Tuesday, January 14, 2014

50 Shades of Brown

brown copy
Even though our winters here in Portland are short and mild, we do have a month or two of down time in our gardens. For the first few years in my garden, I struggled with winter interest...often thinking it more euphemism than reality, to be honest. I'd go to garden shows for inspiration and come up empty. I'd walk around our neighborhood, trying to find ideas. Those gardens, while definitely green and tidy, weren't exactly interesting. Like all aspects of gardening, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Winter Interest is different for all of us!


Over the past 10-15 years, as I've read garden magazines and books, I've been intensely drawn to the work of Oudolf, Kingsbury and Stuart-Smith. I love how their gardens embrace each season, even winter, with something new. They focus on plants that are always in flux...marking the change of seasons and celebrating each in kind. Gradually, I've edited my garden, adding more grasses and plants with good structure during winter. Gradually, I've begun to enjoy my garden in winter more and more...a bit at a time.

leaf in panicum
While there is still much work to do (isn't there always), I've found myself totally in love with my garden this winter...really for the first time. Winter strips our gardens down to their barest elements. Almost contrarily, it's a season of great contrast, yet also astounding subtlety. I know my partner, Norm, bemoans the brown state of our garden (indeed, it stands in stark contrast to most yards in our neighborhood...ok, most yard in Portland), but I think there is great beauty in accepting winter and it's subtle charms. Honestly, I've found you just have to let yourself enjoy winter for what it is...gardens, like life, can be messy at times.


A tapestry of brown, beige and biscuit!


Stripped of bright colors, the seed heads of Echinacea have a stark, graphic quality...


...especially when paired with a lighter scrim of spent Deschampsia blooms.


Fluffy cream seed heads agains a sienna backdrop.

panicum and agastache
Dried, curving talons of Panicum claw at the hay-colored spires of Agastache.


Of course, even the weather plays a part...both deepening and softening the range of hues.


A shot of deep red is added by the stems of Schizachyrium...

shizachyrium blue heaven vh
...adding a warm patch of flame to the somber composition. While the Parrotia in the background hasn't bloomed in the past few years, I've really started to appreciate how it holds onto its leaves for such a long time...they are the most wonderful color right now.

miscanthus purparascens
Perhaps more than any time of the year, light, all the more precious for it's scarcity during these short days, is maximized with glistening seed heads.

rudbeckia and deschampsia
More contrast of light and dark, hard and soft.


From the tawny blonde tresses of the Pennisetum in front, followed by strawberry-blushed cream and finally burnished gold...a symphony of colors and structure. Or, if you ask Norm...and giant, weedy mess.

persicaria lance corporal
Speaking of structure, while I'm terribly fond of Persicarias, most of them offer very little, collapsing into mush after a hard frost. Luckily, 'Lance Corporal' has wonderful structure and color...being the most wonderful, warm umber color all winter.


More texture, more browns...buff, ecru and even a hint of sienna.

calamagrostis brachytricha
A flash of light reveals glistening gold!


A warmer section of the garden reveals rust and mahogany.


For me, the most effective winter combos are those that pair a strong, dark element with a background of much lighter color...as here with the dark, sinuous spires of Agastache 'Purple Haze' and Panicum 'Northwind'. Happily, the bright blooms of Calamagrostis brachytricha in the foreground adds even more depth.


Texture, so important at all times, is perhaps most valuable now. With color reduced to a smaller palette, texture is all the more noticeable.

origanum v
While I've been warned that leaving them standing will result in a glut of unwanted seedlings this spring, I couldn't bear to cut down the beautiful pewter seed heads of this Golden Oregano...I find it so graceful and demure in front of the warm fountain of gold provided by Anementhale lessoniana.

achnatherum calamagrostis h
Achnatherum calamagrostis is so very graceful for such a long time...I adore it's layered, fountain-like form.


While these Andropogon stems stood pround and upright all winter...Norm accidentally snapped them all off last week while taking out the garbage...sigh.

