Winter planning

In this season of dormancy, inspiration for next year's garden springs to life.

Credit: iStock

WInter garden planning

In this season of dormancy, inspiration for next year’s garden springs to life

It is the dead of winter, and all our northern gardens have long since been put to bed. This is when gardeners curl up with good books, gardening magazines and seed catalogues and imagine the gardens of next year. English cottage gardens and formal borders and water lilies all seem possible, dreaming in front of the wood stove.

It has warmed up to -15ºC by early afternoon, as the dog and I head down to the beaver pond. New snow crunches underfoot. The ice is nearly a foot thick on the pond, and the only sign of the resident beaver is faint depressions where the air holes were during the last warm spell. The ice shifts and booms in the still air; the dog is momentarily on guard, but then trots off to investigate the fox tracks that meander over the surface of the pond.

Under the shelter of the big spruce and pine trees, a tapestry of moss, lichen and clubmoss carpets the forest floor in a hundred shades of green and silver. Sprigs of prince’s pine and kinnikinnick, scattered with orange-red berries, are visible in windswept open patches through the thin snow cover. Darker red rose hips and translucent red high-bush cranberries glow in the low afternoon sun, willow buds shine deep burgundy, and the russet tips of buffalo-berry twigs gleam.

The dog rejoins me and points out a mouse tunnel that disappears under a fallen log. A line of squirrel tracks along the top of the log is astonishing in its crisp detail, and a small pile of pinecone scales indicates where the squirrel ate lunch not too long ago. A chorus of twittering in the trees overhead is the only sign of a flock of small birds, perhaps pine siskins. Scattered seeds under the alders along the trail mark where chickadees have been feeding.

This is a good time of year for thinking, as well as for planning. How can I achieve this level of health and beauty and diversity, with life in its many and varied forms, in my acre of garden patch? Why do I work so hard forresults not always as harmonious as this? Nobody but Mother Nature weeds or waters this bit of paradise. It is a truly sustainable landscape, not planned or managed or controlled.

Some of the improvements that need to come about in my garden are already in process, as time constraints and a very dry year weed out all but the more self-sufficient plants. Of the estimated 1600 to 1700 species and cultivars in the garden, probably about 100 died out in the drought last summer, although some may surprise me in the spring. A large part of the reason the rest are doing so well is the thick mulch, which replicates the natural duff layer found on a healthy forest floor and serves much the same purpose. The 10-cm (4-in.) layer of locally abundant aged wood chips helps keep moisture in and weeds down, and even in dry years such as this past one the garden survives on natural rainfall alone. The mulch breaks down gradually and over time builds up the soil.

As the many trees and shrubs grow and mature, the garden structure is coming more and more to resemble the layering of plants found in nature. There is a good mix of large, mid-size and smaller deciduous trees, evergreen and deciduous shrubs, early- and late-blooming perennials and tough, low-growing groundcovers. This ensures not only year-round interest and beauty, but also a healthy diversity. The variety of microclimates, shade, shelter and habitat that are created are as important for the plants as they are for the many visible and invisible life forms.

Conifers form the mature canopy in our sub-boreal forest. In my garden, it will be deciduous trees. The red oak is starting to fill in and develop the classic broad branching structure of oak trees, while the younger and smaller bur oak finally got its roots under it this year and is starting to look like a tree. The dozen varieties of maples – the other component of the mixed hardwood canopy that will dominate this garden in 20 years – also had a good year, despite damage from the moose browse last winter. The sugar maple especially, started from seed and adding only a few inches a year for its first five years, surprised us with a three-foot spurt of growth – perhaps in response to the threat to replace it with something more tree-like if it didn’t perform.

The faster-growing but less long-lived deciduous trees, mountain ash, birch, chokecherries and flowering plums all contribute shade, shelter, leaf litter to enrich the soil, and habitat for insect-eating birds.

In the shrubby understory, the stars of the garden this year have been hardy roses (see GardenWise Fall issue, 2006) and ninebarks. Ninebark is proving to be both hardy and trouble free in this climate, and it offers a wide range of heights and foliage colours. From the compact chartreuse ‘Nugget’ to the tall purple-leaved ‘Diabolo’, it is really demonstrating its value in the landscape, although it can take a year or so to pull itself together and form a good clump. Still not as widely known or appreciated as it deserves, ninebark may turn out to be the next heuchera, with new and interesting foliage colours being introduced every year.

Tough and beautiful perennials of all shapes and sizes abound, but the one that surprises me every winter with its off-season value is the old garden favourite Maltese cross. Its tendency to seed itself about is forgiven after its showy orange-red blooms are long past: the richly coloured old-gold stems stand firm right until spring.

As I walk through the woods and reflect on garden successes and failures, I realize that modifying my way of thinking may be more difficult than making changes in my garden. Here I appreciate nature as it is; in the garden, the same “nature” translates into a to-do list. Rather than see the beauty that is there, I look at projects undone or half done, chores long overdue, and glaring errors to be remedied.

The great garden writer Hugh Johnson said, “The hardest thing to control in any garden is the gardener,” but maybe the new ecological paradigm calls for loosening controls over both garden and gardener. More enjoyment of what is; more learning from the garden instead of trying to shape it; more plants that do well and fewer struggles to have everything. I conclude that I need a more Zen-like approach, to let go and not always be in control. That will be my goal for the coming year (a good New Year’s resolution, with as much chance of being kept as any).

The dog is used to me talking to myself, and finds the rabbit which startled across the trail in front of us much more interesting. The rabbit is quite safe, the dog will return tired and happy, and I am more convinced than ever that there are lessons to be learned from nature’s garden. Spring will come soon enough.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Lychnis chalcedonica (Maltese cross) – zone 4
Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ (ninebark) – zone 3
Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Nugget’ (ninebark) – zone 3

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.