The Unsung Season: Gardens in Winter

Nature’s poetic sights in winter have always enchanted me. When I quit grumbling about the cold and dark, and just go outside, I always encounter unexpected beauty.  Furry staghorn sumac branches encased in ice, a tree filled with golden apples and flittering golden evening grosbeaks, red winterberries in a grey landscape, rustling papery beech leaves, waterlily leaves encased in frozen silver bubbles – these sights warm me and linger in my imagination.

But nothing in my early fair-weather gardens quickened my pulse or fed my soul in the cold season like those sights in nature. When I bought my home in 1989 I was determined to draw that kind of visual poetry close to me. I wanted to be surrounded by gardens that gave me pleasure 365 days a year whether I was inside or out.

I was also curious about what other gardeners – people who by definition want to be outside – did to keep themselves from going bonkers through the season that, despite its charms, always seems to come too soon and stay too long. To find out, I collaborated with writer Sydney Eddison on a book, The Unsung Season: Gardens and Gardeners in Winter, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995.

In my talk, “The Unsung Season, Gardens in Winter,” we look at the many possibilities for interest way past first frost. I consider form, line, color, texture, plays of light and shadow, movement, sound, birds, surprises you find when you drag yourself out of the comfy fireside chair and go outdoors. Big structures carry the garden when details are buried under snow, evergreens provide color and form, deciduous trees and shrubs create form with lines. Seedheads and pods lend punctuation and texture and many herbaceous plants – I call them my foul weather friends – persist well into winter.

I’ve come to appreciate winter as a transition from fall to spring. In autumn, ornamental grasses, berries and seedheads (many attractive to birds) are in their glory. Then colored and textured barks, needles and buds take center stage. Before you know it, early bulbs are pushing up under the snow. I make sure to plant the earliest of early bloomers in warm microclimates so I have flowers before snow in the rest of the yard melts. The unsung season never seems unbearably long any more, for there is so much to see and enjoy.

Contact Karen to book this talk