Winter Garden: The Beauty in the Bones

Imagine the end of fall, just before winter strikes. The growing season’s blooms have faded and fallen away, leaving just a hollow outline of what those plants were in their full glory; back when they shone brightly and brought cheer. We could observe these skeletons of memories and think to ourselves, “Darn. Would you look at this patch of plants? It’s all dead, ugly, and worthless.” However, Mother Nature has a plan, and a garden that looks very different during the winter has its own inherent beauty. It’s more than meets the eye; a bigger beauty.

Oudolf Gardens, Belle Isle, MI

Where do you think tiny critters spend their winter? They don’t have a vacation house in Miami where they can wait out the cold. They find small spaces in fallen leaves and other cavities right in our backyards, that provide protection from their environment. They are safe from strong winds, harsh temperatures, and scary predators, and can gather nesting material and food to munch on. If we clean up our gardens so they are perfectly neat and tidy, these sweet and tiny creatures have a significantly smaller chance of making it through the winter. When the season of hibernation has come to a close, and the creatures begin wiggling, growing and roaming, we can then begin pruning. All that debris will fall to the ground, becoming food for our worm friends and enriching the soil. Hooray! Taking care of our gardens includes learning about the needs of the creatures that live in and around it.

The seed heads of the echinacea plant and the ______ are chock-full of seeds that are bursting with potential; new life, a new story. They hold the future, and until springtime, they are a valuable food source for hungry birds during scarce winter months. When the weather warms up, these seeds will fall into the soil and produce hardier, more disease-resistant plants. The next generation will spring up, full of life, slowly covering what their predecessors left behind with new growth. This is another reason to leave them up during winter: they’ll plant those seeds all by themselves! Just let Mother Nature do her thing.

Monarda Bradburiana, Eastern Beebalm
Oudolf Gardens, Belle Isle, MI

Some plants shine in certain seasons, while their neighbors are in the background, storing up resources for the next growing season and creating mulch for the whole garden. As the plants in the limelight reach the end of their showy season and break down, their fallen leaves and blooms sink into the soil and become food for the worms and microorganisms in the soil. Then, their background neighbors move into the foreground and steal the show. Each and every plant plays a part in taking care of its community, whether it is blooming brightly, or fading and falling. 

Gardeners can also appreciate the form and structure that these “bones” provide in an otherwise prairie-like landscape. When we are pruning our gardens before the snow falls, we have the option to cut plants back, or leave them up. Plants that are more woody, such as lavender and sage, provide structure, standing tall and elegantly holding the snow. Other parts of the garden are blanketed in snow; a smooth covering underneath more elevated counterparts. This can really boost visual interest, creating a more dynamic scene. 

A winter garden
Photo by My Thyme Gardens

Next time you see a tree that bears a dead branch, your winter garden mindset will kick in and say, “This dying plant material is adding value to our ecosystem! That branch can be a place for a hummingbird to rest upon, and how can you put a price on that?” Once this dead branch falls to the ground, it becomes part of the ever-renewing buffet for the soil’s microorganisms. They need that death to take place in order to live, feast, reproduce, and create that rich soil. 

In winter, the Milkweed plant (Asclepias incarnata) fades away until it becomes barren-looking, hollow stems. Our winter garden mindset remembers that these hollow plants can be places where pollinators spend their winter. They will be protected from the harshness of the cold season, and be able to emerge in the spring with strength and purpose! Behold…another opportunity to protect our pollinators! 

Wayne Dyer famously declared, “The only difference between a flower and a weed is judgment.” Some find beauty in things that others perceive as unappetizing. It’s a matter of perspective, influenced by one’s own experience. The more we can explore different seasons and transitions in the garden, the more we will be connected with how Mother Nature directs her orchestra, and we’ll correlate function as a great friend of beauty. What is life without death? What is beauty without struggle? Plants and animals need each other to go through all of life’s stages in order for the entire earth to be a place of balance and hygge. May we be open to the beauty displayed throughout all the seasons.

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