Hardscaping in the winter garden
Andrea Bellamy |

Even covered in snow, a bench is a focal point that provides a resting place for the eye and reminds us of peaceful reflection. [Photo: sarae on Flickr.]

The experts are constantly exhorting us to add winter interest to our gardens. “Emphasize structure,” is a popular refrain. “Think about hedges, arbours and other permanent landscape features.” And while in theory I couldn’t agree more, in the past, I have not been so good at following this advice.

This winter, however, with the semi-completion of our back patio, I finally understood what hardscaping can bring to the winter garden. Hardscaping is a landscape designers’ term for the hard landscape: the permanent, man-made features of a landscape – stone, concrete, wood, metal, etc., (rather than plants or bare earth).

The chink

Fences provide a vertical element in the winter garden when plants are dormant. [Photo: zenera on Flickr.]

Even though the bamboo against my fence is flattened under heavy, wet snow; even though the hornbeam is bare and the one shrub that might have offered up some berries is buried; even though my bright, lime green pillows are inside for the winter and there’s not a whiff of gin and tonic about, my patio still looks half decent.

What did I do right?

I’ll put it in the words of Vancouver-based garden designer Ruth Olde of Blasig Design, whom I interviewed last year. In explaining her approach to garden design, Ruth said:

“I first consider the garden as a space that is going to be lived in without plants. I think of the form and the function. Plants are the icing on the cake. But if tomorrow you should – heaven forbid – wake up and find all your plants dead, you should still have a garden.”

While some people – myself included – would argue. “but it’s not a garden without plants,” the point Ruth’s making is that it’s the non-plant elements that can really make a garden. That’s where hardscaping comes in. It creates the backbone of a garden, the bones upon which everything else hangs. And in winter, this structure is clearly evident, which is why it’s a great time to assess your garden.

Let’s face it: plants are rarely the stars of the winter garden. Sure, there are plants with lovely berries, gorgeous bark, interesting seed heads, and even flowers. But it’s the architecture of the garden that provides overall impact: the structure that garden writers go on about.

And while this might not be popular with certain plant-obsessed gardeners who see every square foot of patio as taking away space for a new plant (and I’ll admit, I have to struggle against that line of thinking in the quest for better design) I’m convinced that done well, hardscaping is the secret to a great garden, in winter and otherwise.

Courtyard of Belvedere

Formal gardens are based on structure. Here, evergreen hedging provides a similar function to hardscaping in that it is basically a permanent fixture of the landscape. [Photo: miss karen on Flickr.]

It’s all about balance. Plants are yin to hardscape’s yang. Hardscaping sets off a prized specimen plant better than a sea of more plants. A single row of bedding plants doesn’t have the presence or scale to set off a sweeping walkway.

Take a moment this winter to assess your garden’s structure. Even though your plants may be buried in snow or sleeping under the soil, does it still look like a garden? Is it interesting to look at? If you answer “no” to either of these questions, think about how you can create a stronger backbone for your garden.

Formal garden styles tend to be inherently stronger, architecturally speaking, since they use straight lines and geometric elements such as clipped hedges and raised beds. Informal garden styles can still possess plenty of backbone, however, provided that their individual elements are well defined. Both styles benefit from thoughtful additions of hardscape materials.

But don’t just add a patio or pathway because your garden feels heavy on the lawn. Hardscaping is functional. Fences provide privacy. Oblisks support climbing plants. Paths connect. Patios provide a place to relax, barbecue and entertain. Assess what’s needed in your garden to make it work better and you’ll end up with an opportunity to not only improve its functionality but its overall beauty and impact.

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