Helmke Industries wants you to imagine different colors popping up on your property all 4 seasons of the year. Even in the winter, garden color can be spectacular against the white snow. Here is an efficient, yet comprehensive guide to planting a landscape with surprising and beautiful color Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.
Comparing seasons in the Northeast garden
You’ll often hear that the Northeast “has” seasons. Most every place does, but given our place on the map, this speaks to how the differences between ours are more pronounced. Each season promises joys and headaches of its very own, but one thing’s for sure: there’s never a dull moment. Let’s consider the Northeast’s seasons in the garden.
Most people think winter is the season that makes us come undone here in the Northeast, but my money’s on spring. An average spring brings gradually warming temps and rain, the better to break bud. However, spring in the Northeast is also the most unpredictable of seasons, so a seasoned gardener knows to be ready for anything. Whereas the Northeast’s other seasons tend to be relatively stable (“relatively,” because our home is notorious for wild swings in weather), spring is the mood ring of seasons. Rather than a gradual warm-up, some springs jump ahead to 80 degrees and sunny, then plummet back to 40-degree gloom just in time for the weekend. Some springs see flooding from an overabundance of rain and snowmelt, while the occasional spring sees little rain at all. Hot or cold, wet or dry, spring isn’t just a wakeup call to your garden from Mother Nature—it’s a rallying cry to you, fellow gardener, to hop to it after a long, restless winter.
In places where the ground freezes tight, an integral part of spring is referred to as “mud season,” because of the soil’s sponginess after it thaws and then swells with spring rain.
Some of the best plants of spring are equally capricious. Bulbs are best known, and some of the first to bring bright color to the garden. They go hand in hand with plants we call spring ephemerals, a cast of characters that does all its blooming and growing before summer begins. Spring also sees most flowering trees do their thing for the year, as well as some popular seasonal shrubs.
Since it’s the starting pistol for most plants to get growing, spring in the Northeast is a great season to plant new plants. Newcomers stimulated by rain and warming air and soil will be more likely to set down good roots.
EARLY TO MIDSUMMER
Summer in the Northeast is our personal horticultural reward for the hard work of making it through frigid winter and fickle spring. Thanks to our place on the map, we’re fortunate enough to escape the more extreme heat much of the rest of North America sees—the stickiest humidity of summer in the South; the searing, drought- and fire-prone heat of the West. Summer in the Northeast usually means stretches of long, warm, sunny days, punctuated by periodic rainfall as humidity builds thunderstorms.
If spring is what kicks growing plants into gear, summer is when they hit their stride, and it’s the time many an ornamental garden comes into its own. A menagerie of flowering shrubs and perennials blooms in the first half of summer, and warm-season annuals and tropicals can be added to instantly brighten gardens after frost dates have passed. Houseplants in containers head outside for a much needed “vacation.”
Many blooming plants peak in the first half of summer, so a flower-focused ornamental garden can be a dog when the dog days hit. That’s one reason you’ll see many plants in this book recognized for their long season of interest, and why gardens that emphasize great foliage have gained in popularity.
LATE SUMMER TO FALL
A Northeast summer reaches its zenith near July’s end. The solstice has passed, and come August, those long days, though still hot, become noticeably shorter. Many ornamental gardens quiet down during this period, as if resting up for the beauty bonanza of fall. As the mercury peaks, the floral parade gives way to a simpler but more robust palette. Smoldering shades that foreshadow fall are the order of the day for late summer flowers (that’s why I’ve grouped them with plants from that season), and late summer to autumn in these parts is the last hurrah for most flowering perennials. Rain and cooler temps prompt a new flush for some, while a small but forceful group waits to bloom, improbably, at the onset of fall. If conditions are just right, the first autumn foliage aligns with the last flowers in a magic hour that’s almost unrivaled.
When fall does arrive, foliage is the order of the day, and deciduous woody plants are the true stars of that season. The Northeast is legendary for the fall color of its trees, and autumnal sweeps of red and yellow, gold and orange are synonymous with the idea of our scenery. While a maple forest in October is truly stunning, there’s a fall foliage plant for any size of garden, and the wise northern gardener fully partakes of this seasonal feature. Early autumn is also an excellent time to plant, as temperatures have cooled, rain is more frequent, and the soil is still warm.
After the raucous fall flush comes the most subtly beautiful botanical moment: a brief period characterized by an unmistakable stillness, after the last leaf has fluttered away, but before the first snow. The garden’s bones take the stage for winter, the season we need them most.
Cold, unforgiving, even brutal—these are words humans use to describe winter in the Northeast. The same holds true for plants, and the plants that survive here are remarkable in their hardiness. Winter varies wildly across the region: inland and northerly areas may well see a thick, consistent blanket of snow; those closer to the coast get swings from deep snow to near nothing; snow melts most quickly in the “heat islands” of Northeast cities.
