Chores, chortles and chatter.
This time of year, gardeners are watering, soil building, raking and cleaning up. In-between chores, we consider our gardens' potential and rouse ourselves to be more horticulturally inventive with forthcoming purchases of plants, trees and seeds. For me, this is a blissful time — knowing that as beauty unfolds over the next few months, the communion that transpires between me and the garden will grow ever more powerful.
Voila! The sculptural attributes of the common juniper depicted by topiary artist Pearl Fryar on his acreage in Bishopville, South Carolina. If you haven’t done so, see the awe-inspiring documentary “A Man Named Pearl,” available on DVD. You’ll be clippin’ up a storm in no time. (Photo: Nic Barlow, courtesy of Timber Press)
Year-round, my garden fulfills me. Whether I am indoors viewing it through a window, or rushing along the pathway from front door to sidewalk on a cold blowy day, my creativity genes are operative — focused on embellishing beds or restricting them. I am in "designer's mode," thinking about plant combinations that are both stunning and practical.
As I write this, my garden rests in situ since late last year. A variety of potted plants from tomatoes and zinnias to helichrysum petiolare (licorice plant) and various ivies are visible, but brittle from seed heads downward. What I observe in the ground are mostly straw-colored perennials: leymus, stipa and miscanthus grasses, nepeta and agastache, the bygone flower pods of delosperma and my dog's sole patch of buffalo grass — to name only a few. Although these plantings look faded and diminished, they have served as fodder for passerby creatures; even in their current state, they stimulate my eye toward achieving new and effective landscaping schemes.
Anyway, I don't think for a minute that the landscape at Ditch Cottage is glum. Au contraire!
Anyone with an iota of color sense will appreciate the currently slate, celadon and lavender hues of Sedum rupestre — the outstanding ground cover that resembles spruce tips. Left standing through winter is the statuesque plume poppy (Macleaya cordata), with its dramatic fig-shaped turquoise leaves during the growing season, which shrivel to taupe and mauve. Even my temperamental crabapple tree, which rarely reveals its full spectrum of autumnal confetti flecks, offers nutmeg-colored branches when the months are nippy.
"But," you may admonish me, "the color palette that you describe seems as gothic as a Tim Burton movie!"
"Only kind of," I retort.
For the more somber-colored elements of any well-thought-out winter garden are emboldened by evergreen plantings to keep the eye and spirit uplifted. My stalwarts through the past winter include rosemary and elaeagnus shrubs, yucca, agave, pine and weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies "pendula"). Their backups, in turn, are silver and blue conifers, the red highlights of Nandina domestica (Heavenly bamboo), and a purply-black wallop from the leaves of Cotoneaster parneyi (Parney's red clusterberry).
Also, the silvery-white foliage of thread-leaf sage (formerly called Artemesia filifolia, now reclassified as Seriphidium filifolium) has become a signature shrub on my grounds. I adore its ghostly presence (yikes! Tim Burton again!), windswept shape, water hardiness and aroma.
Along with cactus and succulents, all the previously noted shrub species — with their lovely textural mix — keep the landscape interesting around the calendar.
When it comes to texture, I enjoy using herbs as inexpensive and attractive plant choices, not to mention the economic and culinary benefits of growing them outside the kitchen door. Many herbs, such as varieties of sage and oregano, provide a range of foliage colors. Once you've seen a pad of thyme nestled around pavestones or the variegated leaves of pineapple mint meandering through low-growing perennials, they become irresistible and essential inhabitants.
In spring, I shall expand my herb plantings and place them at appropriate sites throughout the garden. I have decided to limit my vegetable selection to dark green, lutein-rich varieties of kale and chard — with the hoped-for result of improved eyesight. Since space at Ditch Cottage is at a premium, these leafy greens will be propagated in pots. Arugula will hang out with them nearby in the ground.
As for tomatoes, I'll rely upon the kindness of strangers, fellow gardeners and farmers' market vendors when summer comes.
Besides the aforementioned objectives, I have undertaken a personal crusade to inspire anyone who grows juniper in their landscape to take up topiary — or "decorative pruning" if that sounds easier. We need more topiary in these parts, and it's so amusing to encounter a peculiar shape amongst the scenery.
Although shaping and clipping woody plants takes time and practice, juniper is ubiquitous; there is plenty around to allow for both mistakes and disasters. Juniper can be pruned in early spring, so get out your secateurs now.
In the meantime, whether you're layering your raised vegetable beds with new bales of alfalfa and straw, or rinsing out ornamental pots for your new thriller-spiller-and-filler container garden, Think Inventively! Plan to do something unusual this season.