Category Archives: Winter Interest

plants that add interest in the winter landscape

Spanish Impressions

The courtyard at Casa del Herrero with various tilework and paving.

The Northeast has many wonderful gardens but the ones that stand out as must see destinations are not built with plants alone. These gardens display structural materials and contours which challenge our formed perspectives in unexpected ways.  It is easy to slip into the parochial mentality of using traditional materials in traditional ways.  The best remedy for this is traveling! Nothing inspires and excites like unfamiliar architecture and a different climate, which imprint their unique personality upon the landscape.  This winter we explored, once again, southern California. Three places stood out, not only for their plants collections and designs, but for their use of decorative stone, tile and brick.

Detail showing band of tiles.

In the community of Montecito, Santa Barbara County, we visited Casa del Herrero.  Situated on a 7 acre trapezoidal site, this Spanish Colonial Revival is center stage to the surrounding gardens. While it is impossible to separate the house from the landscape as a unified whole, there are still individual vignettes and motifs that can find translation in New England gardens.  During our mid winter tour, Kathy remarked that the grounds were wonderful, even without many blossoms. Molly Barker, the executive director replied, ?Our tiles are our flowers?.  Though our cold climate gardens may never have the exquisite tilings of Casa del Herrero, it would take only a few to add flavor and personality to any courtyard or entry garden.

Use of tile as risers in brick steps at Lotusland.

Inlaid pebbles adorn the surface of the platform for this garden orb.

Pebble Mosaic Paving at Lotusland

Ten minutes from Monticeto, is Santa Barbara, home to Lotusland, the estate and garden created by the late Polish opera singer, Madame Ganna Walska.  Married six times to a series of wealthy husbands, Madame obviously never thought enough is enough.  This is equally evident in the gardens, dramatic and lush, living stages set sooo over-the-top that you forget where the bottom is. This stunning, fantastical landscape is another world, which is saying something since, in Santa Barbara, over-the-top is ?whateva!?.  Handsome and playful tile work is seen throughout, but the decorative stonework, constructed of small rounded stones (beach pebbles) set in mortar is spectacular.  This stone integrates well with many other hard surface materials: brick, cement, natural stone, bluestone and schist.

The Blue Iguana that greets you at the Inn.

Patio Paving Combination at the Blue Iguana Inn in Ojai.

Another stop on our tour was the Town of Ojai, CA, which shares a personality similar to Taos, NM.  Each is ripe with creative energy that manifests in house, garden, public and private space, culture and lifestyle.  Throughout southern California, water availability is an ongoing concern and Ojai is no exception.  This is, no doubt, one of the reasons that tiles and decorative stone craft play such an important role in the landscape.  The aesthetic contribution is colorful and constant.  While in Ojai, we stayed at The Blue Iguana Inn.  Here they used beach pebbles in several ways: to create the motif of the reptile, to simulate the shadow of a tree in a sitting area, and as a face on stair risers. As New Englanders we never tire of looking at stone, but finding new ways to use it is essential to expand the New England landscape vernacular.

–Chris Tracey, Avant Gardens

Lotusland: Our midwinter visit

Lotusland. Just pics.Words can’t capture what can only be described as the ultimate fantasy garden in America. The images speak much more eloquently. A reminder of what midwinter is like in southern CA.

The dramatic weeping Euphorbia ingens off Mme. Walska’s residence

One of the Cactus Beds. Note the mountain backdrop, yet we’re within minutes of the Pacific.

The pond view in early February.

Orange Aloe arborescens with the arching flowering stems of Agave attenuata.

Imagine this space in early morning light. OMG!

Epiphyte Ensemble

Year round succulent planter

Barrel Cactus

Late afternoon sun back lighting Cacti.

Imagine the scent of the lemon blossoms

Lotusland is open by appointment only. Please contact the reservation office for dates and times available. A limited number of guests are allowed at one time.

