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Good “Bones” by Donatella de Rosa

This time of year—when many gardeners are taking advantage of mid-season sales with the idea of filling gaps in their perennial beds—I find myself examining the basic configuration taking root in my garden as it evolves. I take note of the structures and elements—stones, paths, trellises, fountains—that add spatial complexity to the garden, and thus add to its sense of place. For me, the most essential elements for the “bones” of my garden are those trees and shrubs that provide a container for each bed, or that direct one’s eye—or feet—toward a specific path or specimen planting. At the onset of August, my quest begins for plants that will draw me back to my window, encouraging me to gaze out at my personal vistas, no matter what the season.

Initially, I look back through my notes from last fall, winter and spring, and ask: what can I see as I look out my window? Is there anything of interest other than a stray stalk, or plumes from the ever so graceful ornamental grasses? Where do I need some structure or form; where can I use a shrub with interesting branches, a tree with colorful or unusual bark? What would work well visually against the pristine whiteness of a January snowfall? Or stand out in the drizzly grey fog of a wet November afternoon? What plant, shrub or tree, or combination thereof, will satisfy my constant craving for visually exciting or—depending on my mood—just plain pleasant surroundings?

Knowledge and visualization is everything when it comes to making these decisions. A key consideration is how well this plant or that, will meld with your preexisting garden edifices: how will they look as the seasons progress, where can they be seen—and from what angle—as you stroll along your garden path, and what will you see when you look at your landscape?

Then there’s color, perhaps the most obvious, yet most elusive garden element. Imagine the various shades of green and white that could give just the right touch to make a beautifully constructed planting catch one’s eye or challenge one’s aesthetic. There are tomes after tomes written about color in the garden. Color certainly demands its own article, but when it comes to garden bones, color is an essential element in the construct of contrasting tones as a device to help determine and give form to the various garden views.

River Birch

Betula nigra: A native tree with thin, cream colored, exfoliating bark that peels to reveal cinnamon reds and browns underneath. This is a fast growing tree that can reach 40 - 70 feet with a 40 - 60 foot spread. Although columnar when young, this birch will grow to a lovely rounded shape as it matures. River birch has a light, delicate appearance, with small but dense branches that bow under the weight of spring catkins. The toothed, triangular leaves jutter in the wind, and are light to medium green in spring and summer, turning yellow in fall. This hardy tree’s trunk bark is spectacular against a cold winter sky.

Japanese Fantail Willow

Salix udensis ‘Sekka’: Sometimes called Dragon Willow, this ornamental shrub is often grown for the jower market. The sprawling horizontal branches have glossy compound leaves resembling a huge tropical shrub. The new, maroon colored growth is highly prized for jower arrangements and it can be coppiced or pruned for shaping. Fantail Willows will grow as large as 35 feet with an equal spread. Bees love the spring catkins and the unusual “fantail” fasciated growth that occurs in some of the branching is spectacular once it drops its leaves.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’: Although this deciduous cultivar belongs to the hazelnut, European Filbert species, it is grown not for nuts—it rarely produces any—but for its curiously twisted, (hence the name “contorta”) branches. These branch forms are noticeable year round and are especially valued for winter interest. As with the Fantail Willow mentioned above, the twigs are prized by jorists for use in jower arrangements. Similar, related cultivars of equal interest are the Corylus avellana ‘Pendula‘ , with its weeping branches, and the Corylus avellana contorta ‘Red Majestic’, with deep purple foliage in spring. In summer as new foliage continues to jush red, the older leaves fade to green. Remarkably, this cultivar has purple catkins and purple nuts.

Red Twig Dogwood

Cornus sericea/stolonifera: There are many common names for this dogwood shrub; Red Twig Dogwood, Redosier Dogwood, Western Dogwood, American Dogwood and Redstem Dogwood. They are all the same stunningly attractive shrub, with deep red stems for winter color and creamy white jowers in spring, followed by attractive white fruits and spectacular maroon leaves in fall.

The bright red color develops as the weather cools and makes a great splash against the white snow. A thorough spring pruning will help to insure a continued winter display, as the stems tend to lose their color as they mature. The individual plants bear some fruit at 3 to 4 years, but become more prolific as they age. Low in sugar, the fruits remain on the plant through the winter and are available to many songbirds when other fruit and berries are gone. The Red Twig is the preferred nesting site of the American goldfinch and not overly loved by deer.

There are many more curiously interesting, colorful, architectural plants to consider as you troll your local nurseries and garden shops. Keep your eyes open for those odd plants that don’t always make it to the list of “must haves” for the garden, and try to think winter, spring, summer, fall... will this plant satisfy all your expectations throughout the year?

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