By Mel Bellar

During this relatively snowless early Winter (until this morning and a 24” drop – yay!), I have really been drawn into “the bones” of the garden.  Not only in my garden, but in loads of others as well.  There are many things I love about Winter, and yes, one of them is snow. But when there is no snow, I find myself enthralled by the exposed architecture of the landscape. A functional and beautiful architecture is to me the foundation of a great design.  What folks consider to be the bones of the garden is what I think of as the architecture.

Those “bones” in the garden are both literal and figurative. I think of the literal bones to be rocks, walls, fences, structures, paths, water (ponds and streams), trees, large shrubs, containers, objects, mass plantings and even topography (whew!).   I guess the figurative is much more like the “bone structure” or how the literal bones are put together (“the thigh bone connected to the hip bone ♪♫♪. . .”).  So, as you can probably see, this is just another ploy for me to wax on about the importance of design and architecture in the garden.

Many of us are lucky enough to have natural and/or existing architectural components in our landscapes:  natural ledges, mossy boulders, old trees, sweeping meadows, a pond or stream. If you are fortunate enough to possess some of the assets, do everything possible to feature them and to accentuate their part in the landscape.  Mostly what we (Peg and I) got naturally, was a house in the middle of a clearing on a steep hill surrounded by early succession forest.  Peggy refers to it as the “early bulldozer” look. Therefore, we had to create the bones of our gardens.   In our case we got lucky and had Jonathan LaFever and crew create a very nice frame for us with a beautiful double “S” driveway going up the hill and a 100 foot boulder retaining wall with two sets of steps that created a lovely flat space for our stroll garden in front of the house below the frontier porch. This project gave us a great start and maximized the view and use of the slope. Then we added some stacked stone retaining walls, paths, a cedar rail fence and plenty of evergreens. I love our garden in all seasons with all of these nice bones and masses of grasses and shrubs and perennials that have collected and grown over time. Then of course there is my rocket! (a 65th birthday present.)

Often, we think of the architecture of the garden as being most important in the Fall and Winter. I am a big proponent of Winter interest.  However, the bones of the garden are important throughout the season as they give the garden structure, balance, and rhythm.  This is all key in making the landscape function, as well as adding beautiful accents. There is nothing simpler, more durable or more beautiful than a mossy rock or beautifully formed conifer.  Fences, while requiring a bit more effort, can add screening or just a sense of separation and structure, and they can be stunning.  Even just a couple of segments of split rail fencing can add an attractive component to the garden and provide a trellis to grow various vines.

As I was driving around measuring spaces at new clients property and spraying deer repellent on our clients’ evergreens (another whole topic!), I kept noticing the things that stood out from the road and enhanced the appearance of a property. Sometimes it was a set of steps or a stand of grasses. It just reinforced how important these architectural elements are and how much it makes sense to invest in them.

When I was thinking about writing this column I Googled “bones in the garden” for fun and found a really good blog post by a landscape designer outside of Pittsburgh, Gwen Wisneiewski. Her post on the subject is way more expansive than this column and she compares the bones of the garden with a musical metaphor, which is right on and very cool. In closing, I’d like to share this bit from her:  “Why are the bones of the garden important? They provide structure, dimension, and foundation for the rest of the plantings on your property.  Bones offer winter interest and can be living, like a hedge, or inanimate like an arbor, fence or gate. Bones are the first design element to consider when updating or starting from scratch.”

You should check out her website,, and also consider enhancing the bones of your garden in 2021.

   Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardene~