Winter Inspirations

Several years ago I bought a book called “Use What You Have Decorating,” which provides useful suggestions about home decor based on the idea in the title: basically, look at your stuff and arrange it to achieve a pleasing result (while also fixing or avoiding common mistakes)—easier said than done, obviously.

It occurred to me that this idea sums up much of my approach to landscaping, except of course that I can’t just move trees and shrubs around the way one might rearrange furniture (alas). But even assuming that a lot of the garden structure is fixed, we can still make decisions about pruning, cutting back, letting things spread, removing or moving volunteers, and generally trying to figure out how to make the best of the materials at hand.

Winter is the traditional time to prune woody plants, of course, and the moment when branches are conveniently bare is the easiest time to see and adjust structure. But as I suggested last month, winter is also a good time to contemplate garden design in general, when so many other outdoor tasks may be impractical.

With the melting of our recent snow, I wander around my yard looking at all the bent and broken stalks left behind by its weight. The Christmas ferns and the hellebores are all hunkered down in their flat winter posture, but they’re still mostly nice and green. I see that the epimedium leaves still stand out, having changed to their dark red or coppery winter color. Some nearby evergreen sedges have spread nicely. They are starting to colonize a stepping stone path, so I see an opportunity to move some to new homes. Elsewhere, other sedges have turned all or mostly brown, but they are still visible and give me a good idea of their coverage. Since carexes are cool season growers, early spring would be a good time to move or divide them to adjust the borders of their spread or start new patches. For these base layer plants, I’m looking for bare spots in the carpet, so to speak, or maybe a place for a new throw rug?

I can also see rosettes of leaves at or near the base of the broken or flattened stalks, showing where things will be reemerging in the spring. There is a lot of common evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, which can be 6 feet tall and is much beloved by birds. I see where it wants to form large patches just by the road (must remember to cut it back before it can block the sight lines from the driveway). Hunting more attentively, I detect the reddish brown leaves of heuchera, the mottled green of Phacelia bipinnatifida, and other biennials or perennials that do not die away completely in the winter. I resist the temptation to clean up all the broken stalks to expose more emerging plants, especially since more snow is in the forecast. Instead, I keep looking for possible places for transplants when the time comes. Maybe target a remaining patch of pachysandra or vinca for some new carpet? (Hmmm… Not a perfect analogy: floors won’t generally reject carpets, not even the most tasteless.)

Some bulbs have sent up leaves by now, especially the grape hyacinths, whose leaves are green all winter, and starflower, Ipheion uniflorum, which not only comes up in winter but has a distinctive onion scent (my husband considers it a weed). If you don’t want them, removing their leaves won’t kill them but will discourage them over time. Maybe they can be crowded out by some sedges? More desirable bulbs, which may be just poking up their leaves, indicate where to be careful when doing spring transplants. If you carefully label all your bulbs, you already know that; for those like me, every spring holds some surprises, since the squirrels and I apparently collaborate to move bulbs around.

There’s a useful reminder: in the garden, I need to take into account my fellow designers—birds, ants, squirrels, and even deer. Fortunately, they often enhance my decorating ideas as much as they undermine them.