The Winter Landscape: Plant Hardiness

Plants are very specific about what soil, light and water conditions they need to thrive. Any gardener who has moved a sulking plant around 3 or 4 times before striking pay dirt understands this. It is simple to spot a plant that is unhappy.  Figuring out the cause of the trouble can be tough, as there are so many factors that come in to play. There are those plants, in defiance of every good intention and effort to find them a suitable home, that fail to prosper. I have killed outright plenty of plants. Given that every plant has a strong will to live and reproduce, those failures are frustrating and embarrassing. Figuring out what a plant needs to thrive is 2 parts science, 2 parts luck, and 6 parts good instincts. The hellebores in the above picture look unhappy, as they always do in February. They like the filtered sun, protection from wind, the friable soil and regular moisture that is available to them here in the growing season. They have what they need to thrive. What they do not like in February is the cold. Before any plant in a Michigan garden can thrive, it has to be able to survive our winters.

Plant hardiness zones indicate a worst case low temperature for different parts of the country. The USDA, in compiling data from weather stations, and factoring in mitigating circumstances which can influence low temperatures, has produced a plant hardiness map. Interested in that map making process?  mapping plant hardiness    It gives gardeners an idea of what the lowest average winter temperature can be in a given area. The hardiness map is a guide that can help gardeners select plants which are appropriate for their area. My area is at best a zone 6, and at worst, a zone 5b.  This means that plants that are able to withstand low temperatures in the -15 to -10 degrees should be able to survive in my garden. That includes these ratty looking  hellebores. Last year’s foliage may be burned from cold and wind, but they are very much alive, and waiting for some signs of spring.

The key to survival in very cold regions is dependent on that plant slowly going dormant over the metabolic slow down that we call fall, and a constant deep dormancy throughout the period of very cold weather. What the hardiness zone map does not provide for are weather events out of the norm. We have had temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s for a week. On February 18, the record high for that day of 62 degrees set in 1976 was eclipsed by a 65 degree day. One or two days of weather that warm might not affect any plants that are still dormant.  The frost is deep in the ground. But the days are staying warm. We have a low of 56 forecast for overnight tonight. Now I am starting to fret. It is too warm, way too early. Under that winter foliage, I see signs that the hellebore flower stalks have begun to emerge.

hellebore A plant breaks dormancy for a constellation of reasons.  Longer day length and warming temperatures are key. No plant reacts instantly to a brief change in conditions. But a change that persists is an invitation to wake up. Hellebores are greatly prized by gardeners everywhere. I do favor helleborus orientalis hybrids for my zone.  This group of hellebores, now known as helleborus hybridus, are bred from hellebores commonly known as Lenten roses. This group generally begins blooming in April in my zone 6 garden. Hellebore hybrids featuring the genes of Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose, naturally bloom at a time which is winter in my garden. Do I have inter generic hellebores in my garden that would prosper better in zones further south?  Of course I do. I am always pushing my luck. I have had great success growing plants marginal to my zone. But nature is unpredictable. Nor does she care a whit for me and my love for my garden.

snowdropsOur bitter 2014 winter turned my zone 6 into a battle zone 4. None of my magnolias bloomed. My parrotias sustained extensive die back to their upper branches. My roses were killed back to within a foot of the ground plane. My clematis sputtered. My 20 year old boxwood had unbearable damage. It was a sobering experience, to say the least. Any plant marginal to my plant hardiness zone suffered damage of one sort or another. The winter of 2015 might have been worse. On February 20, 2015, the temperature in Roscommon Michigan was -39 degrees. The statewide average for that day was 18.5 degrees below zero. The damage done to evergreens these two back to back vicious winters was extensive. But those plants that were safely dormant managed to survive. The snow drops showing their faces yesterday worry me.  65 degrees in February is an anomaly.  The cold weather will return. How much cold can their flowers endure?

magnolia stellataOf course I am anxiously checking all of my early spring blooming plants.  This magnolia stellata was a 2 foot tall tree the day I bought my house twenty some years ago. It has prospered where it was planted.  It did not bloom in either 2014 or 2015. Its hardiness was sorely tested by a pair of bad winters.  The flowering in 2016 was a happening.  I am trying to decide if our warm weather is encouraging the buds to swell.  Not that I could intervene. Mother nature bats last. I am reading we have some night temperatures in early March in the teens.  Though I am ready to wash my hands of winter at the end of February, March is a winter month for us. Any early spring plant which is breaking dormancy right now may not fare so well in March. This is more a worry than a certainty.

