White Out? Think Green: A Master Gardener’s Perspective

red bush, and green bush inset with white flowers
White Out? Think Green: A Master Gardener’s Perspective

About the Author

Sean James

Sean James

Sean James is a horticultural instructor at Mohawk College and President of Fern Ridge Landscaping. He is a graduate of Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. He is Chair of Landscape Ontario's Environmental Stewardship Committee and Co-founder of the Halton-Peel BioDiversity Network. He sits on the Perennial Plant Association's Environmental Committee.

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Yes, that mound of white you see from your window is your beloved garden, but don’t think––just because you can’t get in there to dig and weed––that you can’t be helping it along even as it is blanketed in snow.

So the windows show you only the snow that’s covering your flower beds… that doesn’t mean there aren’t things worth thinking about in your garden. Now is the perfect time to make plans for the rapidly-approaching growing season.

How to plan for landscape upgrades? Methodically!

1/ What stays and what goes…

Assess what you have that can be repaired, and plan to remove diseased trees, woodwork and stonework that are broken or have served their time.

2/ List your needs and wishes…

A composter? An arbor? A veggie garden? A pond? A patio for entertaining, perhaps? There are so many choices.

3/ Some things to consider…

For larger projects, such as a patio, how many guests do you typically entertain? Your answers will determine certain aspects of the design, such as size and location.

Overall, consider that you need destinations in the landscape to make it feel dynamic and welcoming. Make one of those destinations in a very low-maintenance section of the garden so that there’s a place to sit where you won’t feel a need to work, and therefore can totally relax.

Don’t forget rain gardens.

These are the latest trend in landscaping, and rightly so. Rain gardens are saucer-shaped depressions to hold and infiltrate rainwater. Not only are they lovely, but they allow you to grow an even wider variety of plants. Most importantly, by holding and infiltrating rainwater, they reduce flooding, protect our infrastructure and create wildlife habitat, both on and beyond your property.

4/ Now, get to work…

You have your lists. First, take care of any fixing and building of any hardscaping (paths, woodwork, walls)–this phase tends to be very destructive. After the dust settles a bit you can move on to enhancing your outdoor space.

When designing plantings, consider any views you want to block (an ugly cellphone tower, your neighbour’s house) or visually frame (a church tower, a park, a distant vista). Plants can be used to hide or enhance views. Think about native plants to support wildlife, since a broad range of life–known as biodiversity–helps ensure pest populations won’t get out of control. Native plants are also better adapted to our local soils and climate. The idea of natives being ‘better’ is a general statement though, as there are non-native plants that play well with others, support biodiversity and stand up to our local conditions. An excellent native is gray dogwood. It features spring flowers, summer berries for birds and rich purple fall colour. A good non-native is Russian sage since it supports pollinators and looks interesting all year. Aim for drought-tolerant choices. Water, even in our neck of the woods, is becoming precious.

As you combine plants, think less about flowers and more about texture. Flowers come and go, but texture will make or break your landscape. Aim for a mixture of bold, feathery and grassy textures. Figure out the plants that really turn your crank, whether they be reminiscence plants that your grandmother had, which gave you your first love of gardens, or the latest craze that you fell in love with in a magazine. Build textures, colours and bloom periods around those plants and your landscape will be lovely – a work of art to be enjoyed for generations.

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