Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Color in the Garden: Winter White

"From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens--
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind's eye."
               --Katharine S. White

Yet for many, the garden of the mind's eye is difficult to see. Clouds of white or layers of brown obscure the abundance that may be the garden. Greens have lost their vivacity; bare branches expose their angularities against gray winter skies. 

Two recent coatings of snow have created a new garden-scape. We delight in the suspended lines of white--misshapen, arched, crooked, gnarled, straight--above our heads, occupying the space once reserved for canopies of leaves, that create illustrious impermanent aerial gardens, suspended in time and space in those moments just after a snowfall but before the sunlight, even on a frigid January day, shines with laser-like focus and melts this wondrous sky-scape (or before the squirrels, as they currently do outside the window in my study, shake loose the snow as they frolic).

The Lady in Red Lacecap Hydrangea (pictured below) has become a sea anemone, its predaceous tendrils punctuating the sky not for fish and crustaceans but for bits of sunlight, as if to reassure itself that this time, too, will pass.

Moments like these, bathed in winter white, make one appreciate the browns of the winter garden. Browns like contrast. Multiple greens can withstand each other, even if they are of the same shade (which often they are not) precisely because a diversity of leaf shapes offers the interest and the oppositions that the eye and the mind desperately need to absorb and make sense of the garden. But brown in the late autumn and winter garden is so pestilent because of its omnipresence. We even lose the respect for that life-giving substance without which the garden would not exist: soil.

But dash a bit of winter white about, and brown rejuvenates. Cascades of Tall Purpletop Verbena with their seed pods capturing bundles of winter white evoke waterfalls; we see not stagnation but movement.

Rose Mallow's svelte legs assume a mauve hue 'gainst the winter scape; and we see spring embedded in that corner of the garden as the minty green leaves of the Wintergreen boxwood peer out from under the snow, childlike, as if it could not sleep with the knowledge that Santa Claus soon would visit.

And Burning Bush: it even glows in the winter (albeit with early morning assistance from the street light). But its delicate red berries and striated stems offer texture and unexpected pops of color.

Moments like these propagate appreciation not just for and of the garden itself, but for and of the personalities of individual plants--and especially of those who remain above ground throughout those trying months of frost and freezing temperatures.

Yet another reason to plant with winter in mind, and yet another reason to look with the mind's eye.


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