The Lovely Bones, or, What do you mean the garden lacks structure?

Ah, winter. I gaze out the window at a pristine field of white (or, more often, a soupy mess of grey) and admire the stark forms of the shrubs and trees. And then I think–crap, still not enough structure.

Nearly every gardener I’ve ever met is seduced into gardening by herbaceous plants. Whether succulent vegetables, bright and brilliant annuals, or old-fashioned perennials, they lure you in with their sweet scents and riotous colors. You plant them in front of the house or around the garage, carve out a little kitchen garden, and admire them throughout the growing season.

Then winter comes and turns them into so much compost. And what are you left with? Nothing. ¬†Because as lovely as they are, annuals, vegetables, and herbaceous perennials die in the winter. In the case of annuals, they’re completely dead. With perennials, they die back to the root, ready to rise again in spring. But that doesn’t help you in the winter, when you really, really need something to look at to take your mind off the fact that you just got another six inches of snow and spring is an eternity away.

And that’s why you need structure. Think of structure as the bones of your garden. It may be hardscape, like pathways and decks. It might take the form of vertical structures, like arbors and trellis. You might want some winter-hardy art that looks fetching under a cap of snow. And unless you are in a microscopically small garden, you need some shrubs and/or trees. Not only do they provide food for birds, shade in summer, bring in pollinating insects, produce fruit (if you choose the right ones), and generally spiff ¬†up the place, they give you something to look at in the long grey season.

So go to your window and take a look outside. What do you see? Winter is the ideal time to take stock of your garden’s structure needs, because the greenery of summer isn’t obscuring anything. Think forward a year. What would you love to look out this window and see next year? Some brilliant red branches of the red-twig dogwood? The fuzzy buds of a magnolia next to the window? A little row of conifers defining the edge of the lawn? Or maybe a pyramid-shaped tuteur (obelisk) sticking up out of the snow?

Take, for example, the photo above of my own humble abode. Under that foot of snow is a circular vegetable garden that looks pretty cool in summer. It’s surrounded by a brick edging, so even under a light snow, you can still make it out. Off to the left and the right (out of the picture) are small fruit trees. In another couple of years, they’ll have grown enough to make a big winter contribution to the structure of the garden. I have a nice mix of shurbs and perennials along the front of the house, including holly and creeping juniper that offer some green in the snow.

But I still need another vertical element in this garden to provide structure. Maybe an arch over that pathway. Oooh, I could train grapevines on it! Or maybe use it to grow small gourds. Or I could do a series of arches, like the ones in Monet’s garden. They’d help lead the eye to the door and provide even more growing space.

The point is, I’ve been working in this garden for ten years, and I still could use more structure. So don’t be downhearted if you currently see nothing in your garden but the cleared beds where your annuals used to be. Start thinking in terms of structure, and you’ll be amazed by just how much better your winter garden will look next year.

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