Late this past summer, I replanted my rose garden. Though I know there is a limit to their hardiness in my zone, it is better for me to start over, than to do without. That was a personal decision, not a decision driven by a plant hardiness map. As for the dogwoods, I hope they will be able to endure a freakish warm spell in the middle of winter. No small part of the winter landscape are plants that endure.

 

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Ornament In The Winter Landscape

Though a landscape that is striking in all of the seasons largely depends on the confluence of a great design, interesting hard scape and thoughtful choices of plant material, I would venture to say that ornament in the landscape plays an especially vital role in our winter. The plants are welcome to be the star of the show every season of the year, as they should be. The walkways, driveways, and terraces facilitate flow, and provide places for people to be a part of it all. The 4th season in northern landscapes have a regional set of challenges. All the deciduous plants sulk in the advancing cold, shed their leaves, and go dormant for the winter. The trees stand firm and skeletal in the winter; the trunks and branches are indeed very sculptural. The branchy remains of shrubs and perennials rattle in the wind. This seasonal plant sculpture is not by choice. A gardener might say there is no meat in this scene. The evergreens are indeed green, but they can have a stiff and stoic look in their glazed over and embattled winter state, quite unlike their lively spring to fall life. The walks, terraces and driveways meant to welcome people into the landscape disappear under scarcely an inch of snow. The ground plane is at best obscured, and at worst, buried in our winters. Winter in Michigan is not so easy a season for gardeners. Long suffering is a phrase that applies. But there are ways to help mitigate that grief. Garden ornament?  By this I mean any object with a distinct profile that has a year round home in a landscape. Any object placed in the landscape that is marked by shape, mass, personality, memory, and persistence endows the winter landscape.  I am talking about those garden ornaments that have both a physical and emotional presence that cannot be snowed in, or grayed out. They are all the better for a coating of ice, or a hat of snow.   Pots, fencing, arbors, statuary, furniture, sculptures, fountains, architectural fragments, fire pits, bird baths, armillary spheres – all of these garden ornaments have a surprisingly lively and welcome life in the winter.

Those of you who put your garden furniture in the basement for the winter might consider this. The heat and relentless sun common in the summer season is much harder on garden furniture than anything the winter season might dish out. I leave my garden furniture out all winter. Though it is unlikely I will sit out in the winter, garden furniture is ornamental in the winter. That furniture can organize a view, even though the terrace upon which it sits is snowed under. The memory of the summer season warms the winter landscape. It may be that how I visually react to my summer furniture out in the winter landscape is stronger than my summer view.  In the summer, my terrace furniture is about its use.  In the winter, that furniture is a sculpture that speaks to the future.

This pergola with a wood roof and stone pillars was built to shrug off off anything the Michigan winter has to deliver. It is successful in that regard. The winter pots dusted with snow are landscape ornaments set at eye level that warm both that pergola, and this landscape. They counter the winter with the evidence of the gardening hand. An ornament selected for a garden or landscape is first and foremost a personal choice. Though I dressed these pots for winter for a client, it is her aura that enlivens this winter landscape.

To follow are a group of pictures of what I call ornament in the winter landscape. They that tell a story far better than I ever could. I rarely have cause to visit a client’s landscape in the winter. But when I go, I am struck by how garden ornament can improve, organize and energize the look of a landscape gone dormant.

A container, and an arrangement to go with for winter, can provide a focal point for the landscape that might be more welcome and more striking than that same container planted for summer. The winter season can be a good gardening season. It just asks for more. I would not want to be gardening in any other place than where I am gardening. Even in the winter.

