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Winter Reflection

by Dave Brigante
Tualatin, Oregon USA
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When we consider the question of how we can keep some kind of winter beauty and botanical interest alive in our water gardens, for some people a lot can come to mind while for others that blank sullen stare sets in. Thankfully our northwest (USA) climate is oftentimes quite forgiving when it comes to extreme winter weather conditions. I do realize that in many other places winter really takes hold so keeping a water garden attractive can be rather challenging to say the least. Surprisingly we rarely get more than a few snow events each winter. Any kind of ice cover, sometimes as much as four inches thick, traditionally doesn't stay around for more than a few days. Hopefully seeing what is possible for us here will encourage many of you to try a few of our northwest luxuries in your own wintery waterways.

First let's take a look at what one may potentially see out of the living room window in the off-season. The water feature, whether it is a still pond, a pond with a cascading waterfall or even a simple bog may look barren and devoid of interest. All you see are some cold stark grey rocks, withered plants and not a whole lot going on in and around your former summer backyard focal point. At a minimum creating some aesthetic appeal surrounding your particular feature would greatly enhance the view.

By putting in some specimen landscape trees such as river birch (Betula nigra), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) or a weeping willow (Salix babylonica 'Golden Niobe') you can create beauty all year round. The birch have very unusual creamy cinnamon colored bark that begins to peel away as the tree matures to reveal even more eye catching colors underneath. A bald cypress is always an impressive tree near the water as well; its ability to make "knees" that come up and out of a water-saturated soil environment is beyond compare. The bark on the cypress has a soft yet stringy texture that is quite soothing to look at. Weeping willows, once they lose their leaves in the fall, dangle gracefully to the ground (if you let them) with summer inspiring sunshine yellow branches. It can really brighten up those long gloomy rainy months that we sometimes get. The nice thing about all of these trees is that they can all grow on the ponds edge; getting their feet wet doesn't seem to bother them, plus that's one less tree you have to water when you're making the rounds.  

Betula nigra

Salix babylonica

The previously mentioned trees are all deciduous so, to create even more depth and color in your scene, adding in some conifers can really fill that void. I like pine trees because they hold onto their needles all winter long and are great for lending nice structure and balance. Some, such as the tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora) or the scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), have very distinct bark patterns and colors. As these trees mature, pruning to open up their centers will bring out these accents. The array of potential conifers is far too vast to try and incorporate into this discussion but also selecting a few of the more dwarf varieties, say in the one to three foot range, is a good idea considering that there are many shapes, colors and sizes to choose from.  

Pinus sylvestris

Cornus sericea 'Midwinter Fire'
A few others to consider for year-round interest would be shrubs of unusual color such as red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) or yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'). A mix of the two, especially after a light winter shearing will create a lot of colorful new growth for the coming spring. If you can find the new variety 'Midwinter Fire' you could have the best of both worlds.

Additionally, broadleaf evergreens can also create some more stability. A couple families that I like are the multitudes of varieties of Rhododendrons and azaleas that are available; there are very large leaved types and right on down to miniatures. Their spring color is always a welcome site. Lastly an assortment of ornamental grasses can add some height and texture well into the winter months. Many do not need a haircut until the new growth begins to show, allowing for the inflorescenses to be enjoyed for several months.

Now that you have your backyard ready for that gardening magazine photo shoot let's address what might actually look respectable INSIDE an average cool season northwest pond or bog setting. Some of the tried and true performers that we have here are natives to this region or have been naturalized over time. One disclaimer before I get started -- most of these plants have the ability of going through the throes of winter looking just fine all season long but we all know about the tricks Mother Nature can play on us. Let's just say your results may vary.

Our standard wetland areas here usually have a mixture of various rushes, cattails and sedges in them. The two native rushes that I like are blue spreading rush (Juncus patens) and soft rush (Juncus effusus); both hold up very well and do hang onto their wispy flower masses for a long time. Another rush, bolanders rush (Juncus bolanderi) has roundish seed pods that are held high above its dark green grassy spears. Very nice.

The cattail family here appears to be slanted more towards our native giant cattail (Typha latifolia) or another called narrow leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia). It's amazing how it's almost the end of January and the catkins are still fully intact. One should be forewarned though to keep cattails in pots or they will spread quite rapidly. You know how they say "sedges have edges "; our native slough sedge (Carex obnupta) fits that bill. Its quarter-inch-wide blades are razor sharp, yet this dark green winter standby can appear soft from a distance. As a bonus it also has dark coffee brown seed clusters for birds and humans to mutually enjoy.   

Typha latifolia

On the ornamental side of things there are a couple of corkscrew rushes that stand our cold as well as any native .The first one is the standard green corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus 'Spiralis') and then there is also the more exotic blue medusa corkscrew rush (Juncus inflexis 'Afro') that adds even more character to the mix. Another blue is the wonderful black flowering sedge (Carex nigra); its black drooping seed bunches contrast nicely with its steel blue mounding grass blades; an excellent marginal. One other pretty edge plant is ogon sweetflag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'); its rich golden color of six to twelve inches tall adds to the continued softening of some of those hard-to-cover rocky margins.  

Hibiscus moscheutos

Eupatorium sp. >

Other ornamentals can create yet another dimension as an outdoor dried flower arrangement. The swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos), well known for its beautiful selection of sometimes dinner plate sized flowers, leaves behind clusters of very tall (5'-6') spears with seed pods that help to retain some height in your big picture. The other two are butterfly weed (Asclepias incarnata) and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium sp.). I know what you're thinking -- why in the world would I put any kind of weed back into my garden when I already spend so much time trying to keep it out? Luckily both of these are non-invasive and do not self-sow inordinately. Their pink summer flowers are great butterfly attracters plus they stay on as formidable dried flowers from fall and on into spring, especially the Joe Pye weed.

Asclepias incarnata

Now for those of you who really want to take your outdoor arena to a whole new level there are a few other considerations possible. Garden art!! Simple statuary, colorfully glazed ceramic pottery, Asian-style lanterns or even a disappearing fountain/urn system could bring that little extra pizzazz that may actually entice you to spend some time outdoors on those rare yet soothing warmer winter days. Outdoor lighting could also be just the ticket. Spot lighting a few small areas in the landscape (waterscape) such as a specimen tree with a nice silhouette or an underwater light pointing into your waterfall can lengthen your viewing time considerably. 

Last but not least, if the whole pond and bog thing is just a little more than you had in mind, trying to incorporate some of these ideas into some nice water bowls would be an easy alternative. Filling water bowls with some of the aforementioned plants while trying to keep it all in scale can be very satisfying. By planting a water hawthorne (Aponogeton distachyos) or two with their strong vanilla fragrance-laden blooms, your water bowls may be all that you need to evoke the sweet birdsongs of spring.  

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