All see frigid temperatures and winds to match. Snow is forever advertised as an excellent insulator for plants, and this is true—when the bottom falls out of the thermometer, a layer of snow is far better than bare ground. Snow becomes problematic when a thick layer begins to melt, refreezes, and becomes icy. Beware this freeze/thaw cycle, as it can mean burn for more tender evergreens and rot for plants that require sharp drainage. Wind makes itself known in winter more than other seasons as well, especially at coastal and high altitude sites. While winter wet can melt plants, winter winds can dry them to a crisp. Combat winter weather foes by getting to know your microclimates and siting plants carefully within them.
Conifers and a sturdy group of broadleaf evergreens are the belles of the winter ball, followed by leafless trees and shrubs with brightly colored bark, pretty berries, and intriguing form. The northeastern gardener’s plant palette just for winter may seem slim, but in fact many plants that tend to be interesting over multiple seasons count winter as a time to shine.
Designing The Winter Garden – Creating All Year Interest in the Landscape
Welcome to the world of winter gardening. As a landscape designer the three major aspects I look at when designing any landscape are structure, form and function. Even though all three are equally important the structure and form of a garden especially come into play during the wintertime. When designing for winter interest it is important to look at the backbone or framework of the garden. An assortment of evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs can help to accomplish this task. An important factor to consider is the branch structure of your trees and shrubs. There is nothing more beautiful than the gentle touch of a winter’s first snow on the branches of trees. Form and structure of trees and shrubs in the landscape offer the most interest when they are unusual in some way. For instance the crooked shaped curly branches of a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick or Corkscrew Willow are most prominent once their leaves have fallen and each attracts a lot more attention for their unusual structure during the winter than any other time of the year.
The first step in designing a winter garden is to plan for a backdrop of evergreen trees, which will catch the winter snow and show a continuum of green throughout the winter months. Evergreens that show nice winter interest with deep evergreen coloring and bright red berries include hollies such as Ilex ‘Nellie Stevens’, Ilex aquiparynl ‘Dragon Lady’, Ilex crenata ‘Fastigiata’ or ‘Chesapeake, Red Oakleaf Holly or any of the blue Hollies such as Ilex meserveae ‘Blue Maid’. Other evergreen trees that serve as winter interest include Eastern White Pine, Japanese Cryptomeria, Blue Atlas Cedar, Blue Spruce, Western Arborvitae, Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’, Golden Oriental Spruce, Norway Spruce, Weeping Alaskan Cedar, and Vanderwolf’s Limber Pine.
Much of the color in a winter garden comes from fruiting trees and shrubs. Along with members of the holly family, fruiting shrubs such as barberry, nandina (heavenly bamboo), callicarpa (beauty bush), vibernum, red chokeberry, winterberry and yew add interest to the garden and supply a food source for birds. Deciduous shrubs such as hydrangea and spirea also add much interest with their full branching structure and left over flower heads that glisten when frosted over. Ornamental grasses when left intact offer color to the winter landscape as well and act as a food source for birds.
Branching deciduous trees such as Crepe Myrtle, Magnolia, Birch, Weeping Cherry and Wisteria have an interesting layered branch structure that adds form to the winter garden. Known for their bark Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’) and Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea Stolonifera’) come to mind. The striking pinkish-red bark of Coral Bark Maple and bright red bark of the Red Twig Dogwood are an eye-catching display of color during the cold months of winter. Another shrub form of dogwood, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ or Yellow Twig Dogwood offers showy bright yellow stems that are pronounced against a snowy backdrop. River Birch with its cinnamon colored bark in winter is also an excellent highlight. Other shrubs and trees known for their interesting structure include Weeping Japanese Maple, Weeping ‘Youngi’ Birch, Harry Lauders Walking Stick and Sycamore. There are even shrubs that bloom in winter such as Witch Hazel with its yellow blooms.
When it comes to structure different hardscape items can be used to add interest and dimension to the landscape. The use of strategically placed boulders for example can add some drama and impact to an ordinarily flat landscape. I often use a boulder border on chosen garden beds to add height to an area or add a large rock surrounded by low lying plantings so that in the winter there is added interest. The use of walls, fountains, birdbaths or garden art can add to the winter landscape as well and capture interest all year round.
The possibilities in the world of gardening are endless and a garden can be designed for all seasons. I hope you have found this information useful and that you too can add some winter interest to your landscape.
Thank you to the author: Lee @A Guide To Northeastern Gardening Copyright 2010
Whether you live in Harrington Park, Montvale, Old Tappan, Alpine or Norwood, we hope you call Helmke for a no-cost consultation with our horticultural experts.
