At the top of my driveway, slightly hidden on a south-facing slope that could less generously be termed a rocky mound, there is a small gathering of snowdrops and eranthis that in a few short months will poke up amongst the stones and the chickweed. This grouping is visible only to those that pass our entranceway; and as this is not a common occurrence, it can go unappreciated.
The grouping signifies a large step in this gardener’s life, and one that not every gardener decides to take, no matter how skilled their spring and summer efforts over a lifetime. It signifies a commitment to a four-season garden.
I have a large landscape and little time. Planting an insignificant amount of winter-blooming flowers that will delight only a few could be considered pure folly.
Even I have to remind myself during the winter to go find them and I’m the one who dug them in. But in this digging I took the first steps in my four-season vision for Oldmeadow, and with time and further plantings, the insignificant will become something more.
Perhaps you are dismissive of the above. Who needs a four-season garden when we have three perfectly good seasons we can fill with flowers and fragrance; and a house we can fill with armchairs and duvets during the other three months?
I used to feel similarly, and righteously so. I had limited space and limited desire, and my first foray into home and garden ownership didn’t begin with the gentle caress of an early English spring, but with the icy embrace of a Mid-Atlantic winter. I could see little point in improving a cold, dormant landscape that made up the space ‘twixt car and front door.
It was only through visiting other landscapes better than my own that I began to understand the importance of the winter garden and to see it as a unique and special entity – not as a middle child constantly compared to brilliant siblings. It is a garden that gives far more than it receives.
Though many of us are busy during the “off season” tidying up beds, sharpening edges and pruning trees, our labors are intended to enhance our spring and summer displays.
When those seasons appear, we will not stop our efforts – indeed they must increase in the face of relentless growth. The work is never-ending, but the carrot is fat and crisp and most of us chase it gladly.
In contrast, the winter garden does not ask this of us. It simply undresses quietly and waits to be admired. What is here, was here – it is no longer hidden by foliage and flower.
If you planted various cornus species to control erosion, you will find your slopes covered in twigs of red and yellow. If you planted ‘Sango-kaku’ Japanese maple because of the light-catching foliage, you will be gifted with bright coral stems and branches in late fall. Your textured conifers will become punctuation marks. Your carex ‘fillers’ will become the main show.
And, contrasted against the browns and greys of a winter landscape, they will all become magnificent – they will all become more.
Thus the greatest effort expended upon the winter garden is not that of weeding or watering – it is choosing wisely in the first place.
Certainly we can leave it there. We can enjoy this passive space filled with delights we hardly deserve. But often, such pleasures spark an interest in the gardener to build upon this foundation. Winter blooming flowers and bulbs are usually the next step; and with my snowdrops and my eranthis, with my hellebores and my cyclamen, I am making that commitment.
I will not for a moment pretend that this has taken any skill on my part. The only difficulty in growing the above lies in knowing when to manually divide them to increase one’s stock. And one’s stock must be increased, for one’s salary rarely is.
Neither will I pretend that these are expensive beauties hardly seen in the landscape. Though they all have swanky relatives (rare snowdrops can sell for hundreds, even thousands), none are represented here, lest they be lost in a large landscape and there be much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Hence the current absence of Adonis, and a tendency when it comes to hellebores to favor the promiscuous H. orientalis over expensive and exciting nigercors crosses.
I am choosing my spots carefully. Some of these low-growers link to other, larger winter shrubs (hellebores under edgeworthia); some have begun the process of populating large areas (cyclamen in the sunken woods); and still others – such as the eranthis and snowdrops hidden at the top of the drive where we began this tale – are intended to impress in the same way as a carefully selected scarf draped casually around one’s neck might do. “This? Oh I just threw that on.”
It is a slow and steady race that could someday result in a valley full of winter color, and a deep appreciation for all that winter can hold. __________________________________________________________
A version of this article was originally published in The Frederick News Post.