The Cranky Gardener

The Unmade Bed

Think before you plant.

The only thing most gardeners really want from winter is assurance that it won’t be back. But before we plunge headlong into spring–starting more seeds than we could ever hope to plant, scarfing up little wonders at nurseries because we simply must have them–let us stop to consider the lesson of restraint to be learned from the garden in winter.

People often assume that the winter garden, its flowers having died back, is devoid, wanting–gardenless. Each year, the gardening press rallies to remedy this misimpression but only makes things worse. Solace is offered: story after story on how to supply your garden with what is ubiquitously referred to as “winter interest.” This consists of a seductive array of close-up photos of dangling berries and mottled, peeling bark designed to cure whatever ails your garden.

One problem with the term winter interest is that it implies that winter is not very interesting. Another is the notion that we seek something as mealy and undistinguished as interest, rather than beauty, which is what we strive for come spring.

In their defense, these articles do make us aware of these woody winter plants and of the increasing diversity of cultivars available for winter gardening. Few things bring me as much joy as the sight of my own swampy backyard, all leafless and brittle and dotted throughout with bright orange-red winterberries clinging to their branches. To see the monochromatic splendor of a wintry Vermont wood, populated only by stands of dusky-white birches and smooth, silver-gray beeches rising from the snow, is, I firmly believe, to live. The craze for winter interest, on the other hand, has really become a fetish for anything that can be left poking out of the snow.

But the garden as a whole can be beautiful in winter, and it can teach us a lot about what makes a garden beautiful in summer. Winter is a perfect time to visit gardens–not your neighbor’s garden, perhaps, or a garden known mainly for its flower borders, but public gardens, historic private gardens, well-designed parks, and arboretums. Quieter and more evocative than in the high season, when teeming with camera-toting tourists, they’re more likely to reveal their secrets, their pasts, and their intentions. Undistracted by flowers or too much color, you can see tones, lines, shapes, and light–the garden’s pure form.

A garden is created more through gestures than by any one plant. Structure, often referred to as “bones,” is created through architectural elements such as evergreen hedges, arrangements of trees and shrubs, walls, terraces, and flights of stairs. The placement of these things affects the spatial perception of the ground, the sides, and the roof plane of the garden. Once you have created such a garden “room,” you can furnish it with any seasonal delights you like. The bones of the garden are not put in place merely to console you when you peer from the window in winter; they are the garden.

When I visited Chiswick House, a Palladian villa outside London, this winter, the garden beds in front of the 19th century conservatory were all empty–just brown dirt against green grass. These beds, made for the garish, summer displays of bright annuals popular in Victorian England, will shortly be filled with them again. But on the January day when I visited, these beds revealed themselves as simple shapes, well-proportioned and well-placed, making highly pleasing abstract patterns across the ground. We would do well to consider our own garden beds, no matter how small, not just as holes where the flowers go but as things in themselves. Careful placement of our beds would ensure that they did not appear unsightly in winter, and more importantly, that they create a satisfying grounding for the flowers to come.

This part of the Chiswick gardens was wrapped by a high wall and punctuated with urns. A flower bed or border is almost always more attractive with a backdrop or enclosure, such as a hedge or fence, to set it off. Even when empty, an enclosure immediately creates a garden.

O ne of the most perfect garden rooms in our country, and perhaps the most simple, is at the Bloedel Reserve, formerly a private estate, on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. It consists of a 10-foot-high clipped evergreen hedge bordering a large rectangular lawn. Another large rectangle, a reflecting pool, is set into the lawn, level with the grass. Pool, grass, and hedge form a rectangle in a rectangle in a rectangle. If you walk in through the surrounding woods, this overtly man-made environment will appear to you as a scene of sublime calmness. The woods are brought into the garden through their reflection on the water. You’re forced to see the wild more clearly; you are made more aware of the trees than when you were walking under them. The simple gesture, strongly articulated, is more powerful than any number of smaller ones. Come summer, this garden will hardly look different from what it does now–a beautiful garden all of green, without flowers.