Suzy Bales, author of The Garden in Winter: Plant for Beauty and Interest in the Quiet Season (Rodale Books, 2007), calls winter "the season with the most wonder, the honest season, when everything stands up naked, hiding nothing."
But gardeners typically are tired of standing - and kneeling, digging, and all else - and want to hide.
"People have in their head that nothing happens in winter, so no need to walk around and look at the garden. There's so much going on," says Bales, who has gardened on six acres on Long Island's North Shore for 32 years and written 13 books. Her 14th, Garden Bouquets and Beyond, will be out in February, just before she's scheduled to speak at the Philadelphia International Flower Show.
Asked to explain, she leaps: Don't be so quick to "clean up." Learn to be comfortable with death and decay. Learn to love brown. Brown is chocolate, brown is cafe au lait, russet, and mahogany. Brown is moody and rich.
Bales leaves most of winter's dead stalks and brown seed heads alone and, with this in mind, plants 6-foot sunflowers in spring. "The heads feed the birds, the roots are like standing lamps, growing out wide but not deep, and they'll stand all winter, their magnificent heads getting lower and lower," she says. "That's all kind of wonderful."
Stalks and seed heads give the garden definition and depth, making it seem smaller and more mysterious. But other colors, besides brown, are possible in winter - like blue and yellow.
Even more than blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'), Bales likes yellow conifers like golden Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa).
"Originally, I kind of thought they looked sickly," she says. "But they bring sunlight down to the earth in winter, when it's really dark and dreary, when you really need that glow out there."
Now, when Bales looks out the window, the yellow conifers remind her of Muppets. "They're such funny shapes. They make me laugh," she says.
On that happy note: If you think about it, winter is the ideal season out there.
"I have a garden to enjoy without any work," Bales says.
- Virginia A. Smith