it up and turn it into compost. I regret this now. I could have propped it up until spring. It’s a really good way to see where a new evergreen would look really good. And then chop it up.
Like many places in North America, we had wild tree-destroying storms which knocked out electricity all over Ontario and Quebec. But I was called by jubilant clients who came through the wild weather unscathed. Those were the people who’d had really good pruning on the part of our arbourists last year. One client said: “There are trees and limbs down all along our street and we only lost a few twigs in those big winds.”
It’s impossible to emphasize how important really good extreme pruning can be. It might take you a season to recover, but the health of shrubs and trees must be put first. The aesthetics will follow. In another year you won’t remember what it looked like before the whacking took place and the plants will continue to grow in a much more sensible and attractive way.
Have your property checked out by an arbourist (one who is certified, a company that comes highly recommended by people with great looking gardens. We use Authentic Tree Care). Do it once, bite the bullet on the expense and you won’t have to do it again for a couple of years. The transformation will be astonishing.
Tasks such as hand pruning, shaping plants, shrubs and grasses should be going on all the time. Hire people who know how to do this properly, or take a course. Select a boring shrub and whack away with impunity to give yourself some experience. You can’t kill Burning Bush or Forsythia or even many hydrangeas (not H. querifolia—leave it alone) and most people don’t do nearly enough to these plants anyway. Shape up yourself mentally and then bravely set out to look at your plants.
If your neighbours do have trees you feel are dangerous, please talk to them. We put in a gorgeous new garden but it was flanked by properties with massive trees on either side which even to an untrained eye needed attention. During the storm a giant tree from one side fell into the new garden, and from the other side, a huge branch took out the electricity—for five days. Since they were not city trees, each neighbor was responsible for the damage. But how sad it is that when people don’t care enough about their trees to look after them. You don’t let your hair get disheveled. Don’t let your trees get the same way.
I’ve got a lot of complaints to make about the treatment of city trees, but boy when the storm hit, the city’s arbourists were out in what seemed like a 24/7 shift. So many of the downed trees would have come through intact if they had been properly treated in the first place. We’ll never have enough money released to look after our canopy and it’s pathetic that we have to have an extreme event to show how vulnerable that canopy is and how much we’ve lost.
To cheer you up, start looking at catalogues such as www.gardenimport.com. They have a lovely web site but I’m crazy about their catalogues which you can order online for a few dollars. Botanus has expanded way beyond the bulbs they started out with. This is an ambitious Canadian company and they have excellent taste in plants. www.botanus.com
And have some more fun and get a copy of the 2014 Harrowsmith’s Truly Canadian Almanac. They miscalculated our winter (supposed to be mild and we were counting on it). But there is so much content in the rest of the magazine it’s worth the $6: www.moongate.ca
Plan to add pollinator plants to every border this year. We’re in crisis with bees and butterflies. Make sure you have something from this list:
This is a lovely mix of annuals, perennials and even a vegetable (pea) and herbs (chives and lavender). You can make up your own mix and all of these plants will fit into any border and look good. Here’s a list of the ones I have in my own garden: Baptisia, Chelone, Ironweed (Vernonia spp) and lots of different goldenrods. And of course if you want to do Monarch butterflies a favour allow Milkweed to flourish.
I spent several weeks in Paris and had the most glorious trip in a long life with lots of travel. I mucked about in little gardens hidden away behind walls and monuments. Many of these places were open to the public. Here’s one which I considered our local monument since it was just down the street. I went in almost every day, just to sit and look at the roof tops and watch the light change. You are never without a garden in this city and every Sunday all the side streets are closed to traffic. The only sound is of people walking and talking quietly and street performers entertaining
Speaking of travels. We are planning a fantastic trip for this April: going to Christopher Lloyd’s astounding garden, Great Dixter. The chief gardener there now is Fergus Garrett who has turned into one of the great gardeners of our time. We are signed in for three days of lectures and demonstrations by Fergus; plus going around and seeing some of the other great gardens nearby. The hero of my life is Beth Chatto, a great writer and gardener (like Lloyd) and we’re going to meet up with her in her own garden. Here’s the link:
marjorieharris.com and in the flash across the top hit travel specifics. There’s a sale on right now. Or make it easy:
I hope to see you in the garden, anyone’s garden.
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