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What's Up Magazine

A Season for Reflection: Looking Over Our Winter Gardens

Dec 12, 2017 01:39PM

A branch of blue spruce with needles.

By Janice F. Booth

Winter gardens offer a special charm and elegance. What lives in the garden shows its bones, its vulnerability when leaves fall, stalks bend, and the earth stiffens and stills. There is nothing for the gardener to do for several months, except perhaps thumb through catalogues of flowers and shrubs for spring planting.

And yet…while I gaze from my cozy chair out into the winter landscape, I sometimes muse abstractly about my garden as I see it in winter—the shapes, angles, lines, and dimensions of the beds for perennials and annuals, the placement of this gangly butterfly bush or that young Japanese maple. Will they block the view from the patio as they grow? Should I have those low limbs removed from the poplar? Should I plant a blue spruce or a golden yew to soften the corner of the garden where it abuts the neighbor’s garage?

This season of stasis can be powerful and creative for the gardener. In the garden’s stillness, there is the promise of change. The imagination can take free reign, entertaining change in the garden’s design and appearance. And all this without lifting a trowel or filling a sprinkling can.

A captivating inspiration for such wintery, garden fantasies is the ten acres of gardens and woodlands of Londontown Historic Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland.

For six days in December (12/1–2, 8–9, and 15–16), you can visit the gardens after dark. “Illuminated Londontown” sets the gardens glowing with lights and ornamentation for the holidays. Visitors are invited to wander along the trails after dark, among the oaks, poplars, maples, and magnolias—to name a few of the varieties of trees. Groups of costumed carolers fill the air with songs, hot cider is served, and the William Brown House, which is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, is decorated for the season as it would have been in the late 18th century.

In winter’s stillness, the Londontown woodlands receive a bit more attention. While children dash along the paths, you might keep a pen and paper handy to make a few notes, with inspirations for your own garden, as you amble along and gaze up into the sculpted shapes of grand willow-oaks and hemlocks. Imagine sort of an “Alice In Wonderland” effect; the shape of the trees’ bare crowns above the ground mirror the shapes of those trees’ root systems beneath the ground.
Look closely at the Londontown Woodlands, and you’ll notice there are colors—more than the gray-brown pallet of the leafless trees and shrubs. Your eye will be drawn to the evergreens—from yellow, to deep green, to blue, and the blue spruce that towers over its neighbor the green juniper with its gray-blue berries. In addition to the welcome splashes of color, the conical shape of the spruce compliments the juniper’s classical column. Here’s a thought: one or two of those compact, yellow-green yew and a hardy, deep-green arborvitae could camouflage that chain-link fence at the edge of your property, or fill in that section where nothing seems to grow.

Londontown has adapted its plantings to steward the environment, particularly with the garden’s extensive frontage on the South River. The simpler winter landscape gives you a chance to see the adaptations; perhaps there are some ideas you can use in your own garden. Here are some of the ways the Londontown Gardens are going greener:


The Londontown Gardens, and perhaps your garden as well, is on one of the main Atlantic-Coast flyways for migrating birds and waterfowl. A grant from the South River Federation and the Chesapeake Bay Trust will be used to make the gardens an even more inviting stopover for migrating birds, butterflies, and moths as they migrate. Extensive planting of native trees and shrubs gets underway in the spring.


A butterfly garden, not particularly visible in winter of course, offers food and sanctuary to moths and butterflies. The Londontown gardeners have designed this area as a demonstration garden to encourage the proliferation of similar butterfly havens across our region.


Water is always on our minds—avoiding further pollution of our estuary system and having enough water to satisfy our garden’s needs. Scattered among the woodland trees, you may spot two bio-retention ponds or swales. Rainwater that might otherwise rush into the South River carrying pollutants with it flows into these ponds. Vegetation and rock-lined banks slow the rainwater’s progress. Pollutants, such as excess nitrogen and silt, settle in the ponds, sending cleaner water back into the river, the Bay, and the estuary system.


Londontown Gardens’ policy now is to plant non-invasive and, preferably, native plants and trees. Since there are many exotics already in the collection, this change will take years and perhaps decades to accomplish. And while this adjustment is less apparent, the commitment to native plants is notable. Soon there will be an on-line catalogue of all the trees, shrubs, and plants in the Londontown collection.


Finally, there’s a living, green roof covered with a shallow layer of sedum on the Museum & Visitors’ Center. This living roof absorbs and filters rainwater and prevents wasteful run-off while keeping the building beneath cooler in summer and warmer in winter. You may not be adding a living roof to your house any time soon, but it’s an intriguing approach to helping the environment.

So, armed with visions and notes from the lovely woodlands at Londontown, I return to my cozy chair and my own winter garden. I’m left to ponder questions raised by our excursion: Are there ways I can improve my gardens and aid the earth? Can I resolve a problem-area in my garden with a few well-chosen evergreens? Or, am I just delighted to be able to look out at the remainders of my summer garden, recall the beauty that was and the delights that are to come?

Oh well, perhaps a nap first...