Winter is actually one of Garrett Dienno’s favorite times of the year in the garden.
“It really lets you examine the structure and bare-bones of the landscape,” says Dienno, florist at Smale Riverfront Park, Cincinnati. “It’s far easier to create a fantastic garden when the foundation is solid and visually interesting than to try and impose a functional design on a space that may be suffering from some problems that take away from the overall composition.”
Because of this, he believes one approach that helps him continues to be deliberately designing a garden with winter interest in mind.
“If you establish a firm foundation and solid design for the winter season, I think it’s relatively easier to make sure that there is interest in the garden during the rest of the year,” he adds.
Go Beyond the Blooms
Garrett Dienno in his element. Credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
The best resource Dienno suggests is to get outside. Take a hike. Visit other gardens. Be aware of your surroundings.
“In general, if it is above freezing, there is probably something in the landscape which is in bloom — or if you’re a skunk cabbage, even below freezing,” he says.
Also, if you’re focusing solely on blooms in your garden, you’re going to miss out. While a flower may last for a few weeks, the foliage and texture of a plant may well last through all four seasons. Ensure you have a visually interesting garden year-round by looking for contrasting leaf textures and color and staggered growth habits. Even the appearance offered by dormant plants and dried seedpods can add visual interest.
One of his go-to online resources is the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.
“I’ve found it incredibly useful for its information relating to bloom times, flower color, growth habit, and general plant information,” Dienno says.
Hardscapes and Focal Points
Hardscapes guide and focus. Credit: Interlocking Concrete Pavement-Institute, CC 2.0.
A gardener establishes a garden landscape with boundaries and walkways. They create a composition and set a mood. Think about how you and your guests interact with that space, Dienno says. Things such as fire pits, pergolas, stonework, or benches offer opportunities to enhance the focal points of gardens and add to their usefulness.
Examples of this can include placing a seating area or bench at a spot in your garden that offers a striking view or a patch of fragrance or adding a fire pit to extend the season of a garden’s usefulness into those colder autumn or winter months. You can also install gravel or paver paths that guide visitors through the design while providing a mud-free area to walk on when the ground is soft.
Simple Things Add Year-Round Appeal
“I’m a big proponent of the value of stone and stonework in the landscape. If you read some of the traditional manuscripts on gardening in the Japanese tradition such as the “Sakuteiki” very little of it relates to the placement of plants,” he says.
The majority has to deal with the design principles and cultural values involved in the proper placement of stones in the landscape. Only once the “skeleton” of the garden has been placed can the rest of it be fleshed out.
Another important thing to think about is topography, he adds. Adding berms or depressions makes for a visually more interesting garden and also creates opportunities to take advantage of those subtle differences in soil conditions and diversify your plantings.
Go With the Flow
Densely planted flowers crowd out weeds, but provide plenty of landing pads for butterflies. Credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
It often seems easier to work with the landscape and your garden than to fight them by trying to bring them into submission, Dienno says. If you have areas of your garden that are wet, consider planting wet-loving plants or a rain garden.
If your soils are heavy clay, as much of the soil underfoot in Cincinnati is, select plants that can tolerate those conditions. Take a long-term view of working to build up the health of the soil by adding things such as mulched leaves, mushroom compost, or pine fines.
If you hate weeding, consider placing your plants closer together. If you walk out into the woods or better yet a prairie you’ll see plants naturally do not grow in isolation. They are constantly fighting, jostling, and jockeying with their neighbors.
Also, consider waiting to do your fall cutbacks until late winter or early spring. Visually, it makes your Cincinnati landscaping more interesting.
Ideas for Each Season to Add Color, Texture
Baptisias in bloom. Credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
Think bulbs and native spring ephemerals such as Virginia Bluebells or the many species of Trilliums. Not only do these categories of plants support all those early season pollinators, but they can add color to the garden as early as February, Dienno says.
Some perennial combinations he recommends for spring include:
Anemone sylvestris, tiarella, variegated Solomon’s seal, and Kerria japonica “pleniflora.”
Silene x “Rolly’s favorite,” sweet woodruff, and ostrich fern.
Baptisia “pink truffles,” “lemon meringue” and “brownie points.”
Allium, geranium pack a summer punch of color. Credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
“I think a big part of this is appreciating a plant for its foliage and textural elements in addition to its bloom,” he says.
Some great perennial combinations he recommends that have that later textural interest include:
Veronicastrum fascination and lavender towers (like the ones in the main photo), echinacea ruby star, helenium Mardi Gras, rudbeckia maxima.
Asclepias tuberosa and A. incarnata.
Geranium dark reiter and allium ambassador.
Big bluestem takes the color into fall. Credit: Friends of the Prairie Learning Center and Neil Smith NWR. CC 2.0.
“You really can’t go wrong with asters and goldenrods for fall color,” he says. Also, many of the native prairie grasses offer fall colors such as little bluestem and big bluestem.
“As for trees, I’d say the obvious are pretty well known as sugar maple and sweetgums. Also, serviceberries have a lot to offer both in terms of fall color, spring flowers, beautiful bark and edible berries,” he says.
The red drupes on an ilex are show-offs in winter. Credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
For greenery, ferns become a good choice. Many of them are semi evergreen, such as Christmas fern. A little research will give you lots of options.
Berries: Hawthorn, ilex verticillata, aronia.
Bark: Sycamores, oakleaf hydrangea, “Dura-heat” river birch, lacebark pine, paperbark maple.
Blooms: Hellebores, witch hazel, winter aconite.
“If you think of your garden as a static picture, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment,” Dienno says. “Some plants will fail over time while others will spread and reseed, and of course some seasons will be better than others. Embracing this ever-changing aspect can both be liberating and rewarding.”
Main image credit: Corrie Carswell/Smale Riverfront Park.
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