Hedges: Lines first, Color later

Carpinus hedge in winter

Ho Ho Ho! January 2012 began with bright sunshine and 55 degrees here in Massachusetts. It was hard not to feel giddy. But as the old saying goes about weather in New England, “Wait a minute, things will change.” And so it will, with the arrival of an arctic blast predicted for this evening.

So, no, it’s not spring yet. Which is good. We need to indulge in the luxury of spending lazy Saturday mornings with coffee, catalogs, and laptops at hand to start planning for the garden year ahead. One goal we have is planting more hedges. This may sound dull, but every time we visit a garden with good walls or hedging it makes us realize their importance in defining the shape and personality of an outdoor space. Hedges bring a sense of order, whether they are neat and tidy (think Boxwood, Holly, Yew) or slightly more casual (a wall of Viburnum, Weigela and Spirea, or even Clumping Bamboo).  By defining the lines of garden space, we can allow distinct personalities of each outdoor room to develop, and these lines provide the structure that will then allow us to get a little out of control later.

Buxus ‘Green Mountain’

So many plants make good hedges.  First you need to decide whether you’re in the need for one that is evergreen or deciduous, and also the height/width you’d like to achieve and maintain. There are so many new cultivars of common hedging plants that don?t take on giant proportions. Consider Thuja ‘Holmstrup’, ‘Yellow Holmstrup’ or ‘Yellow Ribbon’, forms of Arborvitae that stay in the 8-10′ range in height and 3-4′ in width. Buxus ‘Green Mountain’ is a hardy box with an upright habit of 4-5?. The Japanese Hollies Ilex ‘Sky Pointer’ and ‘Sky Pencil’ have narrow shapes as well, and will not need big equipment to keep them in bounds. On the other side of the coin, very low hedges are useful for defining edges. Think dwarf Boxwood, Germander, or dwarf Yew.

Fargesia robusta hedge

Fargesia ‘Green Panda’ and ‘Green Screen’ are 2 forms of Evergreen Clumping Bamboo that grow quickly and provide a soothing back drop of foliage, and will not run amok in your beds. Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’, with it’s upright shape reaching between 6-9′ in height and only 2-3′ in width, has fine textured foliage that drops in the fall to reveal an equally attractive winter silhouette. Trees with fastigiate habits such as the tall 40? Columnar Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’  the 20′ Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Twombley Red’or the 8′ Carpinus betulus ‘Nana Columnaris’ create natural fencing with the interplay of their branches, plus their foliar presence changes with the seasons. If you really like to play with pruners, consider subjects that lend themselves to espalier, pollarding or coppicing.

Color inside the walls, outside the lines

Winter is a good time to study where you could use walls in your garden, whether it is to separate space, create vertical planes or enhance views by creating openings in walls that lead you to a horizon. Get out the graph paper and start planning. And remember, you have to have lines to color outside them.

Thoughts on Winter Containers

Cut Greens and Yellow Twig Dogwood

It seems a little late to talk about winter containers but we’ve had such a mild end to autumn here in the northeast, we’ve only just begun to “replant” for the winter season. And you may note that I used “replant” in quotations.  This is because, after years of experimenting, we think many cold climate gardeners are really better off using cut evergreens and twigs over living plants for winter containers.

From a frugal viewpoint, using living plants seems like a wise investment at first. Indeed, a planted Boxwood, Juniper or Holly will carry on well through December and the first part of January in most winters. It’s mid winter conditions that are the problem. We often lack the benefit of consistent snow cover to blanket roots. Dessicating arctic winds are really cruel to evergreens whether planted in or above ground. Water cannot be taken up when the soil is frozen.

Winterberry, Red-Twig Dogwood, and Euphorbia

If you do have your heart set on using live plants, or you have protected spots or live in milder zones, consider using Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars) or other hardy conifers such as Dwarf Spruce (Picea) and Arborvitae (Thuja), which tend to be hardy through zones 5, and even 4  or 3. We have had great luck with Dwarf Conifers in troughs, and stress we’re successful because we make sure the soil is sharply drained and have protection from wind. It also doesn’t hurt to use an anti-dessicant.

