When we gardeners refer to the good “bones” of our gardens, we are not talking about this month’s All Hallows Eve decorations, a new composting element, or the occasional remains of a vole or field mouse we might find.
The “bones” of a garden are the elements that are permanent and that provide its structure: trees, shrubs, arbors, walls, trellises, walkways, and statuary or other sculptural elements. They represent the garden as it appears when the growing season ends, when the color and texture provided by blooming plant material is muted by snow and bare earth.
The garden’s bones are the single most important design element of a garden — a garden with “good bones” looks right throughout the growing season and in the heart of winter.
A garden with “good bones” provides the framework against which all other plant material is set. These structural elements can draw the eye between periods of bloom and provide visual interest in winter months.
Choosing the placement and type of materials for walls, fences, and walkways is best done prior to beginning your garden. Brick walls result in a more formal garden than walls built of stone or wood — and might determine what kind of trees, shrubs and flowers will go best in your garden.
Most of us have inherited the structural elements of our gardens—we must plan our gardens around the kind of house and lot that has become our home. The success of our efforts to improve these “bones” will be determined by our choice of trees and shrubs (particularly evergreen shrubs), as well as the addition of decorative elements such as fountains, trellises, sculptures and garden seating.
This is the perfect time of year to assess the structural elements of your garden without the distraction provided by the color of herbaceous blooms. It is a good time to locate areas in the garden where plants have not done well, and to plant a new tree, evergreen shrub, or other structural element to enliven that space.
Incorporating evergreens in landscape design used to be the enviable lot of large-scale landscape design—the height and scale at which these trees and shrubs grow prevented their use in small spaces. But recent hybridizing efforts have led to the wide availability of dwarf conifers and other evergreen shrubs. Using these dwarf varieties in herbaceous beds can add color, texture and contrast throughout the year.
A friend of mine recently added a number of dwarf golden mop cypresses (chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’) to a hillside perennial garden. The golden color and threadlike texture of this shrub’s leaves contrasts beautifully with the blue blossoms of hardy salvia, the yellow and brown blossoms of rudbeckia, and the grey-blue foliage of sedum in the beds. In the winter, when all but the crowns of these perennials have died back, the golden mop cypress will provide a colorful mound of golden leaves to please the eye. The dwarf variety should grow to about three feet high and four feet wide, so this shrub will not overwhelm the perennials in the bed. It also could be planted as an accent in the same bed as evergreen shrubs such as rhododendron or azaleas.
Shrubs do not have to be evergreen to provide structural interest or variety in a garden. One of my favorite shrubs, the red osier dogwood (cornus sericea), grows from to about four to five feet in height and width, bears small white blooms in April-May, has purplish red foliage in the fall and, most striking of all — reveals intensely red stems in winter when the leaves have fallen. This creates a gorgeous contrast of color against a snowy ground.
The beauty-berry bush (callicarpa Americana) is a deciduous shrub that grows to a height and width of five feet, and whose leaves become a bright chartreuse color in the autumn. These chartreuse leaves contrast nicely with the bright purple color of the berries that remain on the stems of the plant well into November, if the birds don’t find them.
Small scale or dwarf varieties of trees can provide a focal point in a garden, or enliven an otherwise dull wall. This category includes Hinoki cypress (chamaecyparis obtusa), small Japanese maples such as Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Atropurpureum' or coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'), dogwoods (cornus florida), and magnolia varieties such as ‘Little Gem’. Any of these would be wonderful choices for the Mid-Atlantic region.
Go to your local garden center and look around at the variety of small scale trees and shrubs that are available. Now is the ideal time to plant—the roots of the plant will have time to become established and the plant will have a chance to settle into its new site before the first frost.
Or better yet, take the advice of another resource available to homeowners in Fairfax County—our knowledgeable Master Gardeners! This week, on Oct. 26 at 1:30 p.m., the Master Gardeners at Green Spring Garden Park are giving a class on “Easy to Grow Shrubs” — shrubs that will be easy to care for and that will at the same time provide fragrant flowers, berries and architectural interest. Click on this link to register for the class: “Easy to Grow Shrubs”. They will make sure that nothing “spooks” you in determining the bones of your garden.
Eleni Silverman is a Master Gardener, President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She is sole proprietor of The Well Tended Garden, providing garden grooming, coaching and design. She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, believes even compost is engaging, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch.