By Mel Bellar
The idea of the 4-season garden has come up in my circles a few times recently. My Landscape Design Student Alumni group at the New York Botanical Garden just spent many hours with our members sharing images of their personal gardens throughout the year. That was really fun and, of course, I have thousands of photos of my garden. In addition, I was asked to speak to the Yorktown Garden Club, and they too would like me to talk about how to make the garden work throughout the seasons. Feels like a good topic for February when we have time to think about the year ahead.
The main way to have your landscape look good throughout the seasons is to have a strong foundation and architecture that does not entirely rely on having things in bloom. I preach often about the importance of having a bone structure in the garden (even if it is really simple) to anchor things, even when there is not a lot going on. Just adding a section or two of some split rail fencing as a separator or backdrop can provide some vertical interest, and when you put some climbing honeysuckle on it, it can really sing. Of course, a pergola, an arbor, a pretty fence to provide a sense of gentle privacy, or a stone retaining wall are also beautiful all-season additions. It is not easy to move big rocks (and I know I say this all of the time!!!), but large rocks add a lot to the garden. If you happen to have some or can get some, or there are some outcroppings on your property, clean up around them and show them off, the mossier the better.
Trees and shrubs are an important part of most any garden; they provide height and structure as well as texture and color. There are some deciduous trees that provide interest in multiple seasons. A red-leafed Japanese maple provides color from Spring until Fall and still has a graceful branch structure in the Winter. The Kousa dogwood has a beautiful form, beautiful flowers in early Summer and amazing red fruit in the early Fall; there is even a variegated version, Wolf Eyes, that adds interesting foliage into the mix. As this tree matures it throws in a bonus: attractive exfoliating bark. There are many small trees that add a lot to the garden including magnolias, crabapples, cherries, stewardias, seven-son flower (Heptacodium) and paperbark maple, to mention a few. We have a staghorn sumac in our garden that brings us great joy. The birds love to sit on it in the Winter and eat the seeds.
A few good shrubs can add a lot as well. You know I love hydrangeas as they are super reliable and provide nice foliage, a long bloom time, and dried flower heads in the Fall and Winter. Red and yellow twig dogwoods have beautiful stems from late Fall until May and are nice green fillers in between. Weigela, bottlebrush buckeye, fothergilla, ogon spirea, and ninebarks offer a combination of flowers, foliage colors and beautiful Fall color.
Evergreens must be mentioned while we are on this topic. I hesitate because so many evergreens are sadly problematic these days with all the pests and particularly the deer, but I can’t live without them. There are many dwarf evergreens that really enhance the garden and I love the juniper