Structural Integrity

Faux dog house with rudbeckia, miscanthus, and pennisetum in snow

Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

My ability to appreciate forms and stems and seedheads fizzled out way too soon this winter. Usually, I’m good until late January, at least, and then there’s seed-sowing to distract me from the boring outdoors for a few weeks until spring starts making an appearance. But then, we usually slide into winter a bit more gradually, unlike the seemingly endless cycle of ice events every few days from December through much of January. It’s almost a relief to get snow now as a change.

Many of the plants I left for winter structure were ruined weeks ago by the ice, but yesterday’s snow reminded me that there are still some perennials and woodies looking good in their skeletal form. So, in anticipation of this weekend’s promised warming trend, I took one last stroll to appreciate these sturdy beauties.

TDF Border at Hayefield in snow

The outside-the-fence borders are pretty battered-looking up close, but they’re still respectable from a distance.

Easter border at Hayefield in snow

Long border at Hayefield in snow

Closer to the house, individual perennials are more obvious. There’s Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii):

Amsonia hubrichtii in snow

Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium):

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium in snow

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’:

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’ in snow

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus):

Cynara cardunculus

False hemp (Datisca cannabina):

Datisca cannabina in snow

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) and fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides):

Echinacea purpurea seedheads with Symphyotrichum oblongifolium and Pennisetum alopecuroides in snow

More purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seedheads:

Echinacea purpurea seedheads in snow

Still more purple coneflower (front half was cut back in early June; back half was left unpruned):

Echinacea purpurea seedheads in snow

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium):

Eryngium yuccifolium in snow

Leavenworth’s eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii):

Eryngium leavenworthii in snow

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus):

Eupatoriadelphus maculatus in snow

Queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra):

Filipendula rubra in snow

‘Lemon Queen’ perennial sunflower (Helianthus):

'Lemon Queen' helianthus in snow

Giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha):

Persicaria polymorpha in snow

Summer phlox (Phlox hybrid):

Phlox hybrid in snow

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in foreground and orange coneflower (R. fulgida var. fulgida) at the back:

Rudbeckia hirta and R. fulgida seedheads in snow

Ironweed (Vernonia hybrid):

Vernonia seedhead in snow

‘Temptation’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum):

Veronicastrum 'Temptation' with Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Stricta' in snow

‘Cloud Nine’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum):

Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' in snow

‘Rotstrahlbusch’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum):

Panicum virgatum 'Rotstrahlbusch' in snow

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora):

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' in snow

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium):

Schizachyrium scoparium in snow

Pony tail grass (Stipa tenuissima):

Stipa tenuissima in snow

Last, a few woody plants that still have some eye-catching interest, starting with southern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia):

Diervilla sessilifolia in snow

Silverleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens subsp. radiata):

Hydrangea arborescens subsp. radiata in snow

Emperor or daimyo oak (Quercus dentata):

Quercus dentata in snow

This last one never fails to amaze me. It was a single-stemmed seedling barely 18 inches tall when planted in 2002; now it’s over 10 feet tall. The only other woody that’s grown so fast here is a silver willow (Salix alba var. sericea). You expect that from a willow, of course, but not an oak. This one hangs onto its leaves until some time in March, when they suddenly all drop within a period of 2 or 3 days, as the new growth starts to push. There’s a word for the phenomenon of dead leaves hanging on to the branches: marcescence. Beeches (Fagus) and hornbeams (Carpinus) do this too. But with leaves this size, it’s far more of a spectacle.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa at Greenbow on February 5, 2009 at 7:11 am

    You have reminded me that I ought to get out into the garden some today too Nan. That warm spell is to spread through here this weekend. It will be much appreciated. Some of my young evergreens are just beginning to peek out from under the snow.

    Reading the names of the plants you featured reminded me of several I would like to incorporate into the garden. I want Ironweed really bad. I will have to order it by mail probably. I have never seen it in a nursery around here.

    I can’t wait for the warmth to get here, Lisa – it’s sooo cold!
    -Nan

  2. I adore the sculptural quality of the garden in winter, especially when it is covered in snow. You’ve captured it beautifully. Confession: I have left my window boxes, with their spiky grasses and faded flowers, right where they are. Some may see them as dead. I see them as nature’s winter artwork.