As far as colorful twigs and branches, thoughts go immediately to the Red and Yellow Twigged Dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera and sanguinea cvs.). These will winter over in pots, but cut material works as well if not better, since one large plant of Twigged Dogwood with many branches would need a rather large container to accomodate its root ball and would be an otherwise underwhelming subject the rest of the year.

Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brillantissima’ with cut greens

There are other options. Consider  planting deciduous plants that are hardy to a zone or two colder than the one you garden in. Since they are deciduous, they do not have to hydrate foliage in winter. This autumn we replanted a large pot using a native plant, Chokeberry a.ka. Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’  for height, fall color and fruit, underplanted with Plectranthus ciliatus and Ivy. For December’s display, we replaced the tender Plectranthus with cut greens and red twig Dogwood, while the Aronia’s dangling red fruit clusters continue to be showy. Our hope is that in early spring the Aronia will bear clusters of white flowers, providing a third season of interest. Since Aronia is hardy to zone 4, (we’re in 6) we expect theres a good chance for that!  (PS..3 years later the Aronia has not only thrived but has needed root pruning and trimming back!)

Other options for deciduous shrubs or small trees that might make good winter container subjects include Witchhazel (Hamamelis) which would provide blossoms in late February, then autumn foliage. Dwarf Columnar Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus Columnaris Nana’   makes a well behaved compact columnar subject that seems to tolerate growing in containers well. It’s too bad that one of our former favorites, Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’ was added to the banned in Massachusetts plant list. It is hardy into zone 3, has great form, texture and size, and for the record, (attention conservationists) we’ve had it on our property for 8 years, and have yet to come across a single seedling.

Have you experimented with multi-season interest plants in your containers? Which ones have worked out well?

Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’

You may be curious about Helleborus niger. It is the botanical name for the legendary Christmas Rose, but its Latin name translates to “Black Hellebore”.  A little confusing to us in modern times, since we see white flowers. During the Middle Ages it was commonly called Black Hellebore (a name also applied to other European Helleborus species) to distinguish it from White Hellebore (Veratrum), both of which had medicinal, if not toxic, properties.

The other common name comes from Christian mythology. The story goes that a young girl’s tears falling onto new fallen snow caused a group of Hellebores to burst into bloom, providing her with a gift for the newborn Christ Child, and thus, H. niger became known as the Christmas Rose.  The trouble with this story is that the old varieties of Hellebrous niger rarely bloom sooner than mid January, and that is only in mild winter areas, so perhaps this was a belated gift.

Now, thanks to the busy German breeder Hueger, a new cultivar has been introduced which blooms as early as Thanksgiving, with a good display of 2-3″ pristine white single rose flowers in full display by mid December. This compact new cultivar, growing to  roughly 12? x 12?,  is being marketed under the name Helleborus ‘HGC Jacob’. (HGC stands for Helleborus Gold Collection, and but I think they should ditch the monogram for marketing reasons). It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Culturally this evergreen perennial prefers a well drained rich soil that is slightly alkaline. Site ‘HGC Jacob’in a protected area, so that winter winds do not desiccate the foliage and flowers, in partial shade. As an insurance measure, apply a mulch of fallen leaves around this little Hellebore, and on mild days, pay him a visit as he peaks through his protective layer. He will put a smile on your face.

