Another week, another snowstorm. Probably the “latest significant snowfall in twenty years.” Probably the “last one of the season.” Will we really look back in steamy July and thinking nostalgically of twenty-degree days and icy sidewalks?
It is hard to take this lightly. Under the current layer of snow, snowdrops and crocus are blooming. Pansies planted last fall, are struggling to recover. Even primroses were sending fuchsia, orange, and yellow buds upward over the weekend.
Instead of staying indoors trying to avoid the news (are we as sick of stories about Crimea, presidential poll predictions, school closures, and missing airliners as we are of snow?), I am going to go out and shovel … and admire bark.
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who like interesting tree bark and those that don’t even think about it, never have thought about it. And yet, there it is. Gardener designers and plant nerds think about bark, usually in the guise of “winter interest”. I am both and I love bark. Let me prove to you that I am not barking mad.
Take, for instance, the elephantine bark of a beech tree. Silvery gray, it sinuously wrinkles at branch crotches like the skin on an elephant’s knees. The beech tree on the Beech Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks is a smashing example. Beech bark, like the bark of hornbeams and deciduous magnolias, stands out beautifully against any landscape and especially in snow.
I also love the exfoliating bark of the aptly named Paper Bark maple (Acer griseum). Paper Bark maples are one of those year-around showy plants, with excellent scarlet fall color, and a winter presence that really stands out. The bark of this Chinese native ranges from a warm dark brown to cinnamon-color, and peels like crazy, all the more as it ages. It is a great tree for small gardens because it grows at a moderate pace to about 15’ wide and 25’ tall. It is best placed as a focal point in well-drained soil where it can grow without being pruned.
Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis)and American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), also haveexfoliating bark – but not until they are older. In the meantime, their bark is mottled in greens, tans, and grays, sort of like camouflage. Oriental Plane trees are native to regions from Asia Minor to the Himalayas, and are so closely related to the native American sycamore that they formed a natural hybrid known as the London Plane Tree (Platanus x. acerifolia), possibly in the mid-1600’s, that has been used all over Europe and the US as street trees. These trees grow well over 80 feet tall, have large, clumsy palm shaped leaves, and the bark reads almost as light as a white birch’s bark from a distance. I once planted several for a client in a large field near a stand of pine trees, the dark evergreen branches of which provided the perfect backdrop for the sycamores’ light colored, slightly undulating trunks. Sycamore seeds cluster in balls that hang on all winter, giving them an even more interesting winter silhouette. In the spring the balls fall, break apart, and disperse, leaving a button-like core – hence the name “Buttonwood Tree”. If you are inspired by the bark and plan to rush out to order one as soon as the streets are clear, be sure to ask for a disease-resistant cultivar like “Bloodgood” to avoid the onset of powdery mildew and anthracnose.
I also love the bark on Chinese or Lace Bark elms (Ulmus parvifolia). This tough Asian native grows quickly, especially in ideal soil conditions, and will reach a height and breadth of 40-60 feet. It has a dense but delicate branching structure, and small leaves that turn a basic yellow in fall. It also has fabulous bark. Starting out mottled gray-green, as the tree ages, the bark becomes tan and sheds in strips. Over time, the mottled bark becomes more colorful, ranging from olive green to tan to orange and beige. These elms are pollution and bad-soil tolerant, as well as generally disease resistant, so my only caution is that it is best planted on a lawn where the perpetual drop of “stuff” is not noticeable. Chinese elms drop tiny flowers in summer, their fine leaves in fall, and seeds in winter and spring, all of which clog gutters and water features, and require frequent clean up on walks and in garden beds.
I realize that not everyone is as entertained by wrinkled crotches, exfoliation, and mottling (all of which in trees are preferable and in us – not at all).
There is one tree, however, that has gorgeous bark without these characteristics and is utterly irresistible. That is the Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum “Sango-kaku”). Like many Japanese maples, the Coral Bark maple has a delicate growing habit, usually growing slowly to 10-25 feet, with small, perfectly shaped ferny leaves that color to yellow, red-purple, and bronze in fall. It’s most striking feature, however is its startling scarlet bark which is a show stopper in a winter garden -- all the more so when the tree is surrounded by a blanket of snow. This tree is perfect for small gardens, especially if placed where it can be seen easily during the winter time, by a walk or near a much used window or entrance.
Instead of sulking indoors until the snow melts again I encourage my readers to march out and look for trees with interesting bark. I won’t make any puns about my bite, but you will definitely see I am not barking up the wrong tree!
Winter is the season that separates real gardeners from garden dabblers and real garden lovers from armchair garden admirers.
Real gardeners are the ones who, when December seed, plant, and tool catalogues cascade through the mail slot, display strong preferences about vendors and make well-conceived plans. They have a certain smug gardeners’ “savoir faire”.
