In winter, we often struggle to find interest and excitement in the garden. The other seasons are so exuberant and in-your-face as compared to the subtleties of the winter landscape. But look closely, and you will see tiny details that give hints of the thousands of organisms that make up a healthy landscape. And you will learn to love your winter garden as much as the summer.
On warmer days, I love to wind my way through the garden to see many of the things we miss when the plants are clothed in foliage and their flowers snatch all your attention.
I stop to enjoy the texture and colors in the bark of a tree. The colors are muted, but there just as many variations as in summer. The white of birch and sycamore, wine or orange of red twig dogwoods, the silver sheen on maples and poplars and the bright green kerria and sassafras. Enjoy the copper curls of the paper bark maple, the craggy shreds of the shagbark maple and the alligator grid of a pine. Each species’ bark is completely different.
I examine and compare the buds on the different plants. The onion dome, Taj Mahal; tips of the dogwood; sharp spears of the beech; the naked, miniature leaves of the tulip poplar; black alder “cones” and golden pine puffballs.
I go on a scavenger hunt to see how many different seed pods I can find. Siberian iris with its heavy pointed chalices. Teasel and coneflower have pretty spiked thistle heads. Velvet leaf has star-shaped cups; okra, a fluted cone. Rose of Sharon looks like miniature flowers and poppies like cookie jars with lids. Baby’s breath are clusters of tiny balls, while helenium are little layers of zigzags. You even may come home with the hook-and-loop closure-tipped burdock buttons, the porcupine eggs of cockleburs, or the flat, hairy sticktights of beggar’s lice stuck to your clothes.
I also search for traces of the creatures that inhabit my outdoor spaces. I examine branches and grasses for egg masses. These eggs come in many shapes, sizes and colors. You might find the crispy plastic foam of praying mantids or small uniform rows of beads, barrels or buttons that contain future caterpillars and other insects. Their colors might be white or black, but also red, yellow, green and brown, depending on the species.
Another fascinating thing to come across is the variety of interesting growth patterns in the plants. Galls, enlarged areas of the stems caused by insects or disease, while not always good for the plant, can create a unique silhouette. Witches’ brooms are also readily visible this time of year. These areas of compressed growth are caused by a genetic anomaly in the cells of the plant. You will see an area on the branch with lots and lots of stems sticking out from the same place. Trees also react to diseases or injuries, or they grow around things in their way, and the patterns of these burls, waves and rolls, too, can be interesting to look at.
The winter garden is not the dead, boring landscape we see through the living room window. It is full of fascinating details and signs of the life to return come spring. You just have to get out and look for them. So, enjoy your winter landscape up close and see if you can find some of those many little details that make your garden special and unique.
Mary Stickley-Godinez is The Daily Progress’ gardening columnist.
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