The Four Seasons of Gardening-Garden Design
As a gardener and designer who lives in the northeast I give extra special attention to creating a landscape that will supply interest throughout all of the four seasons. After determining function, such elements as structure, form, color, foliage and texture need to be taken into consideration when planning a landscape.
The first main element I consider is structure. Structure is important in the garden because it serves as a framework for the design. Structural elements can be either plant material or hardscape. The use of evergreens or landscape plants with interesting bark or trunk formation can provide interest as well as functional elements such as patios, pathways, garden benches or water features. In the above perennial garden, Blue Montgomery Globe Spruce overlooks the main garden adding vertical interest while Juniperus ‘Blue Star’, Spirea ‘Goldflame’, Dwarf Fountain Grass and perennial Lamb’s Ear serve as a framework or anchors for the garden bed in winter. I have also added a few pieces of moss rock here and there to add some additional interest and dimension. When discussing form and function consider the purpose you would like your landscape to achieve. If it is a quiet place you desire then perhaps adding a small stone patio and/or garden bench could create a peaceful retreat. If looking to attract wildlife then a birdbath or feeder could also be an addition or possibly a garden statue could provide some whimsy!
Color plays an important role and is more difficult to achieve in winter. Plant perennials that complement one another (warm and cool hues) and that have varying bloom times. Add colorful shrubs such as Barberry and Gold Mop Cypress for additional interest. Take into consideration the fact that foliage and bloom colors of perennials and shrubs do change with each season. The idea is to disperse color equally among the four seasons. Elements such as Dwarf Fountain Grass provide greenery in spring throughout summer and a take on a bronze appearance in fall and winter. Fall foliage on such perennials as Astilbe and Daylily turn a vibrant orange and gold while Hosta leaves turn a bright yellow. Lamb’s Ear is a discovery I made years ago. Its soft white foliage can be seen along the garden border every season of the year and its pink flower spikes add extra interest in the summer. In the winter months the blue evergreens such as Montgomery Spruce and Blue Star Juniper along with golden evergreens (Gold Mop Cypress and Gold Lace Juniper), Dwarf Fountain Grasses and Lamb’s Ear give just enough interest to get through those cold and snowy days.
Without blooms texture becomes the primary design element. Texture refers to the size, shape, coarseness or smoothness of foliage and plays along with structure. Some plants known for texture are Hosta, Heuchera, Daylily, and ornamental grasses. The incredible large and colorful foliage of Heuchera(Coral Bells) and graceful fronds of Daylily complement the broad veined variegated leaves of Hosta and narrow wispy blades of dwarf fountain grasses. The feathery foliage of Astilbe and the elongated smooth foliage of Lamb’s ear make a great combination as well. Even the dried seed heads and stalks of saliva rise up above the garden to create landing pads for dragonflies in the fall. Deciduous shrubs such as spirea and barberry add interesting foliage in spring, summer and fall and provide structure in winter. Add some evergreens which play an integral part in adding all the elements of structure, color, form and foliage to the landscape for all of the four seasons.
Evergreens can be found in a variety of colors ranging from golds to blues and greens and textures ranging from broad-leaved evergreens to fine-needled varieties. They can also take on a variety of forms including rounded, horizontal or spreading, vertical and weeping. These elements can be placed accordingly to add width or height to a garden. In this case the grafted Montgomery Globe Spruce provides a vertical element in the garden. ‘Blue Star’ Juniper, Spirea and Dwarf Fountain Grasses anchor each side of the garden bed and show continuity, uniformity and balance. Lamb’s Ear frames the front of the perennial area. Looking further you can view Weeping Pussy Willow and Arborvitae (vertical) with Gold Mop Cypress and Barberry (Medium height and horizontal). That upper and lower sections of the garden have more detailed structure with evergreens and flowering shrubs with the perennial garden in the center.
evergreens provide form and structure in the winter landscape, the twisting structure of a Weeping Japanese Maple trunk provides interest while the tree is dormant, the vibrant red bark of the Japanese Coral Bark Maple (Sango Kaku) provides structure and color in winter, and the changing blooms and foliage of Spirea are turning a deep pink in fall. A garden is constantly changing and can be enjoyed all year round with some basic elements of structure, form and color. Creating an all-season landscape can be accomplished by following the design principles discussed here and guaranteed your garden will have something to offer every day of the year!
For those in Mahwah, Piermont, Nyack, Rockleigh, New City, or anywhere in Bergen County or Rockland County.. As Always…Happy Gardening!
Thank you to the author: Lee@ A Guide to Northeastern Gardening.