Environmental Sculptor: Ron Rudnicki

“To the illuminated man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone and gold are the same”….Bhagavad Gita

Rudnicki's Pedestal Basin

Rudnicki’s Pedestal Basin

A man reaches for the end of a strap hidden within a pile of stone. From a void his hand appears with the strap.  Now cradled in the strap is a mass of stone. This stone, the fertile ground to where our sculptor, Ron Rudnicki, brings his tools, is now just a great mass. All acquaintances left behind, soon it will be freshly minted and asked to play in ensemble. For now, all is in flux, all possibility: Ron and the stone standing still between reflection and rotation.  The only certainty is that a new relationship will develop. Now a piece, formed from Ron’s reflections and memories, will inform his admirers, his clients and their communities. Perhaps some of Ron’s reflections will become theirs, but the overwhelming presence of the piece will remain, bridging generations, creating new communities. Prescience from a pile of stone.

Ron Rudnicki portrait

Ron Rudnicki

Ron’s sculpture gardens invite interaction. He places stone, found and composed, or tooled and contrived, into the landscape. Often it is both. He builds sculpted garden environments with stone that create a sense of permanence, perhaps because his work sometimes appears to have been uncovered rather than constructed. These gardens, united with their sites, honor existing and future stewards where stone is not seen as a static, unchanging mass. Stone is an active participant in the garden construct and will continue to find new expression through the eyes of the viewer.  Stewards of these gardens may enjoy these spaces framed through their windows, observing the changing light through the course of the day and the seasons. Others will find repose within these spaces.  No single right or wrong connection can be brought to these living, breathing, rhythmic spaces, dynamic in themselves but which allow those of us with stronger biological rhythms to draw out new meanings as we continue to engage them.

You shouldn’t be left thinking that no plant can grow where stone is so dominant. Though Ron confesses nomenclature isn’t his strong suit, he instinctively integrates  strong architectural plants, whether they be bamboo, hellebore or forest grass, into his stone environments.The individual who becomes the caretaker of his sculpture gardens may want to play with companion plantings. Ferns, grasses and the occasional burst of color are welcome suitors in spring and summer.

Ron’s work is part of the permanent collections at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA and Jack Lenor Larsen’s Longhouse Reserve in East Hampton, NY, as well as in the gardens of private collectors.

Sedum reflexum ‘Angelina’

Sedum reflexum 'Angelina'You can’t help but admire little ‘Angelina’. The retreating snow has exposed this brave low evergreen Sedum, and she shows no sign of being distressed. Fall/winter temperatures have brought out a copper/amber hue to the usually lime green needled foliage, and this is a shade that adds a welcome warm color to the chilly landscape. As daytime temperatures rise in April and May, the amber shade transforms to a cool yellow green, which is a more appropriate color for early spring. Starry yellow flowers form at the tips of trailing stems in early summer, but cute as they are, the blossoms are not what this little plant is all about.

Besides being ornamental year round, Sedum ‘Angelina is extremely hardy (to zone 3) and adaptable to full sun or part shade. She is happiest growing in well drained soil, and will form a lovely carpet to contrast with deeper toned plants, such as darker leaved Sedum ‘Xenox ‘or Heuchera ‘Obisidion’. She also acts as a nice foil for early bulbs such as Crocus and Dwarf Iris. Foliage height stays at about 4″. The only maintenance chore to speak of is a routine shearing back after she blooms in mid summer. You’ll be cutting off the not so attractive spent flowers and encouraging a new round of fresh foliage.

One more thing. Sedum ‘Angelina’ makes a lovely foliage accent plant for year round containers. Plant her with other drought tolerant foliage plants for a lasting and easy care combination.

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Winter Escape to Huntington Gardens

Almost everyone we know is getting weary of winter and shoveling snow. If ever there was a year to retreat to a warmer climate this has been one. We must have had an intuition when we booked flights to San Diego/LA back in December. The first week of February couldn’t come soon enough.