Sunny Weekend
So, I guess my point, other than that winter can be awesome if we let it, is that Winter Interest isn't one set of rules or plants...it's whatever you actually find INTERESTING during winter! What about you...where do you look for winter interest...grasses, evergreens, flowering shrubs? Or do you look to hardscaping...I'd love to know!

63 comments:

  1. Great post! We don't really have a winter in southern California - we usually have a cool, rainy season from December-March but, this year, we don't even have that. (Our temp will reach 82F today and there's no rain in sight.) The absence of winter tends to create the utterly unrealistic expectation that the garden should look its best 365 days of the year. The shorter days still limit plant growth so, even if it looks like spring/summer outside, the plants don't deliver on that promise (although a few, like my agapanthus, seem to be trying). Even here, I think grasses are an important element to lend structure to the garden until the days get longer and the plants wake up.

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  2. Wonderfull pictures !

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  3. Hardscaping and evergreens here but...

    Wow, gorgeous post and it's the first time I've seen a post celebrating the rich palette of brown in the garden!

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  4. Norm "accidentally" broke them?


    As you could probably guess it's all about the hardscape and evergreens here, and while I do enjoy the lush green lawns around town during the winter your version of the season is quite beautiful. Funny that while they're dormant and brown in the summer your garden is lush and growing and then in winter it's the reverse.

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  5. The most wonderful color. Your gurus should look to you. Anne

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  6. Jeanne DeBenedetti KeyesJanuary 14, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    Love the many different seedheads. The birds must love your garden. Thanks for the reminder on many shades of brown there are out there and that winter interest can be more than evergreens.

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  7. I particularly love that closing shot! I really love the shades of winter brown, and am enjoying our derelict borders this year more than ever too. It helps that they are a little more mature, and everything is standing that bit taller. I love crisp evergreen shapes too, particularly in frost or snow, but couldn't be without the riot of gold and brown of the herbaceous plants.


    (No wordpress login for commenting any more? Eek!)

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  8. To me the palette of browns from tan to chocolate can be just as beautiful as greens. Besides, viewing the browns for a few months (or more) is what makes the emergence of the greens in the spring so much more impressive!

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  9. You may see brown, but I see gold, the most precious of metals.

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  10. Michael - Plano Prairie GardenJanuary 14, 2014 at 9:08 PM

    I am a big fan of the many shades of brown plants in the winter. They are very photogenic, as you have shown. I like the way the colors can vary with the amount of moisture in the air and sound of grasses rustling in the breeze is very soothing. I usually perform some selective pruning of my brown plants to tidy up the look a bit and placate the Norms of this world.

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  11. Um, well, as you know--since you lived in the Midwest before--our winter interest is a little different--at least in the deep of winter. Snow sticks to plants in interesting ways. Winter berries always offer a bit of hope, and the misty moon through the leafless branches of giant trees sometimes takes my breath away with its beauty. If only it wasn't so cold. ;-)

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  12. Your winter colors are gorgeous. Here I close the doors at the end of November and ignore the garden until March. While I have some evergreens, I'm most interested in the patterns stamped across the winter sky by bare branches on the deciduous shrubs and trees. If they have moss or ferns growing on them, even better!

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  13. I love that you tagged this post with "senescence," you word nerd. Gorgeous garden, gorgeous post!

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  14. I know how your photos are, and no matter how drab a landscape is, they will always come out beautiful through your lens. You're actually an inspiration. During our dry season, our landscapes look like that, though without frost. I still visualize a photo of purple grass in your post long ago, and last week when i went to an are in Makati here, i saw that grass, and they are really beautiful swaying with the wind.

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  15. Great photos. Wow. Today I posted this one, with also shades of brown. http://gartenraeume.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/naturgemalde-kiefernborke/
    Have a good day, Michael

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  16. Personally, I think it is one of your best set of pictures! It certainly takes an eye to see shapes and colours in something that most consider as dull and dead. Beauty of a winter border lays in details and you have captured them perfectly!
    My favorite is with Agastache 'Purple Haze'.

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  17. Thanks…so glad you enjoyed the photos…winter does require you to look at your garden differently, doesn't it :-)

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  18. Thanks, Michael…I'll check your post out :-)

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  19. Hahahahaha…yeah, I'm a dork, you caught me!

