Marianne Binetti: Short days make perfect conditions for dramatic scenery

December 4, 2013 

The first week of December is when the winter delights of the garden begins. You don’t even need to have a garden to train your eye to see the beauty of living in a climate where there is a change of seasons.

Noticing just a few of the plants that shine in the winter season with bud, bark and berry will help anyone living in the Northwest appreciate the low light and short days.

A few design tips can highlight these same plants and add some winter drama to the landscape. Transform the winter of your discontent into a season of creative adventure with fresh look at this festive season.

If you are still not sold on the beauty of the winter landscape, consider what the greatest artists have taught us over the past century – greats such as Picasso and Monet — about the ability to see things in a different light and admire the beauty of an impression rather than a realistic interpretation of a summer garden.

Step one: Set the stage for the winter drama

Choose a site you can see from indoors while sitting cozy and warm by your fireside. Or an area you will often pass by on your walk to the car or front door. You can add to the stage presence of a winter garden by using the side of a building or the flat surface of a fence or even an evergreen hedge as a backdrop for the winter plants. Think of this background as a surface that will offer some contrast to the colors of the plant performers.

Step Two: Light the stage

Stage lighting will extend the show – the dark days of winter can be transformed into a gala evening performance or “theatre of the dark” with the simple addition of outdoor lighting. December is the perfect time to add tiny white lights to a weeping cherry tree or to swaddle an evergreen in a blanket of brilliance.

Think beyond just bulbs for the holiday season. New advancements in outdoor lighting mean that even the least confident “do-it-your-selfers” can visit a home store and light up the landscape in less than a day. Learn to use uplighting to cast the shadow of a coral bark maple against the side of the house or use downlighting from an overhead tree to spotlight a dramatic birdbath or water feature. Winter is the season to lighten up and experiment with shadow play.

Step Three: Choose a star

The diva of your winter garden can be a focal point tree with amazing bark, a leafless but contorted filbert, or even a majestic and symmetrical evergreen tree. The object is to choose a star and then build the ensemble cast around it. Think of it like framing a great painting – standing alone the white bark of a birch tree looks great against the green lawn – but add the supporting players of a red twig dogwood and the bright red berries of a cotoneaster groundcover and you’ll be adding backup singers and more color volume to the star performer.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.

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