Setting the Bones of the Landscape

Amber Jubilee ninebark is a delicious shrub that can light up landscapes and provide colorful contrast with its gorgeous orange foliage. Hardy to Zone 2. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

As the cold winds blow and leaves begin to fly, this is the time to do a thorough examination of the skeleton of your landscape. While it is the bones that give the body its shape and structure, so too do the shrubs and trees in your yard provide a framework for those annuals and perennials that brighten up everything in the summer with blooms. 

We can pack a landscape with flowering annuals and perennials that can stop traffic with their color and impact in the summer—but without a structure, the whole thing “falls apart” as the seasons change. As we approach the dormant season, we quickly become aware of the empty spots in our landscapes as annuals and perennials go by the wayside and become dormant or dead with frosts and freezing weather. But shrubs and trees remain in place, sometimes holding a bit of snow or ice or even become mounds of shapes as the snow covers them to add dimension and vertical interest when all else has gone flat. 

Double Play Big Band spring simply glows with color in the spring, and later produces brilliant pink blooms. Drought tolerant and deer resistant, it grows and blooms well in partial shade and maintains a nice, neat shape without pruning. Cold hardy to Zone 3. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

That’s where shrubs and trees, both evergreen (green all winter on shrubs and trees like hollies, rhododendrons, firs, cedars and spruces) and deciduous (lose their leaves in the winter) come in, giving landscapes structural support—a skeleton of sorts—anchoring all those flowering and colorful perennials in the growing season, and offering texture, structure and contrast even during the winter months. 

And, right now we have a golden opportunity as garden centers clear out the last stock of all sorts of plants. Not only is this a great time to take advantage of the bargains, but fall is one of the best times to get shrubs and trees established. I don’t know all the nuts and bolts of the process, but apparently when plants are moved or planted late in the growing season a sort of a hormonal thing kicks in and “tells” them to get moving, put out new roots, and get established before winter arrives. That’s why fall-planting of perennials, shrubs, and trees is so successful. Also, come spring those plants are ready to get up and grow.

Evergreen, flowering rhododendrons are like garden royalty providing a framework of greenery around the year, and spectacular blooms in late spring. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Just be sure to plant in soil that has been amended with compost and water. Then be sure to water newly planted shrubs and trees regularly until the ground freezes. Some newly planted shrubs and trees will benefit from a winter-time protection of a burlap barrier around the plant. Use stakes to create a four-sided “frame” on which to stretch the burlap. This practice is especially important for evergreen varieties, including rhododendrons. Because they retain their foliage, those leaves can actually be freeze-dried with harsh winter winds and freezing temperatures. Adding a layer of “insulation” of dried leaves inside the burlap cover can also protect marginal species, but be sure to remove leaves and cover once temperatures moderate and the tree or shrub begins to put out growth in the spring. 

When it comes to placing those new selections in the yard and your landscape design, consider the overall mature heights of plants to be included and mature widths as well. Follow spacing suggestions for optimum success. In general, taller plants go to the back or outside of planting beds with smaller ones spaced at appropriate intervals. Think of those woody perennials as the bones of the body to create a supporting skeleton for the “flesh” of herbaceous perennials and colorful annuals. 

Now is the time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Locate them close under shrubs. The tulips will help disguise the bare branches of deciduous shrubs, and once the shrubs leaf out in the spring, they can hide the fading foliage of the bulbs as they go by. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

So too, consider the benefits that evergreen and other trees and shrubs can provide when situated within the landscape to buffer cold winter winds to protect other plants and even structures. When planning and planting, group together varieties with similar moisture requirements to facilitate irrigating, and also group those with related light requirements to insure proper growth. Consider texture and foliage colors when planning the landscape to incorporate balance and contrast as well. 


Native plants and spring bulbs

In their glory now, burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is an invasive that is taking over natural areas and should be removed. The good news is that fall is a great time to introduce new shrubs and trees, so it will be easy to replace these with native selections. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Planting now will ensure a framework is already in place and established. Your garden and its framework will bounce into life come next spring.

  • Fall is a good time to consider replacing invasive species like burning bush or multiflora roses with native species which can improve your landscape’s habitat potential for wildlife.
  • Providing habitat and food for wildlife within your landscape is one of the best ways to introduce color and life throughout the year. Maine Audubon offers an online site to order native plants: https://shop.mainenativeplants.org
  • And while you are out there planting, don’t forget to include some spring-flowering bulbs too. Plant them close underneath deciduous shrubs. This achieves two goals—one to add color before those shrubs leaf out, and two to enable those shrubs to help conceal fading foliage of the spring-flowering bulbs once they have gone by. 
Native trees like white pine provide year-round color and weather protection from buffeting winter winds and shelter from summer sun. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Just when you thought your work in the garden was done for the year, now you realize that it may be just beginning. October is no time to rest on your laurels, but is the time to get out and get everything in shape for the winter to come. Once you’ve set those “bones,” your work will create the stage for a glorious spring to come. 

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