A Four-Season Landscape

Now, just a minute before you go off on a frantic buying spree at the nurseries picking up everything in bloom like a crazed maniac. (We've all been there---no use denying it.) Think back to those dreary days of winter and remember what your garden looked like. Was it totally devoid of life and the only thing colorful was your neighbor's blue tarp?

If you dream of having a garden full of interesting shapes and color and maybe even something blooming year 'round, now is the time to start creating it. Having a colorful spring garden is relatively easy, but creating a four-season garden takes some thought.

Start with making an honest assessment of the conditions you have. Dreaming of a colorful English border when you have a deeply-shaded yard full of maple roots is just that, a dream, never to be reality, only a source of immense frustration.

Note how much light an area gets---and not only for one season, but throughout the year. Define areas that might need some screening. Neighbors are great, but we all need our privacy. Perhaps one properly placed evergreen tree might mean the difference between loving and hating your neighbor.

Once you know what conditions you really have, you can look for plants that are appropriate for your site. How do you know what is appropriate? There are numerous ways to learn about plants. You can use your winters snuggled up with some great gardening books or, this spring, you can get to know your local nurserymen and pick their brains.

Another way to learn is by attending gardening lectures, which have the additional benefit of putting you in contact with your fellow gardeners. Gardeners are generous people not only known for sharing their knowledge but also for sharing their extra plants.

My favorite method of learning is to get out and see the plants themselves. Places like the National Arboretum or London Town House and Gardens provide wonderful opportunities to see and learn about plants. All you have to do is stroll through the collections jotting down the names of the ones you like that are growing in situations similar to yours. Be sure to visit at various times throughout the year; something might look ho-hum during one season but be a show-stopper during others.

During the winter, you tend to notice more details of your plants, marveling at things th
at, during the hurly-burly of summer, you wouldn't even notice. Winter makes us slow down and be more introspective, noticing the remaining seed pods on a tree or the wonderful textures of bark or stems. Instead of scrupulously cutting everything back to the ground in the fall, try to leave certain plants standing through the winter to give more interest. Things like ornamental grasses and the tawny flower heads of hydrangeas are absolutely beautiful when capped with snow. It doesn't matter that they're not evergreen---they give wonderful definition and movement in the winter.

Lovely in all four seasons, witchhazels are one of my favorite winter delights. Every year you can look forward to the bright yellow spidery flowers of Hamamelis x 'Arnold Promise.' On sunny days in February or March, when there may still be snow on the ground, the flowers unfurl their petals like little banners and emit the sweet lily of the valley fragrance which perfumes the entire garden. Heaven!

Another plant group that I would not garden without is the Carex family. Far from being flashy and scene-stealing, this family has some durable plants that look great during all four seasons. Carex morrowii 'Variegata' was one of the first I became acquainted with. It forms clumps with thin dark green linear foliage edged with a faint white line. Looking like a little hedgehog, the foliage radiates out from the middle and then gracefully swirls around itself. The fine texture looks wonderful with just about anything that you can think of. However, don't stop there---explore the family more. For even finer texture, there is Carex temnolepsis or, for more color, C. oshimensis 'Evergold' with its beautiful tawny yellow and green variegation. And these are just the beginning.

Another of my "must-have" plants for its year-'round contribution is Helleborus foetidus. Unfortunately it has been burdened with the horrible common name of Stinking Hellebore---sad, since the fragrance really isn't that bad. I prefer the common name of Bear's Foot Hellebore, which describes the elongated hand-like dark evergreen foliage. The flower stalk is formed in the autumn and teases you with anticipation until the chartreuse little bell flowers finally open in late winter. When left on the plant, these floral stalks will look good for three months or more.

These are just a few of the numerous possibilities that can liven up your garden. There are so many wonderful plants that there is really no excuse for not having a garden that makes you happy year 'round. It might take a little effort to learn about these special gems, but I guarantee the results will be worth it.

The Annapolis Horticulture Society has free lectures the first Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. in St. Anne's Parish Hall. For more information, call 410-263-0646

Janet Draper is a horticulturist and works at the Smithsonian Institution's Ripley Garden. She is president of the Annapolis Horticultural Society.


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