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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
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.
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.
Cornus sericea 'Midwinter
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.
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.
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
Interest Images > Complete 300K
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
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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