    Robin Wedewer

    I can believe that your window boxes are still beautiful. While I’m kind of tired of seeing brown stalks, they’re far better than nothing at all.
    -Nan

  3. Looks great. I live not too far from you, and most of the perennials you show decorated with snow, I have flat and buried beneath the ice. I guess that’s why we have microclimates.

    Oh, right: We had a light bit of wet snow and then a dusting of powdery stuff, while you got a lot more over there. Well, we both should be warm by this weekend.
    -Nan

  4. It’s being a particularly tiresome winter, isn’t it? Your seedhead art still looks pretty fine to me. Most things here are either buried or beaten down by the constant parade of precipitation and wind. I noticed that a garden a few miles from here that normally has great stands of grasses well into the winter has given them a haircut already, which I wouldn’t have done, but she’s a neat-freak and couldn’t tolerate stems bent over and not looking House Beautiful perfect. ;-) That gene escaped me, especially if it means wallowing through 3 foot snowdrifts to do the pruning.

    Three feet – yikes! I’ve been thinking about cutting-back here for about two weeks now, but the weather stopped me, fortunately. That’s supposed to change very soon. I’d love to take the brush mower to all the outside-the-fence borders; I could turn them all into mulch in about 30 minutes!
    -Nan

  5. It all looks so peaceful covered in a blanket of white. I like how the perennials hold onto the snow making them appear as if they were blooming white. It doesn’t look like we’ll have much more white stuff this year. The weekend temperatures will be up in the 60’s! Of course March is usually when we get hit with snow if it’s going to happen at all.

    Ugh – thanks for the reminder, Dave. We have the same issue with snow being more likely in March. But then, it melts faster too.
    -Nan

  6. Amazing pictures! The very top one is my favorite. And the oak – what a guy, he keeps all his clothes on through the winter! Thanks for sharing!

    The tenacity of those leaves troubled me for the first few years. They are so big, and they really weigh down the branches when coated with ice. But the plant doesn’t seem to mind, so I’ve stopped worrying and now just enjoy the rustling noise – and the great screening, too.
    -Nan

  7. Hi Nan, your garden is the gold standard of everything right about design. I must leave more things standing, although most were left, but not the sheffies or the phlox. Of course snow makes a world of difference, your shots are pure magic with that slanting light, so lovely. I am going to try the veronicastrum this year, I love that tall form. The oak is stupendous!
    Frances

    I usually cut down the phlox to prevent self-sowing, but I forgot last fall, and I’m glad I did (for now, anyway). And I don’t remember ‘Sheffield Pink’ looking so good after milder winters. But of all that I showed, I think the veronicastrum is one of my most favorites. This one is ‘Temptation’, I believe. A very appropriate name!
    -Nan

  8. Nan, Spectacular garden shots Nan! You some of my favorite plants in your garden; they are beautiful and stately in the snow. Visiting here is always a help to me… So much to see and what a treat to have the expanse of sunny space! The panicums are holding up spectacularly well for having ice and snow heaped on them…Do you have North Wind? I want to replace a a floppy non native with North Wind. This could go on fore ever…I am having so much fun looking and making notes~~ Thank you for the excitement boost! We have warm days forecast and now I can plant Karl Reed and North Wind! Gail

    The backbone of the “long border” is almost entirely ‘Northwind’. I should have showed it close up; it is still fantastic too. Pretty neat how so many of the good winter-structure plants are also natives, isn’t it? Yet another point in their favor.
    -Nan

  9. You’ve certainly proven why holding on to the perennials instead of cutting them back in the winter makes sense. At least for northern gardens. I’ve tried it down south but everything just looks sad and ugly. :-) Except the grasses. They’re usually good for a long while.

    Having seen Amsonia before on your blog and in your book, it’s on my list for purchasing this spring. I just love learning so much from my fellow bloggers!

    Reading your comment and others from warmer zones makes me think that this winter’s colder-than-usual air may have done us a favor in preserving these perennials. I’m sure that after a few days of warmth and moisture, the remains here too will look sad and ugly.
    -Nan

  10. Marcescence. I think that’s also the name for the phenomenon of guys hang onto clothes until we absolutely have to get rid of those dingy, stretched, undersized clothes in favor of the new clothes that push into our lives.

    It’s *not* just a guy thing, Jim!
    -Nan

  11. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been trying to decide on which grass to get for winter interest. My Little Bluestem can’t stand up to all the snow we’ve gotten, so I need to plant a taller grass. Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ looks like it might be the right grass for the purpose.

