Photo by Melody

The Skeleton in the Garden

By Toni Leland (tonilelandFebruary 3, 2010

Admit it. You look out the window and the landscape is pretty bleak, unless you live in the southern part of the planet. Here in Ohio (Zones 5 & 6), the view doesn't offer much from December through March, but this is the perfect time to take stock of your gardens.

Gardening picturetreeWhy? Because without leaves and all those pretty flowers to distract you, the garden can reveal its basic structure. In winter, you can assess the skeleton and see what needs to be changed, or repaired, or enhanced.

Trees: if you plan to do any spring pruning, now is the time to make the decisions on what will stay and what will go. The structure of the tree is clearly visible. View the tree from

all sides; take photographs if it will help you remember when the time comes. The ornamental cherry tree in photo A has many crossing branches that don't show when it is in full bloom.shrub

Shrubs: Evergreen varieties seldom need pruning unless they've encroached upon sidewalks or entries. Deciduous shrubs should be treated the same as trees. Have the inner branches become matted and dense, preventing air circulation and adequate moisture to the base? Photo B shows thatching in the center of a dwarf spirea. Has the basic shape of the shrub morphed into something less than attractive? Either photograph the skeleton, or make notes about which parts of the plant you'll attend to when the time comes.

Ornamentals: As beautiful as ornamental grasses and trees are, they do change the way your garden looks when they get too big. Grasses, especially, can be either a fine privacy screen, or a frustrating blockage of the view. Small weeping trees-even the dwarf varieties-grow quickly and often much larger than expected. What was once a diminutive, charming tree in the center of a small bed can in a few years overwhelm the entire look of the garden spot. The weeping crabapple in photo D has outgrown its space and is now competing with two other trees and a shrub-all in a 12-foot bed! Grafted varieties also have a nasty habit of growing "water sprouts" which aren't so noticeable when the tree has leaves (as shown at right), but are easily pruned away during the tree's naked phase.

Landscape Beds: They look pretty forlorn right now, but this is the time to assess whether you like sproutswhat's planted there or not. The main "bones" of the planting beds are probably shrubs or woody perennials. If they still work, of course leave them. If they don't, now is the chance to think about why they didn't work and what you'd put there to replace them. All that cold, dark soil is usually nurturing perennials, annuals, bulbs, or ground covers. Were there any bare places last season that could have supported something new, but you couldn't disturb the surrounding plants? Plan now while you can see the open space. (I usually cut back perennials to about 3 inches; this gives me a visual locator before they start to grow again in the spring.)bed


Overall Property: Step back and look at the house and buildings. Do the trees and shrubs compliment the structures? It's so much easier to see what works when you can view the skeletal outlines. Look at photographs of your home and gardens taken in mid-season. Have any of the plantings become overgrown, casting shade where it shouldn't be, or blocking the view from a favorite window? Are those lily beds so over-crowded that they've stopped blooming profusely? In photo G, what was once a nice small clump of mountain sage has grown almost as tall as the ninebark planted sagebehind it.

Even though we gardeners are mostly stuck indoors while the Earth sleeps, it doesn't mean we can't be planning for that big wake-up call!


All photos: Toni Leland

  About Toni Leland  
Toni LelandToni Leland has been writing for over 20 years. As a spokesman for the Ohio State University Master Gardener program, she has written a biweekly newspaper column and is the editor of the Muskingum County MG newsletter, Connections; she currently writes for GRIT, Over the Back Fence, and Country Living magazines. She has been a gardener all her life, working soil all over the world. In her day job, she scripts and produces educational DVDs about caring for Miniature Horses, writes and edits books about them, and has published five novels.

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