The Self-Taught Gardener: Winter Wonderland — Ruminations on the winter landscape from the road

Snow negates the smaller elements of the landscape – the grasses and perennials that distract us from spring through fall -- and allows us to see the big picture. We see the architecture and poetics of the space itself.

While frigid weather, a boatload of snow overnight, and a car trip from Massachusetts to Chicago may not seem like the most inspiring of situations for a gardener, the isolation that comes with these events serves to fuel the creative process. (Or maybe it is that we scan and look at the landscape more carefully when shelter and firewood seem like precious and appreciated resources.) In the course of my drive from my home in Ashley Falls to Chicago, an eleven-hour journey that allows me to take my dog with me to see family for the holidays, the time flew, as I ruminated on the winter landscape and what it teaches us. Incidentally, a dog is the best traveling companion for such trips. Fred does not change the music or blather on, but keeps me going when I get tired and forces me to get out of the car for occasional romps in the snow that provide inspiration of another sort. If only he could take the wheel from time to time.

Fred at the wheel. If only I had the opportunity to gaze at the landscape as much as he does on the trip to Grandma’s.
Fred at the wheel. If only I had the opportunity to gaze at the landscape as much as he does on the trip to Grandma’s. Photo: Lee Buttala

If he were to take the wheel, it would allow my mind to wander even more as I take in the world in a new way, white and open, with snow and gray skies reducing it into a black-and-white photograph that brings to mind the memories of winter snowscapes past. This was the world I used to step into as a child, bedecked in boots and snowsuits, to make snow angels and to create winter follies of ice and snow. If only it were as easy to build a shed or a pergola as it is an igloo or a snowman. My landscape would be filled with temples and towers on which vines could clamber in the warmer months. Walls would erect themselves and create a series of garden rooms like a frozen Sissinghurst.

The winter landscape, covered in snow, shows off the architecture and poetry of a space. In other seasons, the larger details of such settings are not as easily seen. Studying the winter landscape is a great way to see the big picture of a garden or site. Photo: Lee Buttala
The winter landscape, covered in snow, shows off the architecture and poetry of a space. In other seasons, the larger details of such settings are not as easily seen. Studying the winter landscape is a great way to see the big picture of a garden or site. Photo: Lee Buttala

But while the idea of constructing a world of ice and snow is appealing, what takes my attention now in such moments is how we come to look at the landscape around us differently and how we take it all in, assessing its contents with a fresh outlook. From my bedroom window in Ashley Falls, a snowy morning shows me how a few evergreens, seemingly black and white in the morning sun, can provide me with a sense of shelter and containment that even makes Fred feel like resting in bed a little longer on a frosty morning. And the way an old spruce and a few Canadian hemlocks (including one weeping variety that bends back down to the earth even more effectively in a snowstorm) take on a frosting of snow that reminds me of why evergreens play such an important role in a region where winter reigns (or is it snows) for such a long period. They provide a sense of comfort and calm, and even seem to contribute to the silence that makes a snowy day so contemplative and magical.

The view from my front yard in Ashley Falls to the flooded quarry across the street takes on a different magic in winter as the landscape fades to black and white. Photo: Lee Buttala
The view from my front yard in Ashley Falls to the flooded quarry across the street takes on a different magic in winter as the landscape fades to black and white. Photo: Lee Buttala

The snow manages to do something else, and I notice this both in my front yard and as I pass Ohio farms along the roadside on my way to Chicago. It negates the smaller elements of the landscape – the grasses and perennials that distract us from spring through fall — and allows us to see the big picture. Even the big pieces of the landscape that take charge and dominate it when there’s no snow — the first chartreuse growth in a field of wheat in early spring, or fields of corn and goldenrod as the season progresses, are missing. We see the architecture and poetics of the space itself. A long open plain is as powerful as negative space as it is when filled with golden stalks of wheat. We also see what surrounds it in winter. A hedgerow of trees, a barn and silo, and scattering of sumacs with bright red seedheads come to life.

A Japanese snowbell sits amongst some evergreen boxwood and comes to the fore as the rest of the landscape recedes to black and white. With its muscular trunk and braces exposed, it is a great opportunity to note what further pruning it may require in the spring. Photo: Lee Buttala
A Japanese snowbell sits amongst some evergreen boxwood and comes to the fore as the rest of the landscape recedes to black and white. With its muscular trunk and branches exposed, it is a great opportunity to note what further pruning it may require in the spring. Photo: Lee Buttala

The flooded quarry across from my house, seen through the pines that lead up to it and artfully framed by my neighbor with a piece of art that calls to mind Japan in the Edo period, becomes about more than the water and the pine needles. Its totality of form and composition is on display more than at any other time of year. An orchard along Interstate 90 in western Ohio shows the majesty of the weathered forms of old apple trees and the architecture of their branches highlighted by the snow that sits atop them – a beauty that plays a lesser role in other seasons as their buds break into flower or when they bear fruit. In this moment, a good arborist can take pride in the artistry of her work, a gardener can admire the forms of the conifers that he has chosen for his garden and see the part of the garden that forms a backdrop to seasonal plantings, and a landscaper can see the forest from the trees.

A young blue atlas cedar shows what it will bring to the landscape as it matures and hold the edge of the ravine in my old Connecticut garden. Photo: Lee Buttala
A young blue atlas cedar shows what it will bring to the landscape as it matures and hold the edge of the ravine in my old Connecticut garden. Photo: Lee Buttala

This is a moment to observe the art of placement and composition without being distracted by the day-to-day work that the garden demands in most other seasons. As the garden senesces and takes its winter rest, it is the gardener who gets to dream and plan.

At my old house in Connecticut, the careful placement of the trees in this meadow becomes more apparent after the field is cut in late fall and snow arrives. Stakes were positioned for an entire season in the meadow before the trees were planted, to see if their siting made sense. Photo: Lee Buttala
At my old house in Connecticut, the careful placement of the trees in this meadow becomes more apparent after the field is cut in late fall and snow arrives. Stakes were positioned for an entire season in the meadow before the trees were planted, to see if their siting made sense. Photo: Lee Buttala

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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 their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.