Book Review: The Garden in Winter

A Gardener’s Reading, 15 of 30

By Suzy Bales (Rodale Press, 2007)

Gardeners in the North are often told to console themselves through the long winter by planting a garden with “winter interest.” Give yourself something to look at during that fourth or fifth gray, cold month.

Suzy Bales shows how to do this with structures, ornaments, conifers, shrubs and trees with colorful, textural or structural interest. Bales is an accomplished writer and a joy to read. She describes the winter landscape as “a chiaroscuro of black, white and gray—a glorious pen and ink drawing” and views garden design as a battle among three strong-willed individuals—Mother Nature, plants and the gardener. Even if you did not implement any of Bales’ suggestions, passing a few winter evenings in her literate company would be time well-spent.

garden in winter coverBut do consider her advice, because it is solid. She begins by recommending that gardeners build structure into their landscapes. The structure may be crafted by the gardener or other people (pergolas, gates, seating, art objects) or it may be plant-based (hedges, shapely trees and shrubs). I received a review copy of this book when it first came out – and in part due to her advice, added a pergola to our backyard. That structural element changed the yard dramatically, in all seasons, but especially in the winter. It’s the one, strong place my eye goes to after each snowstorm.

Bales suggests a myriad of plants that provide exciting colors and shapes in all seasons, and that is where my one quibble with this book arises. While her suggestions are gorgeous, many of them are not hardy in truly northern climates. (When’s the last time you saw a crape myrtle in Minnesota?) I don’t mind that she suggests plants only hardy to zones 5, 6 or 7, but I do think it would have been sporting of her to list USDA Hardiness Zones with the plant recommendations – or in an index in the back of the book.

Despite that, there is so much to like about this book. For example, Bales devotes considerable space to two topics northern gardeners should embrace as part of their winter-survival strategy: early-blooming spring bulbs and plant-based holiday décor. We are stuck with winter a long time, so we should make the best of it on the two ends of the season. Bulb bloom times are compressed in the North, compared to the East Coast where Bales lives, but the sight of the first crocuses, scillas or dwarf irises are just as meaningful. Bales’ holiday decorating tips are steal-worthy, too. I especially like her holiday tree made of hydrangeas and allium and have made something similar in the past based on her design.

For winter inspiration, The Garden in Winter is a cozy fireplace on a snowy day.

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