Lighting Up The Winter Garden

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Winter In Willow

Over the years, I’ve collected an amazing packet of pictures from a friend who lives–and gardens–in Willow, Alaska. Whenever I am tempted to moan about our relentlessly wet winters, I think about Les Brake, whose Willow garden is a fairy tale of incredible beauty. During the brief but intense summer, the garden holds towering meadow rues that fill the air like electrical purple lace. His roses are phenomenally large and fragrant. The beds are carpeted with poppies in smoky purples and reds.

In winter, of course, the garden lies under a deep blanket of snow that can reach six or eight or ten feet. Les gets ready for spring by covering every available surface with seed trays of delphiniums and hollyhocks and dozens of vivid annuals. By February, he sometimes can’t even find the table top anymore and every meal becomes a picnic.

Ice Flowers Bring Light In Dark Times

One year, Les grew tired of doing without the brilliant colors of summer. He went out and bought some food coloring–a LOT of food coloring. A while later, he sent pictures of his new craft project–the flowers of winter. Les had created a series of vivid ice flowers, some of which stood several feet high. He carved and sculpted slabs of colored ice into floral shapes, some simple, some intricate. All were lit from within by candles and small flashlights, giving them a soft glow that lit up the dark Alaskan day like stars. The result was sheer magic.

Over time, Les made dozens of sculptural ice flowers and opened the garden to tours to benefit the local library and several organizations that help kids in need. As the days grew darker and longer, more and more people came to see the lovely lights and revel in the transformational experience. I think the flowers of winter will be a fixture in Willow for a long time to come and will certainly inspire others to emulate this enchanting idea in their own gardens.

Smoke And Mirrors

It is rarely cold enough for ice flowers around here, yet the idea of bringing light and reflections into the winter garden is an excellent one. One of my favorite holiday gifts was a set of Mexican red clay lanterns that hold fat, long burning candles. Set about the garden, these provide a soft, flickering illumination that glimmers off the glossy surfaces of glazed pots and containers.

Garden mirrors also bounce light into dark places beautifully. I like to use them in  unexpected places, where they surprise us with a glimpse of light that pierces the winter gloom. In a former garden, a battered old thrift shop mirror hung from a tree in a dim woodland part of the garden, where it shimmered like lost water amid the shadows. Another in a marvelously tacky gilded frame was tastefully tucked under the porch steps, where turned the deep recess into a grotto and illuminated a collection of weird rocks.

Water Of Life

Real water reflects light best of all and has the power of a natural force as well. Hollow stones full of water bring birds for daily bathing and capture the flow of clouds across the ragged sky when not in active use. Water jars do the same thing, of course, but because they are vulnerable to winter frosts, ceramic pots and containers are best saved for summer.

Every garden is livelier for the presence of water. The easiest way to bring water into the garden is to add a winter-proof birdbath. This also attracts the birds, of course, which can make for a lot of exciting action in a previously quiet corner of the yard. If the birds don’t find their new bath right away, try scattering a handful of apples around its base. Many birds love to eat apples and will flock to the food en route to the water.

Watery Reflections

Where space allows, a reflecting pool is the logical next step. These days, there are dozens of kits and pre-made pool forms that simplify the pool creating process greatly. All you need is a shovel–or a teenager with a shovel–and you can have an attractive pool in an hour or so. A few plants along the sides will help to mask the hard edges and give those rigid shapes a more comfortable and natural look.

Some of the best candidates are evergreen grasses such as the elegant, gold striped Carex morrowii ‘Variegata’. This charming spiller has a tidy but relaxed form and holds its good looks into maturity. The Asian sweet flag, Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ has slim, narrowly striped leaves in cream and chartreuse. Also evergreen, these look especially lovely in winter, when they glow with buttery brilliance on grey, misty days.

Splash And Trickle

If you have room, it’s always tempting to add a larger and more active water feature such as a recirculating water fall. These come in many sizes with price tags to suit almost any budget, including the modest. Pump technology has improved rapidly in recent years, and now we can find tiny and relatively inexpensive pumps that work better than the big and costly ones of just a few years back.

The sound of moving water is soothing to the spirit, and even a moderate cascade brings a refreshing feeling and a brisk, clean scent to the air. If you are working on your garden resolutions, consider the idea of bringing more water and light into the garden. Both are worthy goals that will add to the garden’s beauty in every season. Both will also make the garden an even more restorative retreat for you and your friends and family. That sounds so good to me, I think I’ll go out and dig a little pond right now.

This entry was posted in Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Winterizing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lighting Up The Winter Garden

  1. Charlie says:

    I am always looking for creative yard art examples to use as inspiration. Thank you, the post was great, and had some very good ideas. The use of the mirror and lights was fascinating.

  2. Pat Patterson says:

    Thank you for your always beautiful posts. From garden inspiration to great recipes, you are appreciated.

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