I have developed a strong antipathy for the term ‘winter interest’ in garden writing. Do we truly have nothing better to say about winter gardens or the plants growing in them than to damn them with faint praise? I have been guilty myself, but now repent wholeheartedly.
To term something ‘winter interest’ is to reject the capacity of the winter garden to charm on its own terms. It is to begin in the premise that the winter garden is markedly inferior to the summer garden; and as such, cannot hope to inspire, energize, or uplift the gardener, but only clinically interest him. As in, “It’s a pity everything looks like hell out there. But I did notice a gumball-pruned holly while making a beeline for the front door.”
By that definition, an abandoned wheelbarrow is winter interest, as is that pile of black pots you meant to stash away but never did. They drew the eye for a moment, disappointed it, then released it in a wash of guilt and/or regret. It is at core a statement of absence and comparison. We do not use or need its equivalent in spring and summer – no one in their right mind terms a tulip “spring interest.”
Judge them differently
Yes there is less to admire. Less in-your-face frippery – less of the cheap and easy thrill. But there is a deeper, more resonant quality to the winter landscape. The superficiality of one’s summer play is laid bare, and we are forced to contemplate the underlying structure – or lack thereof – and fix it if we dare. We are faced with our weaknesses as gardeners – the bones that were never planted, the structures unpainted, the winding paths never laid. That pile of pots.
Enough winter interest! Expect more of your garden. Expect more of your plants. How much better to create a scene and name the attributes of a plant or structure in the winter garden for what they are adding to the overall effect, in the same way we effortlessly discuss those characteristics during the growing season?
In summer, grasses soften hard lines and provide movement. In winter, that sexy sway stiffens and morphs into fountains of tawny beige. In summer, an uber-thin ‘Taylor’s’ juniper is a vertical statement, in winter, it becomes a launching point, drawing your gaze upwards to an icy blue sky. The pinkish cast on a ‘Silver Lining’ pyracantha is something unachievable in the summer garden – revel in that blush! Do not hand it second place in a beauty contest with the too-easy condescension of ‘winter interest.’
Big Picture Thinking Is Required
Do we dare move beyond winter interest and claim our gardens in winter? To build a winter garden, or at least, a garden that continues to enchant and surprise us with strong colors, textures, shapes and views, a layering, patient approach is necessary – especially in smaller gardens where players must assume many parts. That requires more than a quick and casual approach to planting.
For instance, a red or yellow twigged Cornus (or a bit of both in the cultivars ‘Midwinter Fire’ or ‘Arctic Fire’) is a striking beacon in the winter months, but the shrub is dull during the growing season. It must be tucked in where it can bide its time least offensively as a green backdrop in order that it may stun the pants off you the minute it loses its leaves and the temperatures drop.
But that’s not enough. It must echo elsewhere – even if it’s simply a bunch of pruned whips from the original shrub poked into potting soil in a pot or pots on the porch. One shrub on an arctic tundra qualifies under the insipidity of ‘winter interest,’ two or more bright fiery displays make it look like you planned it.
Because you did.
One Thing Leads to Another
And from there perhaps you build on a good thing, underplanting your deciduous shrubs with some resilient hellebores, cheerful snowdrops and winter aconite, Chinodoxa, Puschkinia, etc.. – plants and bulbs that will play a huge part at soil level and then either disappear or happily enjoy a summer shading.
Layer follows layer – it takes time to build a garden that holds its own in winter. We commit to that endeavor when we stop talking in terms of ‘interest’ and start talking in terms of colors, shapes, textures and views.
Right now on Instagram (@marianne.willburn) I’m celebrating the winter garden and the many gifts of this cold but captivating season all the way up to the first day of spring. If you’re having trouble moving from ‘winter interest’ to ‘winter garden,’ join me there and perhaps I can change your mind. – MW