Lovely bones: A garden with lasting appeal takes planning

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The pavilion gardens at the University of Virginia are a great example of a landscape’s architecture—that is, what’s left when the flowering plants have gone into hibernation. Photo: Robert Llewellyn The pavilion gardens at the University of Virginia are a great example of a landscape’s architecture—that is, what’s left when the flowering plants have gone into hibernation. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

What does it mean for a garden to have “good bones”? Like a beautiful woman or a handsome man, it’s what remains when the bloom is gone. Some believe good bones reveal character, or perhaps it’s just a matter of chance. We know it when we see it, however, in gardens as well as faces.

Although age is the ultimate patina to good design, even a brand new landscape can put on a venerable air with a well-considered composition and bold plantings. With winter coming on and Shakespeare’s “old December’s bareness everywhere!,” it’s a good time to assess the landscape and contemplate foundation work. New projects beckon and gardens we’ve lived with so long we don’t see them anymore can be reimagined.

Good bones are longlasting. We are not talking about the bright colors and immediate satisfaction of varied bedding plants, which have their place. Mums, pansies, lantana, salvias and the rest are ephemeral deckings of the seasons—frippery which we alter according to our whims, the current fashion and time of year.

Nor are we talking about moving plants around like pieces of furniture the way we play with our perennial collections, mixed borders and containers. Every garden needs space for pet plants, gifts and crazy impulse buys, but enduring structure requires features that stay put: specimen trees or shrubs that anchor views and sitting places, masses of evergreen and deciduous textures that lead the eye, pathways trodden by generations of feet and drifts of bulbs that come back year after year.

Trees as individuals and in little copses make enduring spaces as does shrubbery skirted with bulbs and groundcovers. Repetition of lines—bed edges, walkways, patios, decking—and contrasts of texture, size and color help knit everything together. Oh, and while you’re keeping all this in mind, try to keep it simple.

Hardscape—pergolas, fences, walls, walkways, benches, tables, artwork—is as much a part of the outdoors as plants (and some of it actually can be moved around like furniture). But before we begin arranging built surfaces, objects and plants, we need an axis to hang it on.

The axis of a garden is the skeleton that holds those good bones together and sets apart memorable gardens from amateur hodgepodge. It connects the landscape with the house and the way people walk from all the doors that lead in and out. Walk around this winter and think about it. Envision a tree trunk with spreading branches and twigs that embrace the grounds. Or, if you’re a more formal sort, a cross or star.

If you have an overgrown holly, shaggy crapemyrtle or neglected Japanese maple that could shine as a focal point, the dormant season is the time to let out your inner Rodin and sculpt away deadwood, crossing limbs and wild hairs. Always make a sharp cut back to a juncture with a larger branch. Do not leave stubs. Don’t cut into old wood on junipers as they will not bud out, but hollies can be cut hard in mid-February to rejuvenate, shape or reduce in size.

Resist getting carried away with winter clean-up and mistakenly cutting back spring-flowering shrubs like viburnums, spireas and azaleas, which carry their buds over winter. Wait until right after bloom next year to prune them. Summer-flowering shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage and Pee Gee (Snowball type) hydrangeas bloom on new wood and can be cut back from one-third to two-thirds from now through March.

As we grow with our gardens year after year, tweaking a bit here and ripping everything out over there, in the end beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. When we look at our gardens, we are looking back at ourselves. So tilt that chin out, stand up straight and resolve to get in shape for 2018.

Plants for good bones

American holly*

Boxwood

Bulbs

Crapemyrtle

Cryptomeria

Dogwood*

Fern* (some)

Inkberry*

Japanese maple

Japanese silverbell

Redbud*

Witch hazel* (some)

*Native

Winter tasks

  • Clean up; make leaf piles to decompose over winter; start compost piles with garden debris.
  • Deer protection (wire cages around newly planted small trees).
  • Edging (use sharp spade to dig slanted edges to define beds).
  • Dormant pruning (shape, limb up, cut out double leaders from deciduous trees).
  • Amendment and mulch (lime for lawns after soil test; compost, rotted leaves spread on beds; tend compost piles).
  • Clean, organize and order new tools.

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