Not so me. I am a garden dabbler. A B- gardener. When I pick up a pair of pruners my shrubs and perennials quiver in trepidation.
On the other hand, I am a real garden lover. Sitting in a comfy armchair poring over catalogues and magazines, is fine as far as it goes, but I prefer to be in a garden, especially in winter, when it is easiest to embrace its silence, simplicity, and structure.
When the pile of garden catalogues and magazines reached a critical mass last week I was in New York and I resolved to revisit the Conservatory Garden, on the upper east side of Central Park. It was built by WPA workers in 1937 on the site of an old conservatory, and is the only formal garden in Olmstead and Vaux’s masterpiece.
A client took me to see it a few Septembers years ago just as summer’s glory was segueing into the abundance and looseness of fall. Summer colors clashed with emerging autumn colors, seed heads were forming, and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to drop. It was gorgeously distracting from the garden’s layout.
Not so last week in single digits and worse with wind chill. Snow lay on the ground. The paths were icily treacherous. The garden’s skeleton, the bare black branches of trees, the endless play of light and shade, and its winter silence was completely accessible. The scene was well worth braving polar conditions.
You enter the Conservatory Garden through the Vanderbilt Gate at East 104th Street in the center of the 6-acre garden. The entrance is at street level but a gracious wide staircase takes you down to garden level. Before you stretches a long, wide lawn flanked by clipped boxwood hedges and double allees of mature crabapples. At the far end a pair of long staircases on either side of the lawn lead you up to the enormous ironwork pergola smothered in almost ancient wisteria. The two gardens on either side of the lawn are obscured by the crabapple trees and include distinctive curvaceous walks, water features, and clipped shrubs. Their more intricate and complicated designs, each unique, contrasts with the simple, formal central space.
I walked down the broad steps and turned left toward the section where my client had shown me the profusion of flowers and colors that appealed to her. In the quiet of this sunny snowy January day, those colors had faded to green, white, and beige. Black benches provide accent and echoed the dark branches overhead. Patches of muted gray and brick hardscape peaked out from the snow underfoot. It was almost a different place.
A sudden blast of Arctic wind suggested that I was a little crazy. Who goes walking through gardens in a minus something wind chilled garden?I came up with at least half a dozen reasons to do so.
First, in winter, whether cold or not, you can really see the way a garden flows – how one path leads to another, and how they interconnect with spaces, entries, and enclosures. Look at your own garden now and you can see the same thing.
Views become very important. In the Conservatory Garden, spring, summer, and fall foliage and profusion block out the city. In winter, the geometry of the buildings on Fifth Avenue becomes its backdrop and the inner geometry of the garden brilliantly reflects the strong vertical shapes of the buildings on the horizontal plane in a back and forth visual conversation. The relief of non-linear shapes – curved walks, bench details, the arch of the pergola, and the shapes of pruned hedges ease the harshness of the urban surroundings. If you are a gardener, real or dabbler, this is a good time to look at your own garden to determine what views you might want to integrate – or what you might want to block.
In the Conservatory Garden I found that the absence of leaves, children playing, dog walkers, flowers, and all the liveliness of other seasons leaves a minority of residual details that become all the more important: A robin eating frozen crimson berries; the icicle hanging from the iron work; the shadowy depressions in the snow on top of low clipped boxwood hedges that hint at the “parterre de broderie” beneath; the intricate strength and patterns of bark, branches and trunks inside and outside of the garden. A well-designed garden makes these details, fleeting or fixed, possible.
Winter light is different than the other seasons. Lower in the sky, the sun casts extra long tree shadows in perse patterns so unlike the gray, bulky shadows of trees in spring bud, in summer’s full leaf, or in the tattered partial leaflessness of fall.
And the details are much cleaner and tidier. There are no flowers that need deadheading, no overgrown annuals casually hanging in paths, no colors hot or cool. There is nothing to distract you from seeing the quality of stonework, the strength of layout, the relationship of vertical to horizontal structure – the elements some refer to as a garden’s “bones”. If a garden is well designed, it is a pleasure to look at it anytime of year.
Perhaps the best thing about walking through a garden in winter is the sense of being suspended between one moment and the next: The past isevidenced in the filigreed seed heads of long finished asters or the dried bracts of last summer’s hydrangeas. The future is anticipated in the frames of flowers supports awaiting the delicate stems of top-heavy peonies and the emerging pubescent buds of deciduous magnolias. The garden in winter reflects a time of peacefulness, clarity, nostalgia, and expectation.
One can breathe and reflect. But only if one gets out of the armchair.
