The Self-Taught Gardener: Subzero dreaming

Minus 27 degree temperatures in Minneapolis lead our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala to surprising new sources of gardening inspiration.

Winter is filled with time for contemplation and rumination, particularly when the national weather service issues warnings about the dangers of going outside in subzero temperatures. And for most of us gardeners, this daydreaming focuses on the annuals and perennials we might add to our gardens come spring, or perhaps on a few new varieties of vegetables to put in our garden plots. Our visions of these plants come to us full-grown, courtesy of the pictures in the catalogs that fill our mailboxes in the weeks after the New Year.

Another source of garden and planting inspiration surrounds us, yet often goes unnoticed: the snow-covered branches and the trunks of our favorite trees that populate the winter landscape. They inhabit the world around us like sculptures by artists as varied as Giacometti and Brancusi, a fact of which I was reminded on Sunday night on my way to a performance at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis, when I glanced out the window of the lobby of the theater.

Another view of the winter landscape from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

With record-breaking temperatures and heavy snowfalls toppling or splitting trees, like the hundred-year old ash at my friend Skip’s house outside of New Haven, we should make note that woody plants often need replacement, and so they, too, should have a place in our wintertime garden fantasies.

Deciduous trees are so often embraced for qualities such as foliage and fall color, seasonal flowers or fruits, but at this time of year they reveal a different aspect: their form, which contributes greatly to the sense of majesty and drama in the winter landscape. As I looked out the portals of the Guthrie at Gold Medal Park (Minneapolis, the home of General Mills and Pillsbury, is a town with a milling history after all), I saw trees, side by side with the sculptures and industrial fixtures of the park, as the evolving pieces of art that they are. Since being in the Midwest, I have become fascinated by identifying trees in the winter landscape as I pass them on foot or in the car. The sinewy, muscular and tortured forms of burr oaks move me most of all, but the occasional maple or elm can also cast an elegant form into the mix. Beeches, which call to mind the streets of Oslo and the hedges of many a great Dutch garden, also add to the mix by capturing snow in their tightly held branches, like mixed media sculptures that combine bronze with more ephemeral materials to glorious effect.

The sculptural branches of the burr oak are as beautiful as the acorns that hang from them late in the season. This stand along the Mississippi holds its own even at -25F.

And as my thoughts shift away from perennials and vegetables that will fill my garden next season, I think of the contorted form of the Chinese fringetree whose bare branches look like sculpture in the winter and whose fragrant white flowers look like a soft spring rain as the season warms. I dream of weeping Katsuras and camperdown elms, blanketed in a late season snow and then sharing their blooms as the season comes on. And I think of the comfort such options will provide to my friend Skip, who is devastated at the loss of his old ash. It strikes me as odd that we have no problem discarding from our gardens an unwanted perennial or two each season, but see the loss of a tree as a tragedy. I see it, instead, as the opportunity it is to bring something new into the garden. I compile a list that includes shadbush and tuliptrees, American beech and our native fringetree to share with Skip, to remind him of the opportunity that lies ahead, despite the loss of something he loved.

This snowbell in my Connecticut garden provided as much comfort in winter as it did when its bell-shaped flowers burst into bloom in late spring.

While I need images and catalogs to make me yearn for Brandywine tomatoes, stalwart baptisias and peonies, I need merely to stare out the window, heeding the advice of the National Weather Service to stay indoors, to see the bare essence of these woody plants that decorate the landscape all winter long. And these trees, so beautiful in the cold, make me yearn for other trees and the joy they add to the gardening season.

The forms of buildings, grain silos and bridges also show the importance of strong forms in our winter landscape.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.