The Gift of a Snowy Day

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A good snowy day is a tremendous gift to a gardener.  Rather than get caught up in “doing,” we have an extended opportunity for “seeing.” 

Returning to the idea that “gardening is the slowest of the performing arts,” and the concept of gardener as artist; a snow covered garden in many ways is like a fresh piece of paper, or a new canvas with only the gesso in place.

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Yes, our trees, shrubs, pergolas, walls and paths are all there, but there are fewer distractions to our perception of our gardening space.  The permanent vertical elements are reduced to framework, and we can see them differently in relation to our available spaces.

I find that a camera sees in a way I do not.  As Anais Nin observed, “What we are familiar with we cease to see.” 

The fascination of a fresh snowfall, for me, is that it makes the landscape unfamiliar.  Most of the color to which we are habituated is simply erased.  We are left with shades of brown, grey, and winter green.  Photos taken after a snow document the “blank canvass” landscape for us so we can return to it as we prepare for the season ahead.

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Crepe Myrtle at sunset. A photo like this helps me think ahead about winter pruning before approaching the shrub with pruners.

Some garden planners begin with a sheet of graph paper, and draw the permanent features of their garden to scale.  While this is helpful, I have trouble translating this into the reality outside in the yard.  A photo is much better for me, and is helpful as I try to visualize what I would like to see in the empty, snow covered space in three or four month’s time.

A ground covered in white shines between the skeletons of individual trees and shrubs.  We see their relation to one another more clearly.

Snow resting on the limbs of trees highlights their beautiful structure.  We see what the eye normally passes over.  We see individual bits of branch and trunk highlighted against the mass.

I love this gift of seeing past the boundaries normally opaque with leaves, vines, and the mass of low growing plants; which only comes wrapped in a snowy day in the heart of winter.

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Remains of a Lantana at left, and the skeleton of a rose and vine at right.

The same is true of perennials.  The remains of summer’s flowers still standing, show me the mass of the mature plant, but with a unique transparency of design.  Do I like this design?  Do I want to give over this much space?  Is there something I want to move, or change, or add?

Patterns of light and shadow show plainly on the white snow.  We can watch how the light moves across our landscape as the day unfolds.  The first areas to melt show us where the sun reaches, and those areas left in snow longest show us where shade is the deepest.  This information is crucial in citing our plants.

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Hydrangea macrophylla, the last of their autumn flowers catching the snow, and a Rose of Sharon.

So whether your garden is new or mature, and whether you are a novice or a master gardener; I hope you are taking your own camera outside to photograph your garden under cover of snow.

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Lavender, “Otto Quast” growing in front of a rose, and the remains of the ginger lilies.

Before even dressing for the day, I threw on a coat and hat to head out with the camera while coffee brewed.  It had only stopped snowing an hour earlier, and I wanted to capture the fresh, undisturbed snow under the first light of morning.

Documenting the snow covered garden with a series of photos is a good beginning point to analyze the structure of our current gardens, and a useful way to begin thinking about changes we wish to make.

In every garden there are certain “non-negotiables” we must work with, as well as areas currently categorized as “problems,” which actually hold the possibility for growth and transformation of our landscape.

Beautiful flowering trees and shrubs were planted over 30 years ago by the original owner of this garden.

Beautiful flowering trees and shrubs were planted over 30 years ago by the original owner of this garden.

And then there are the gifts; those beautiful parts of the garden we already love.  There are the mature flowering shrubs inherited from a previous owner, a beautifully laid patio, a view over the water, a flat lawn.

Gordon Hayward, the designer who made a presentation for us here in Williamsburg earlier this week, told us that in his process of design, he begins with the winter garden:  the bones of the design.

January 29 2014 snow 026He first determines the pathways for moving through the garden, and the destinations those paths will lead towards; and then he designs what can be seen in the garden under cover of snow.

Pathways take us into the garden, and lead us to the vignettes of plants and views we’ve  crafted so carefully.

Paths lead us from garden’s perimeter inwards to the heart of our space, and allow us to structure our beds and borders in a coherent fashion.

They show us  the way in and out of our home and garden, and they help us define the boundaries of one garden room from the next.  They form the skeletal system of our garden.

As we wander the snow covered garden with our camera, we get a sense of where those pathways should lie, if they are not there already.  Our familiar paths are laid out in footprints, and we can visualize where additional pathways and even structures, might logically be constructed.

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And so a snowy day becomes a useful gift for the thoughtful gardener.  If our garden is pleasing and beautiful on a day like today, then the framework is there for all that will follow after the snow melts, the garden thaws, and spring unfurls itself towards summer once again.

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Tonight’s sunset over the snow

“Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.”  Edward Steichen

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

2 responses to “The Gift of a Snowy Day

  1. I always think that I’m sculpting my garden when I cut back hedges. I like your way of looking at things, thanks for sharing.

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