Aloe in Bloom

The weather was perfect….60 degree days with incredible sunshine, 40 degrees nights. There was a light frost in the valleys one night, but signs of an early California spring were everywhere. We had a list of nurseries, greenhouses and gardens to visit, but there was no way we’d be able to get to see them all in a week, so we prioritized. Our first stop was Huntington Gardens just north of LA, and we timed it just right to see the Aloes in bloom. Huntington has an incredible succulent collection, and the size of the specimens along with the colors and textures was breathtaking.

chrisathuntington400

If any one color predominated in the early February landscape, it was coral, which was vividly offset by its opposite on the color wheel, teal blue. The Aloe’s coral red pokers were often seen en masse, like emphatic exclamation points. We got busy snapping photos and jotting down botanical names so that we could fact check/identify some of the unnamed specimens sitting in our greenhouse back home, or perhaps to seek out in one of the nurseries we planned to visit. But enough of this chatter. Pictures tell the story so much better.

Barrel Cactus and Succulents

Barrel Cactus and Succulents

The late winter beauty of the Asian garden was effective because of the well placed structural elements.

Asian Garden

Asian Garden with Chinese Scholar Stones

The Camelias were just passing, and seeing them made us envious…if only we could enjoy them in our winter landscape. An unnamed flowering plum was in full bloom and we took solace in the fact that in a month or two, we would see a similar display in Massachusetts.

Flowering Plum in bloom

Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’

Fargesia rufa 'Green Panda'Mention hardy Bamboo to people and you usually get one of 2 reactions: disbelief that Bamboo is not just a tropical plant or terror that it will spread and take over the universe. Yes, we can affirm there are invasive varieties, but that?s why we want you to know about the various Clumping Bamboo, such as Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’. ‘Green Panda’ does not set runners, but forms expanding clumps of culms ultimately reaching 6-8′ in height, and 8′ in width. It grows well in sun or shade and can be used as a focal point specimen or grouped en masse to form a screen or hedge.

Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’ is hardy to minus 15 degrees, and is evergreen in most winters, although in a particularly severe one it may brown out and may need to be cut to the ground in mid spring. By late spring, new shoots emerge attaining at least the height achieved the previous season. As the new leaves emerge on the old culms, the old foliage will brown and drop. ‘Green Panda’ continues to look fresh through the season, and is a handsome asset for the winter landscape.  Snow loads on Fargesia are not a problem. The flexible stalks may bow with the weight of snow, but bounce back nice and tall as the snow melts away. This is particularly useful information if you are looking for an evergreen that may be crushed by snow falling from roof eaves. After the snowy winter of 2010-11, we think many people will find this trait quite desirable.

Grow Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’ in an organic but well drained soil. It is quite tolerant of dry conditions once established. Panda may like to munch on its foliage in China, but deer in the USA do not. Since browsing deer is a problem in so many areas, it’s good to know that ‘Green Panda’ is a feast for human eyes and not for deer palates.

Attending The Guardian

Winter Silhouette of our Ancient Oak

We are the brief, but committed stewards of one of the oldest trees in our town.  A Quercus bicolor, commonly known as Swamp White Oak, spreads its majestic limbs, covering 6400 sq. ft of garden in the lower area of our property.  It stands as a venerable member of an ancient clan, reaching its many arms, some 50 feet long, in all directions, from a trunk with a robust 12 1/2 foot caliper.  Although it is no more than 60 feet tall, an understatement for a 200+ year old tree, it’s sublime presence creates a complete and awe inspiring space. Stand in the welcoming shade of  its vast crown, place your hands on the deeply furrowed face of its trunk, letting your fingers feel the wrinkles of 200 hundred years, raise your eyes to wander into this living sculpture, home to thousands upon thousands of flying and crawling insects, not to mention dozens of birds, proving a feeding ground for so many more creatures; one of many children not of our own womb, but generously lent to us by the most grand and trusting mother, Earth.  Everyday, we take care of this grand old tree, and in return, it takes care of us.

Come and share this sacred space when you visit, if only for 5 minutes. When the time comes for you to plant an heirloom tree, you will see the road of time stretching out before you, and on it, your loving, grateful heirs and when you look behind, the beautifully wrinkled and wise faces of your ancestors.