As a garden designer I usually spend the winter months at my computer designing gardens that will be built in the spring. My company, Bloom Design, shuts down at the end of December when we put the gardens to bed for the winter. For years winter has been my least favorite time of year; it’s when I have a determination to hibernate. Winter is synonymous with mortality, hence the expression “Old Man Winter.” The season reduces everything to its core: bare branches, bare essentials, and chilled to the bone.
Growing up in Oklahoma, my family‘s idea of winter was to put the sprinkler onto the 30 foot juniper tree next to our house and watch it crystallize. It was a small attempt at creating the excitement of a season we couldn't count on. There were many winters when we had no snow at all. Fear would best describe the regional attitude towards winter. Most native Oklahomans were not experienced at driving on snow and ice. With a dusting of snow, the schools would close and we would hunker down and avoid the roads. Surprisingly, years later I found myself in one of the coldest areas of the country considering the details of a season I barely knew.
I never gave winter a second thought until my wife and I committed us to a broken down farm in the western Catskills. Upstate, there are two schools of thought concerning the frigid weather: those who complain endlessly about the longest season and those who realize they have sunk all their life's savings into one of the coldest areas outside of Alaska and had better get on and like it. I began each winter with disdain for the frozen tundra and opted out to read gardening books and seed catalogs by the fire. The old house could not be warmed up even with the central heating on and the wood burning stove constantly fed. The arctic air would blow through the lath and plaster. A century-and-a-half of wallpaper was the only insulation. Just staying warm was a full time occupation. I now realize why the original farmers kept their livestock on the ground floor of their houses.
It was only after my house had been insulated that I could afford to explore the arctic landscape. The Scottish comedian Billy Connelly said, “In Scotland we say there is no bad weather — there‘s only the wrong gear.” With this in mind, I found the right clothes and purchased cross country skis to better access the land. It was a good thing because in December we found ourselves snowed in after a northeaster dumped 32 inches of snow. I ventured outside to find a six foot escarpment of snow along the driveway. There was no sign of the perennial border. Gone was the eight foot high dry stone retaining wall. The stone staircase was obliterated, the car smothered. I noticed eight to-ten foot mountains of snow along the country roads. I now understand why there are no hedgerows like in England.
Through trial and error, the first farmers quickly worked out a practical way to exist in a very harsh environment. White clapboard farmhouses were placed on roads, and barns and outbuildings were placed opposite the houses, making everything accessible. Fir and pines were planted on the north side of the houses to protect against prevailing winds.
Having observed the storm’s aftermath, it was time to get out into the landscape. Cross country skis were the only way to get around the four-and-a-quarter acres. Skiing reveals the lay of the land. The farmhouse is nestled into the side of a hill, and the elevation changes dramatically. From the top of the hill to the bottom of the garden there is a 40 foot difference. A collision with the willow tree brings me new insight. Lying at the tree’s base, it occurs to me that winter lasts six months here in the northeast. It is the longest season and has been completely ignored by us gardeners. By planting trees and shrubs with ornamental bark, stems and fruit I could enrich the winter landscape. At the moment the only thing of winter interest in my garden is the weeping willow tree I planted five years ago. The golden bark reminds me of an illuminated manuscript against the white canvas. The ice encased weeping branches suggest the movement of falling, which seems appropriate to the season.
The regional evergreen trees look beautiful laden down in snow, but the color red is what is missing in my garden. There are many varieties of red and orange fruiting shrubs which, if planted in mass, would brighten up the place. Winterberry, cotoneaster, barberry, pyracantha and viburnum all hold their brightly colored fruit during the winter season. Ornamental trees such as crabapples, chokecherry and hawthorns, will hold their fruit for most of the winter. The different colors of bark can also add color to the winter garden. The red and yellow twigged dogwoods make a great splash of color against a blanket of snow. The cinnamon bark of a cherry tree or the apricot peeling bark of the heritage birch planted in front of an evergreen are stunning. The sculptural branching of the tortuosa tree against the winter sky adds texture to the garden. The beauty of the winter garden is stem, bark and branch. By planting fruiting specimens there is the added bonus of attracting more bird life. In most cultures, paradise is often depicted as occurring in a garden. Why should we northerners suffer because our spring and summer are so short?
We feel rejuvenated when we are outside in spring, summer and autumn. But our perception of winter is that it has shut down or is asleep and that it is unworthy of our engagement. Instead of thinking that nature has shut down, why not connect with the season and see all that it has to offer? Lack of light in winter is often blamed for people's depression. Could depression be a result of not being engaged with nature?
Taking a walk on a winter’s day clears the head. There are many mysterious details to observe. Ever shifting patterns of snow resemble an aerial landscape with terracing, hills and valleys carved out by wind. These temporary patterns are so like the earth's terrain it makes me realize how the principal sculptor is weather. Whoever says nothing grows in winter has not observed the fern like crystal patterns that appear overnight on windowpanes. Are they not worthy of the same contemplation as the rose in June?
Don Statham divides his time between Bloom Design, Inc. in New York City and projects in upstate New York.