    I think pretty much any switch grass would work for you, depending on the ultimate height you want. ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ and ‘Shenandoah’ are 3 to 4 feet; ‘Heavy Metal’ is 4 to 5 feet; ‘Northwind’ is 5 to 6 feet; and ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Dallas Blues’ are usually 6 to 7 feet. All seem to hold up equally well for winter interest.
    -Nan

  12. great inspiration! with the snow reaching about 4-5 feet on my small urban lot, from shoveling and plows, the ‘winter interest’ in my garden for the most part has been buried! love the Culvers root picture and the grasses surrounding the doghouse…

    Oh, Cindy – I feel for you! I remember what it’s like to live on a small lot and run out of space for the snow. “Winter interest” does become a joke in a situation like that.
    -Nan

  13. I really enjoyed your “Study in Brown and White,” and I’m not being tongue-in-cheek, Nan. The garden structure (plants, fencing and buildings) is shown off to wonderful effect when drifted with snow.

    We have such a green winter compared with yours, but this year it is terribly dry. Although your snow may be tiresome to you by now, at least your plants will be getting a good drink from it when it melts. I’m almost at the point of wishing for a few inches here (but not quite). :-)

    I wish I could send you some of the white stuff, Pam. Our soil was already saturated when it froze, so once the melting begins, we’re going to be ankle-deep in mud and stuff’s going to start rotting. It’s always something, isn’t it?
    -Nan

  14. I always leave everything standing in the Fall because 1) the birds might find something they’d like and 2) it looks so beautiful with a covering of snow! Your photos are beautiful and everything is so well-balanced! :-) Hang in there!!

    You’re right about the birds, Shady. I really want to start cutting stuff down now that we’re finally getting a mild spell, but the birds are so busy collecting the seeds that are left that I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer.
    -Nan

  15. Nan, your winter garden may look like dead stalks to you, but it’s beautiful in these photos. The grasses look particularly pretty in the snow, don’t they?
    I too am looking forward to a bit of seed sowing to break the monotony.
    We had 45º today and it felt great! I’ll bet it was warmer down there.

    Hi Kerri! Oh yes, it’s infinitely much better this week than last week. I hope you’re still getting the nice weather too. I got all three of my seed-sowing spaces cleaned up and organized today, so sowing is about to begin in earnest here as well.
    -Nan

  16. I am really going to venture out tomorrow. It has been quite a while since I took stock of the garden and yours looks remarkable even now.

    Thanks, Layanee. I hope you found some signs of spring on your foray out to the garden.
    -Nan

  17. But you must admit, and you do, the snow looks lovely; without it, how much more boring would your dead plants be? Snow is like negative space, right? In good balance and proportion it draws attention to the positive space, the plant, but also does something else–it’s that intangible that brings us in and makes the plant / planting something more, beyond it’s seld. I’m with you though, for a different reason: four days in the last week it’s been 60 (very odd) and so I’m now ready for spring. Judging from the prairie smoke poking out I’m not the only one.

    I’m glad to know you’ve been getting a taste of spring too, Benjamin. And you’re right: it was the snow that made those stalks and seedheads look so amazing. Now that everything is brown, the magic is gone. And I’m ready for green!
    -Nan

  18. Your photos remind me of how surrounded I am with stunning vistas, when I have eyes to see. Of course, this year the snow was – is – so deep there is not much to see even when I am looking.

    Good point, Pat. In mild climates, they can make winter gardens with evergreen perennials and shrubs. In somewhat colder areas, taller seedheads provide most of the interest. And where you are, I imagine large shrubs and trees with colorful bark are your best bet for color over the snow layer.
    -Nan

  19. Nan, you do find lovely things to photograph, no matter what.

    Thanks, Nancy. Having access to a greenhouse sure helped.
    -Nan

  20. Posted by Gia York on March 29, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Hi Nan,
    I began teaching the Into to Perennials course at our local community college this year and have found your info to be very helpful. I just purchased Design Primer a few weeks ago and am going to submit your book as required reading for my students next year! LOVE your winterscape images!

    Welcome, Gia, and thanks so much! I’m glad you find the Primer (or, as I call it, “the pink book”) useful. I’m going to have a partner to that one coming out this summer, on how to plant and maintain perennial gardens.
    -Nan

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