Surviving Winter: Basic Garden Design

After dreaming about blooming zinnias and vine-ripened tomatoes, I woke up and looked out the window this morning. Yup, still winter. What’s a frustrated gardener to do?

Dogwood's red branches add winter interest

Red-Twig Dogwood

Winter is actually the ideal time to think about spring. This is the best time of year to design a new garden, or improve upon the one you already have. With all the foliage out of the way, the bare bones of the garden show clearly. Is there still a sense of design to the landscape, even without growing plants? Is some of last summer’s growth still attractive in its dried and dead state? What about interesting bark or seed pods? Dried berries and other fruits? Bare branches form winter sculptures. Look at your dormant landscape—do you like what you see?

When I can’t take another day of leafless branches and frozen soil, I grab a mug of hot tea and head for my favorite chair—the one that has a view of my garden. Then I start to imagine.

At this stage of garden design, I can dream whatever I want. I think about “what if?” What if I planted just orange and purple flowers this year? What if I run an experiment to discover the best bean variety for my location? What if I finally take out that overgrown bush by the front door-what can I put in its place? Soon enough, I’ll pull out my stack of catalogs, garden books, and magazines. I’ll have to confine my dreaming to those plans allowed by our climate, space and budget. But right now, anything goes.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

Another nice thing about the winter garden of my dreams is that nothing has died yet. In my imagination, all plants are healthy, all bugs are beneficial, and the weather is perfect. Of course I realize that life doesn’t work this way, but it’s nice to have a time of year when I don’t have to confront reality quite yet.

It’s only after a healthy dose of virtual gardening that I am ready to start being realistic. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering some practical step-by-step guidelines for designing (or redesigning) your yard.

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