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  20. There is something wonderful about trees in winter, isn't there, Peter? As nice as our Parrotias are during the rest of the year, I love their sinuous winter skeletons most of all.

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  21. Oh yes…I remember those midwest winters VERY clearly! It's definitely a different beauty, isn't it…a spare, cold beauty!

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  22. Yes, Michael…that is so true…the colors are much richer and saturated when there is some moisture…and when dry, things are brighter…and yes, the rustle and rattle of the dry leaves is quite musical.

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  23. Indeed there is gold, Ricki…especially when the sun breaks through…it's magical!

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  24. That is so true, Alan, spring would not be nearly as exciting without the sere winter that precedes it!

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  25. Oh no…is Disqus acting up again…drat…I'll look into it…so sorry!

    I think as the garden matures, it definitely helps…for sure…things are a little more filled in…not quite so bare!

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  26. Oh yes, Jeanne…there always seem to be birds in my garden…they have picked most of it pretty clean by this point!

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  27. Awwww.thanks, Anne!

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  28. Hahahaha…yeah, I think he's passive-aggressive about it, for sure ;-) I never thought about that…I guess I'm at odds with Portland gardens that way..ha!

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  29. Thanks, fellas…evergreens are definitely de rigeur here in the NW as well :-)

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  30. Thanks, Françoise!

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  31. Yikes, Kris…that's crazy…and with no rain…ugh! I think you bring up a great point…about the strange expectation of year-round, ceaseless flowering and color…there's nothing wrong with a "visually quiet" time in a garden…we all need a break once in a while…even our plants ;-)

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  32. There's nothing dull about these marvelous shades of brown! A delightful post and homage to winter colors. gail

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  33. Lee@ A Guide to NE GardeningJanuary 15, 2014 at 2:49 PM

    Fifty shades of brown work in your garden! Your winter scenes are beautiful.

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  34. What a lyrical post, Scott! It's rightly dubbed 50 Shades of Brown - there's something gently lusty about your photos and accompanying descriptions. You'll make a winter-lover of me yet!

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  35. Thanks, Gail...glad you liked it :-)

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  36. Thanks, Lee...you gotta work with what nature gives ya :-)

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  37. Thanks, Sue...and yes, there is still a lot of green...Portland is quite green during the winter, to be honest...probably why I don't feel so compelled to plant evergreens myself...they already surround me :-)

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  38. Hahahaha...c'mon, Jane...embrace winter with all its gothic charms ;-)

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  39. That's wonderful, Andrea...I bet it was stunning...do you remember which grass it was?

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  40. Desert Dweller / David C.January 16, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    I do like your winter interest, and without the mostly vast spaces the famous horticulturists have to work with, I'd say you have some good winter structure. To me, creating a winter garden with grasses and dormant perennials is simply adding some hardscape (walls to divide or sit on, sculpture / containers) with the grasses, to integrate it. Maybe some evergreens well-placed in mass, or as accents. Fun stuff...

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  41. Hahahahahahaha...too funny!

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  42. Wouldn't it be something to have that much space to play with, David...one can dream, can't he...

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  43. You make a compelling and beautiful presentation of winter interest. I find winter interest is also influenced by my mood, whether or not I am feeling sick of winter in that moment. Certainly the grasses and seedheads are important, but don't forget bark and winter berries on woody plants. Although actually, for me the height of winter interest is provided by ... catalogs!

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  44. What a gorgeous post. A feast for the eye. Thank you.

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  45. Absolutely, Deborah...glad you enjoyed it!