Window boxes mounted outside a sun room, and dressed for winter.

a  terrace in winter

a Branch fountain in winter

a bench and pots in the winter season

birdbath in winter

sculpture in the winter landscape

urn dressed for winter

bench with snow pillow

winter containers loaded with snow

pots dressed for winter with a dusting of snow

Ornament in the winter landscape can be supremely satisfying. I was right behind Milo this winter day. We both liked what was there to see.

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The Winter Garden: From Inside Out

It stands to reason that the winter landscape should provide interesting views from indoors.  Even if you are a dedicated a snow boarder, snow shoe-er, skier, snow man builder, or dog walker, there are those winter days that keep everyone wanting to be indoors. The landscape view out the windows needs to be a view well worth looking at. Why so? The winter season in northern climates is enough to threaten to separate a gardener from their garden. I am not going there. Any view is a welcome view. Even out the windows, in the dead of winter. A case in point: The overnight low last night was 19 degrees. Yesterday’s high temperature was 23 degrees. The temperature this morning on the way to work – just 13 degrees. Really cold. This is close to the borderline of stay inside weather for me. Unless there is some compelling reason to layer up and go out, looking out the windows is an exercise I relish, and depend on. Walking the perimeter of my house to look out the windows is a daily walk. I have no intention of abandoning the landscape in the winter.  This gardener is not on hiatus. The experience of it is just different now. This picture was taken through the glass in Buck’s morning room at 4:45 am. He gets up really early, and reads. Soon after, I come by to say good morning.  Then I look out the window. This was the scene out the window yesterday morning. The structure of the palabin lilac on standard was outlined with our overnight sticky snow.  The boxwood hedge has a modest snow hat. The cut tree in my side yard pot is wreathed in lights.  Though the holiday season ended a month ago, I love the light. It illuminates the entire garden all winter long. That light is a good idea, considering that it is dark by 6pm, and the night is just beginning to lift after 7am.  This look out Buck’s window the beginning of February looks good to me.

In the fall, I made plans to enjoy my winter view at the end of my driveway. I go to work every day, so no matter the temperature, this is my one written in stone daily foray outdoors. I do not have a view of my driveway pots from indoors. But I am here on my driveway every day, even in the winter. I filled the pots for winter. The lights in the greens are not so prominent during the day.  But they will come to the fore come nightfall.

The landscape portion of this view depends greatly on the change of grade, the steps, the fence, and the gates. Late last fall, Buck and his group built an arbor that arches over the approach the staircase to the gates. He removed the indented fence panels, and built the arbor on top of them. The winter view is better now. My pots have company of the architectural sort. We had many a conversation during the fall about whether to plant or not plant this arbor. Buck is an architect and fabricator, so he favors the arbor unsullied by vines.  I am a plant person, so of course I have been thinking about what might compliment and grow well on this arbor. The winter is a great time to be thinking about any changes or additions to a landscape. This conversation is ongoing. If you can be visually seduced by your winter landscape, you have done a terrific job with the design.

Some windows feature multiple views. The right view out of my bedroom window features the woody structure of the Princeton Gold maples, the yews weeping from a wet snow load, and a garden bench placed in close proximity to a life size moss sculpture of a cow. Lady Miss Bunny has spent 16 years in the garden, and looks good every season of the year.

The view out the French doors of our office to the far left of the bedroom window is notable for its strong mid ground presence. The iron fence you see now is the same iron fence you would see in all the other seasons. But the beauty of the winter view has everything to do with the winter weather.

The view straight out the bedroom window is organized by the fountain. Though it is one of the great pleasures of my gardening season to see and hear this fountain running, it holds its own in the winter. The landscape here is not complex. Maples and yews. The fountain surround and grass is blanketed with snow. They are the star of the show in the summer. It is the fountain and ornament that provide winter interest to this portion of the landscape.

The view out my front door is organized by the walk to the street. The boxwood is a snow covered mass that responds to and counters that walk in the horizontal plane. The landscape lights and the winter lights in the pots punctuate the view. Landscape lighting can transform a winter landscape.  Try it.