Sunday morning found me drinking coffee in my garden. I was up early enough to hear the first planes taking off from Reagan National and to watch the sky lighten. The remarkable thing was not that it was so early on a Sunday. What was remarkable was that I was sitting in the garden in a light sweater with a cup of coffee on the first day of winter. It was a balmy 72 degrees!
The best part was that there is still so much to enjoy in the garden, small as it is. I have always disliked looking at bare beds in winter. Gardens need ‘winter interest’ and this year, the winter interest takes the form of perennials and even spring bulbs as well as shrubs. The first shoots of my hastily and haphazardly planted bulbs are starting to appear, confirmation I didn’t get them in too late. I cut it pretty close, though, when I planted them around Thanksgiving.
There is also some very pretty foliage that has endured our recent cold spells. I planted three kinds of heuchera last spring with the intention ofhaving something to see in the garden during winter and I’m not disappointed. The one called ‘Green Spice’ is especially pretty, because the leaves have green edges and white centers and maroon spidery veins creating a delicate lacy pattern throughout. Small as the plants are, having been in residence for just six months, I can’t help noticing these details each time I walk past them. They will be really beautiful when they are larger. I have sung the praises of heuchera’s before and now am even more convinced that they are indispensible.
The hellebores look great, too. I planted three kinds of these as well, two of which are already blooming. One is the appropriately named Christmas Rose, (Helleborus niger ‘Jacob’), which has responded to the warm weather by pushing out its white flowers practically while you watch. The other is a great favorite, the stinking hellebore for its faintly icky smell (do not cut this one and bring it inside!), which stands tall with vermillion blooms. This will bloom longer than the Christmas Rose, and in spring will be a smashing combination with the various spring bulbs I planted at its feet.
The third hellebore I planted, ‘Helleborus x hybridus ‘Golden Strain’, is new to me. I was beguiled by the promise of a yellow star shaped inflorescence with multiple light yellow petals. At the moment it is showing promising buds but I can’t tell if they are leaves, which hellebores push up in late fall, or the flowers. I can’t wait to find out.
The Christmas roses are planted in two small clumps, both next to deeply colored leaves. One is planted nextto a red leafed heuchera called ‘Palace Purple’, and the other is planted next to Bergenia cordifolia ‘Alba’. The common name, I’ve heard is Pig Squeak so I stick to the Latin. Bergenias, which bears a 12” stalk with a cluster of pink or white flowers at the top in late spring, sport broad waxy leaves that are a perfect glossy green in summer. Their real garden moment is in winter, however, when the same leaves turn deep pinkish red that emphasize the hellebores’ pure white flowers. The combination is visible from my dining room window.
The grasses are cheery, too. There are two. The first was already in the garden and has been moved several times, but seems tough as nails. I am not sure which one it is, but I believe it may be Golden Variegated Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’). It looks just as fresh in high summer as it does right now. It, too, looks fabulous against the red heucheras. The Japanese Forest Grass, (Hakonechloa macra‘Aureola’)on the other hand, has turned a light straw color. I love this effect because it contrasts prettily against the dark green ivy covered walls and camellias. Crazy as it is, the combination always reminds me of a ‘60’s vintage bottle green MGB with tan leather seats. Go figure! I may plant more of both grasses in the spring. Full disclosure: My cats love eating the Forest Grass, so be prepared if you have felines.
I mentioned camellias, yes? A previous gardener planted them along the walls of the garden in an apparent attempt at espaliering them, but they were never consistently pruned correctly so they are very uneven. I’m going to shape them into a narrow hedge instead by pruning them in late winter, before they set their buds. They started blooming profusely in November and there are still a few that made it through the frosts of the
past several weeks. While I love the white flowers, (I think they are Camellia x‘Winter’s Snowman’) I’m determined to plant the orange/red ones (Camellia sasanqua) in the front of my house next year. I first fell in love with them in Williamsburg, and then was completely dazzled by them in their native Japan on a trip to Mount Fuji. They were planted in a hedge in the median of a four lane high way. The hedge was perfectly pruned and was miles long. That late Japanese fall day they were in full bloom, miles of reddish orange blossoms – incredible.
Pulling it all together are the pots that I’ve placed around the garden. I usually planted them with white kale and pansies – so predictable! I found myself at the nursery as Christmas greenery had overtaken fall planting, though, and the selection was at a bare minimum. Fortunately, however, there were enough purple Kale and blue pansies to fill my containers, and I snapped them up. It is a pretty combination and I’m quite satisfied with the effect. I tossed some tulips in beneath the pansies and am curious to see how that will look. I have not planted tulips for years because I lived in deer country but I have always wanted to try this trick. Stay tuned.
By the time this goes to press (can one really say that with an online publication?) the weather will have turned colder and wetter, and it will be back to fleece lined boots, warm coats, and holiday madness. I wish my readers Happy Holidays and a Blooming 2014.