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  46. Haha...it's true, Jason...after several months of cold, it can be fatiguing! Catalogs are balm for the winter-weary soul, aren't they ;-)

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  47. I let my grasses and other frost-bitten plants stand (or flop) through the winter for the same reason. I find them beautiful or, at the least, more interesting than cut-back stubble. And wildlife uses these plants for cover. Pam/Digging: http://www.penick.net/digging

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  48. Oh Scott, what an utterly beautiful post. I agree that winter garden appreciation grows with time. Here in Scotland our down time can be anything from 3-5 months so it's all the more essential to be garden with the season in mind, yet most people around me just hack everything back to the bones. The severe gales of recent years seem to be flattening all my planned structure so it's been a real joy to see yours holding up so gracefully. The contrasts and texture you have are every bit as beautiful in Winter as they are in Summer, for those that linger long enough to appreciate them. Thanks for such great photos. - Cally

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  49. Agreed, Pam...it makes me so sad to see people cut everything back to nothing as soon as it goes dormant...do people really find that attractive???

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  50. Thanks, Cally...glad you enjoyed it :-) You're so right about the weather, however...one really strong storm can pretty much level the garden in winter...we just have to enjoy it while we can, i guess ;-)

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  51. Had to look at all these again, divine.

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  52. Judging from your photos, your garden is always beautiful, and it has a special beauty at this time of year.

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  53. Well, I'll say you got it going on now! What a beautiful "Winter garden!" As much as I hate it right now, snow does add another dimension to the Winter garden - ice, too. I have plenty of both in my garden right now but I am always, always drawn to the bright red stems of the Dogwood in front of the Blue Spruce - color among the drifts of brown - and I've been adding copper elements which really pop in the snow. Copper would be beautiful among your black and tan areas - though they are striking as is. I can't say that I am totally happy with my Winter garden but I do love certain aspects and after seeing yours, I should concentrate more on mine!

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  54. Enjoying my catch-up on your garden, what an atmospheric day, how lucky you were there to catch the full progression. I'm betting it smelled good too.

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  55. I agree that there is beauty in allowing the garden to stand over the winter (and in the wildlife that inhabits it!), and your pictures do a remarkable job of capturing that beauty. I especially like the shot of the Agastache in front of the golden Panicum.

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  56. My garden embraces winter disinterest. It's a three season garden and while it's a boring mess in the winter, it makes up for it the rest of the year. Your photography is exquisite! Have you ever been to Susie Trocolo's blog? She's a fellow Portland blogger who needs some design/plant advice. I thought you'd be the perfect person to help her out. Here's her blog: http://www.life-change-compost.com/ :)

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  57. Ah yes, the mixed blessings of rain, often what they need, can look so beautiful (which you have captured perfectly) and like a pebble on the beach, the wet weather brings out an addition depth of colour. I'm all too familiar with the ritual of shaking my plants in hopes of preventing collapse (even more so in the snow), it draws confused looks from the neighbours, I bet you know the look I'm talking about.
    We have the dual effect of being exposed to wind so it's a bit of a losing battle but I quite like experiencing how different they feel and look when they are water sodden - except when I have to squeeze past the recently vigorous bamboo in the tiny passage at the back of the shed - it's like having an unplanned shower!

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  58. Paige St John PattersonJanuary 22, 2014 at 6:45 AM

    Utterly gorgeous! What are the spherical seed heads in the photo titled A tapestry of brown, beige and biscuit!? I'd like to have those for flower arranging. This year I cleaned out every bed I had because I need to feed the soil terribly badly so the entire place is denuded and I didn't realize how much the clean and tidy look would upset me. Luckily it's all not covered with snow, but your garden made me miss (and appreciate) what normally happens in mine. Thank you!

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  59. Hahaha...I totally know what you mean...there were plenty of years where I seriously doubted there was even such a thing as winter interest! Thanks for that link...I'm going to check it out!

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  60. Hi Paige! Don't hate me...those aren't real seed heads...they are an iron sculpture! Doesn't it fit in perfectly right there, though?!? Here's the artist :-)

    http://www.etsy.com/listing/57725824/kinetic-garden-sculpture-ball-weeds?ref=listing-shop-header-0

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  61. Hi Scott
    A painterly beautiful garden and some breathtakingly photos! - What´s the art? The garden or the pictures?
    never mind; your way of handling both, is artistic.
    Thanks for dealing with us.
    Kjeld Slot

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  62. Haha…so true, Kjeld…thanks so much for commenting!

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  63. So glad to find another kindred spirit, Paige!

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