The side view out the dining room window features a lit container in the foreground.  A lit pot facing the street in the mid ground.  And a streetlight in the far ground. Once you add the structure of the boxwood, yews, the remains of the flowers on the hydrangeas, and the towering structure of the street trees, this view has a lot going for it. Depth, texture, and volume.  I can see all of this, out the window.

Landscape lighting adds so much warmth to the winter landscape. Of course I come home at the end of the day through the back door. But my view out the front door early in the morning assures me that my landscape is welcoming in the winter. For those of you who would protest about another round of night pictures, be advised that my experience of the landscape in winter is ruled by the gray, and the dark. And this view, from inside out.

I do have to go outside at the end of the day with the corgis. While they are sniffing around and running through the yard, I have a chance to see what my landscape has going on from my upper deck. The view down to the driveway is a warm one.

 

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The Winter Landscape: Gray Days

Michigan winter weather can be fiercely inhospitable and miserably cold, but the vast majority of the days will be some listless shade of gray. As in garden variety gray, moody gray, or good and plenty dreary gray. Giving a name to the gray of the day is where we are at. For the past week, we have had warmer than usual air temperatures and lots of rain. That warm wet air passing over the cold and frozen earth has produced some spectacular ground level clouds collectively known as fog. Dense fog is so saturated with water that tiny droplets condense, and are suspended in mid air. That fog throws every object at a distance into a watery unfocused blur. The further away the object, the less distinct its shape. Any object up close has a clearly defined outline, but not much detail. The rim of the fountain at the lower right of the picture above is close enough to the camera lens that the surface has some detail. The grapevine on the pergola is back lit by the blue gray fog. There is little differentiation between the vine and the pergola. It is seen in silhouette, meaning all that is seen is a flat two dimensional outline of a shape made black by a pale background.In this composition, the fountain edge is closest to the eye. The vine and pole are some distance away.  The pot with a sphere, and the grapevine on the phone pole occupy the mid ground. The distance they are away is described by their lack of detail and contrast. The sphere is a precisely geometric shape made from a hard material. Its appearance is somewhat sharper, but uniformly gray. The phone pole is further back, and less distinct. As the eye moves further and further the back, objects lose their individuality, and read as tonal masses. The fence line and willow trees in the background have very soft shapes. This is a too long paragraph about a picture I took at the shop on a foggy morning, but it does illustrate the concept of depth and spatial relationships can be described in a landscape composition.  Though the picture is a two dimensional flat object, there is the illusion of distance, depth, and spatial relationships.

The winter landscape can be austere. Our foggy days have made everything in sight appear to be black or some shade or another of blue gray, and a dash of near white here and there. But the lack of color and lush form from the plants enables the eye to appreciate other relationships.  The contrast of the deliberate geometry of this sphere, and the mass of the limestone urn, set against the tangle of grapevine and the bare branches of the trees – visually satisfying in a haunting sort of way.

I do enjoy the lindens on the driveway in every season of the year. In the spring, the buds breaking and new leaves is a sign of life on a big scale.  The dense head of leaves provides shade in the summer. The yellow leaves in fall may be their most dramatic moment. But the silhouettes of their trunks and branches against a somber winter sky makes me appreciate their structure and stature. I also see that some 20 years after they were planted, the part they play in the landscape at the shop still interests and satisfies me.

Snow drags that winter gray down the ground plane.  On this day, the sky and the ground were just about the same color. The snow on the evergreens accentuates their texture in a strongly graphic way. Those evergreens are indeed supremely green in the summer, but on a winter day they go black. The shape and texture of Himalayan white barked birch is subtle on a snowy gray day. This detailed view of their structure cannot be appreciated in any other season. Any plant still standing once the winter comes will provide interest. If you live in a gardening zone like mine, it is worth planning for some sort of structure that will persist over the winter.

Rob took this photograph, and posted it to his detroitgarden instagram account. The silhouettes of the trees reflected in the rain water sitting on top of the ice on the lake perfectly illustrates the effect of fog on the landscape.

Another of Rob’s photographs is composed in such a way to make clear that there can be much to see of great beauty in a winter landscape.

Of course both the season and the weather are extremely important factors in landscape design.  Mother nature would not have it any other way.

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