January 25, 2011

The Fifth Season

When the Pilgrims landed on the east coast of North America they knew they were roughly near the same latitude as England, and near the ocean like England, and they expected the seasons to be like England's.  They even called the place "new" England and set about putting in their gardens for food.

They did not realize they were squatting at the edge of a continent where the weather came roaring across 3,000 miles of solid land, out of the west.  It wasn't like England at all.  The weather, which is heated and chilled by the giant land mass behind them, made the seasons wildly extreme.  The Wampanoags had to show them how to grow anything here, and when that failed, had to feed them.

It's extreme here, but I'm lucky to garden in a climate that has so much variation.  New England has five very distinct seasons: Mud, Spring, Summer, Fall Color, and Winter Interest.

What we have here now, people, is the fifth season, Winter Interest.
Iteas, Aronias, Buddleia, Sundial and Shadows

To have something to look at in the garden in snow, you need to plant woody shrubs and trees.  In January the red berries are long gone, so it's branches and shadows, light and dark, form and blank emptiness, that give the garden focus.  A perennial garden simply disappears during Winter Interest in this zone.  When the gardening articles talk about putting the garden to bed in autumn, they mean the perennials.

You can leave some perennial seedheads standing, but only the sturdiest can hold up to an onslaught of deep snow. 
Rudbeckia seedheads, a partly buried evergreen Zenobia, and flowerstalks of basil

Most of the perennial garden looks like a white desert in January and February.
Perennial garden in Winter Interest

That's okay for some gardeners; they close up the garden and use the dormant season to wait for spring.

But I don't want to wait for another season.  I want to see my garden now, and not just a generic scene of evergreens and snow, but the actual plants.  My plants.  I love knowing that the combination above of Iteas (Virginia sweetspire) and Aronias (Chokeberry) and Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) still looks good together when they're all branches and stems.  And I love seeing the redtwig dogwoods outside my front door.

A bird's nest in the flowering dogwood is abandoned, but the bare branches of the tree still cradle it, and it's clearly visible in winter.  The dogwood looks like a shrub branched low to the ground, but it's a tree, with a trunk.  It has snow up to the first level of branches, giving it a whole new look during Winter Interest.

You can't go wrong with a river birch in this season.  The shaggy bark is a treat.  I'm not sure what the mound in front of it is.  It looks like something overflowed.  I think there's a dwarf spruce under there, but everything looks so different now, I can't tell.

Those of you who are waiting for your winter to end so you can see your gardens again are missing out.  I'm enjoying this season, not the cold or the wind or the shoveling, but I like the way my garden looks in Winter Interest.  Eventually I'll tire of it just as I do the other seasons, and then I'll be anxious for Mud to start in late March.


  1. Hi Laurrie, this season of winter interest is interesting, isn't it? As your pix xhow, it's especially nice when the sun peeks out for a moment. We're having a ho-hum 3-4 inches now, getting ready for a possibly big one tomorrow night - I could do with a bit of mud about now...

  2. Here the mud season comes and goes all through the winter interest. We are sometimes frozen and sometimes thawed. Going through a thawing process right now. UGH. Did I mention that I have white carpet and a white dog?? What was I thinking?? Was I thinking??? I think not. A lot. Your white of whites looks perfectly normal for this time of year. We are about ot be desnowed. 40F today. A Cardinal was singing.

  3. Cyndy, Mud will be here too soon! Enjoy this next storm, it's on the way!

    Lisa, the ups and downs of winter interest are frustrating -- first it's too warm and then too cold!

  4. I agree, there is so much to see at this time of year in your gardens. As long as it is snow covered, I am happy. Like you, I love to photograph the snow. I know the mud will come and that is the most frustrating time when you can't work the soil.

  5. Love the red twig dogwood in front of the evergreen. Winter interest is an important season for the garden. :)

  6. I remember the season of MUD in PA when we lived there for 3 years. It overlaid winter and continued into spring. So much freeze and thaw all of the time = an incredible recipe for mud. Western PA had unbelievably beautiful wildflowers though, from all of the ground moisture.

    I agree, the bark of River Birch is exquisite. The peeling and curling adds even more depth to all of the wonderful color shadings.

  7. Donna, I don't think we'll ever be able to work the soil, it's so far buried beneath a record snow depth this year!

    Garden Ms. S, the redtwig dogwood is a favorite in that spot in front of the evergreen, right outside my front door. The deer eat them everywhere else, but at the front door they leave them alone (so far).

    Sweetbay, Mud season can be awful. The worst ever, though, is up in Vermont.... what a mud season they have.

  8. I love your red-twigged dogwood in front of the evergreen! That is a beautiful example of true winter interest. I've always been one of those gardeners infatuated with summer blooms, but I'm beginning to appreciate the winter garden, too. I like seeing the heucheras' delicate stems above the snow, almost as if to say, "hey, we're still here, just sleeping":)

    I also like your description of a fifth season---mud, yes that usually comes in Illinois before spring,too.

  9. Hi Laurie,
    I am happy to wait for the "Mud" season to start. The dogs come in from a romp in the garden encrusted with it! I love your description of a tree "cradling" an empty bird's nest. While I often pine for warmer weather and flowers, it is not to say that I don't appreciate the beauty of winter. Like you, I think my garden is beautiful when snow covered.
    P.S. I very much enjoyed your post on Wyoming.

  10. Rose, You do have to look, but the pretty things, like your heuchera stems in the snow, are waiting to be seen in this season.

    Jennifer, I can't even imagine the potential mess of dogs in mud season! Thanks so much for the comment on the Wyoming post.

  11. Your winter garden is beautiful in the snow! I love the photos of the rudbeckia seedheads and the red twig dogwood. I am eagerly awaiting spring, but with all that snow to melt, I can see why your next season is mud!

  12. The Red Osier Dogwood is one of my winter interest favorites. A nice mature Kousa Dogwood is pretty nice as well, with it mottled, patterned bark. Oh then there is the Paperbark Maple (Acer Griseum)and the Lace Bark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia).
    thank you for bringing our attention to the beauty of winter!

  13. Deborah, thanks. I do love the redtwig dogwood, it's always pretty in winter.

    Forest Keeper, the trees you mention are a must for Winter Interest! My paperbark maple is buried up to the lowest branches, so I'm kind of missing out on any bark interest now.

  14. Hi Laurrie. How do we obtain permission to one of your photos?


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.