Winter in the north is a long season through which we live and accept that we have to wait for our gardens to come ‘to life’ again. This is because most of the landscape design we experience as being preferable is formed around British or even Japanese landscape ‘norms’ and premised on gentler winters with 4 clear seasonal climates.
Spring and Autumn in the north are short and so plant types must be able to respond to the dramatic fluctuations – even during winter, as when the prairies experience Chinooks with false spring temperatures. That’s why native trees don’t use temperature to guide their growth patterns but instead use day length, which is a constant they can rely on. This means when we see landscape suggestions from traditional sources then we gain a false idea of what is beauty and an unrealistic idea of what is possible.
The dormancy of deciduous trees and shrubs is emphasized by no leaves and so we feel something is missing. Evergreens, in contrast, stand out during the winter season as being exceptional and a ‘constant’. The new growth of deciduous trees is looked forward to but the new growth on evergreens is often hardly noticed.
Our eye notices the change in a deciduous tree, but the solid and consistent outline of evergreens doesn’t register as significant, especially for those who have a preference for excitement of variety. So noticing and valuing the beauty of the winter season is ‘tempered’ for those who don’t recognize the amazing feats that a northern landscape performs as it ‘tolerates’ winters.
As a tree person, for me to be able to see during the winter all the limbs and twigs of a tree is like being given the key to ‘see into’, and so recognize how huge this plant is and to be reminded of the balancing act its structure performs. An evergreen, in contrast, shows how its balancing act is through the appreciation of its silhouette which, set against the winter sky, becomes so strikingly clear. Winter becomes an opportunity to notice and appreciate the detail.
This noticing of detail is also true for landform. When plants are in growth, the form of the land below is ‘masked’ and so land shape is simply a forum for the leaves and flowers. In winter, the shapes of the land become the pleasure that was there during the summer but now can be the focus of our appreciation and the potential for all-season pleasure.
Rocks are ‘revealed’, walls become created shapes, paths become significant, and waterfalls can give us sound and movement. Winter is truly beautiful.