A Busy (and Beautiful) Winter Garden

A Busy (and Beautiful) Winter Garden

Winter often seems like an “off” season for the garden. There are no blooms, no butterflies, and many of the birds have flown south. But for those of us who live in a temperate climate, there are still a lot of things happening in the landscape.

For one, the cold is an important part of a plant’s life cycle. Dormancy allows a plant to save energy for the following season’s growth. It allows the plant to weather below-freezing temperatures without damage. Cold is required for many seeds to germinate.

Snow introduces small amounts of nitrogen into the soil. Snow insulates the ground, keeping it frozen, and helping to prevent frost heave. It also helps plants from sprouting too soon during un-seasonally warm weather. Microbial activity also continues at low temperatures. These microbes are important because they help break down soil nutrients to a form that plants can use. Plants don’t directly “eat” the soil, instead they have a symbiotic relationship with the soil microbes that help them utilize the nutrients. If you have happy, healthy soil, your soil microbes will still be busy during the winter.

Any remaining foliage, dead leaves, and coniferous trees and shrubs can provide a multitude of insects, birds, and animals with protection or food.

Ecological Landscaping Techniques

Many people advocate removing dead plant matter from the landscape in the fall. Although there is a chance of voles using leaf litter as protection and causing damage, there are many reasons. Learn which plants to remove leaf litter from and which can remain. Fruit trees and roses benefit from removing debris which can harbor fungal disease or pests from the ground under them. Elsewhere in the garden, this leaf litter serves many important functions. Read the pamphlet for a more detailed discussion: Life in the Leaf Litter (1.7 MB pdf)

Remember that keeping raw materials on-site is efficient and sustainable. It returns nutrients in your garden back to the soil and it decreases your town’s cost and fuel requirements for landscape waste removal and processing.

Plant Choices

Native plants often provide many more ecological benefits than introduced species, including cultivars. For instance, Rutgers hybrid dogwoods, a cross between kousa and native dogwoods, are sterile (meaning they do not produce seeds that will produce more plants) and the cultivar is more resistant to insects and disease. Also, the berries of the some plant cultivars, like ‘Winter Sprite’ winterberry, are not eaten as readily by birds as the native winterberry. If you mourn the fact that the berries of a plant are eaten by birds too quickly and you can’t enjoy the red color throughout winter, consider planting both a native and a cultivar. That way, you will not deprive the birds of an important winter food source. Your plant choices have an impact on other things beside the designed space, so if you are trying to have a sustainable or ecologically-friendly landscape, read about the plants you are considering or consult reliable sources like the New England Wildflower Society.

Ice Covered Grasses

Ice Covered Grasses

Remember that some berry producing plants, like hollies, are dioecious and require both a male and female plant in order for the female to produce fruit. It is also important to plant species that are appropriate for the site based on the plant’s requirements for moisture, soil type, heat, cold, and light.

Natural Architecture

Another thing that I enjoy about plants in winter is that they provide striking architecture in the winter garden. This is one of the reasons that I don’t remove dead plants until spring. It isn’t just the coniferous trees and shrubs – I enjoy seeing the snow and ice on most of my plants.

I hope that despite the overwhelming amount of snow this season, you can find beauty in the important ways that the snow and cold weather provide valuable ecological services to our environment. Grab your snowshoes and go look for something unexpected!

Place Making

Place Making

The feeling of Place has a strong impact on each of us. Think about where you are right now. How do you feel about this space? Do you like it? Are there things that you don’t like about it? Talking about Place makes us think about what ties us to a space. It causes us to think about how we react to our surroundings, whether consciously or subconsciously. What makes us want to sit and stay, what causes us to hurry through? Our indoor, outdoor, private, and public areas are all affected by our feelings about Place.

As a landscape designer, I want to help people create a Place that they can connect to and is meaningful to them. Sometimes this will be about integrating the outdoor spaces with the indoor spaces – like making the view from the windows nicer, creating new outdoor seating and rerouting paths to make easier transitions or improve unused areas of your yard. Sometimes it will be about planting the right plants in a problem area, earth formations like swales and rain gardens to move water and increase its infiltration, plant selections to decrease water use, or maybe it will be about food production or supporting wildlife.

Picture frame in nature

My specialty is to help you create positive Place.

A free consultation consists of a visit to your site and interview, so I can explore your landscaping needs and style. I will work hard to integrate both of these into your landscape design and planting plan. If you are in the Central Massachusetts area, call now to schedule your appointment. Winter is a great time to get your landscape plans in place.

Save the Moss, Save the World

Save the Moss, Save the World

Ok, so I was a fan of Heros when it first came out, and you might think this is an extreme philosophical approach, but let me explain.

Moss belongs to a group of very old plants, called bryophytes, that have been alive since before the Triassic period. They are flowerless, seedless, and primarily receive water and nutrients through their leaves. They are herbaceous (non-woody) without true roots, clinging to a surface with tiny rhizoids. Different varieties grow in a variety of places, usually damp and shady, but many species tolerate sun and seasonal dryness. There are over 12,000 different varieties. It is pretty cool that there are so many different types.

Moss does not require soil, and can grow on many different surfaces. It likes an acidic, nutrient-poor environment. It needs little water and less encouragement to keep growing. I find those very aspiring characteristics for ecological landscape design.

And moss is green. Very green. Green, a color that is associated with a feeling of calm. Green such as what we encourage through the growth of grassy lawns, shrubs, and trees. I bring moss up as an example of a plant that is not highly valued here, but is valued elsewhere. It is a green that is cultivated in traditional Japanese gardens, which millions of people visit with awe each year.

Moss Garden

Japanese Garden, Seattle, WA

But, due to some strange marketing and cultural shifts in the United States, people here try to eradicate moss. I’m not talking about moss on walkways that gets slippery and hazardous when wet, or roofs where they can damage shingles. I mean moss in gardens and moss in lawns. It is often considered a nuisance, and you can find a great number of articles about how to kill it. Yet it is a green plant that is willing to grow in a place where grass does not want to, and moss does not require fertilizers, huge amounts of water, constant mowing, raking, and blowing – what’s not to like?

So how can embracing something like moss save the world?

  1. Fertilizers that are scattered on lawns and farms are high in nitrogen and phosphorus that, when washed away in the rain, enters our waterways. This causes eutrophication, or basically the fertilization of water, causing overgrowth of algae and bacteria. Algae uses extra oxygen in the water, making it difficult for many aquatic species to live. Cyanobacteria overgrowth is hazardous to humans, causing anything from minor skin irritations to liver damage and death. Most fertilizers are not safe for pets or children playing in the lawn.
  2. Moss killers container zinc and copper that are extremely toxic to aquatic lifeforms, pets, and garden plants (including the edible ones) which then become toxic to humans.
  3. Decreased water use. Some plants just don’t need much, so you can cut down on your water bill and cities can cut back on the amount of water they are sanitizing.
  4. Moss improves water infiltration and prevents erosion. Since moss doesn’t require soil or rich nutrients, it can be encouraged to grow on stone, gravel areas, or inclines where other plants might find difficult. Using moss as a  groundcover will hold soil in in place and allow water to slowly soak into the ground.

Even if moss still isn’t to your liking, question yourself about what other small changes you can make in your current landscape design philosophy. You, too, can help save the world.