Garden Design · Garden Musings · Shrubs · Trees

Gardens Need Good Bones

We have all heard about the importance of the bones of our landscapes. We have read dozens of magazine articles, listened to countless lectures, and studied them on garden walks.

Never are the bones of the garden more evident than in winter. Without the distraction of flowers and foliage, the skeleton of the landscape is exposed. Deciduous trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses; conifers and broad-leaved evergreens; ponds, fountains and other water features; arbors, trellises and obelisks; boulders, statuary and other garden art; garden gates, fences and paths; gazebos, garden sheds, patios and decks; fire pits and benches; and even the edges of beds and borders are all examples of the bones that, when placed correctly, make a landscape beautiful year round.

What better place to look at the very best displays of garden bones than at the Chicago Botanic Garden in winter? Even without flirting flowers and lush leaves on many trees and shrubs, the garden is still extraordinary because of its bones. There are many ideas and concepts that homeowners can adapt to their urban or suburban backyards.

If shrubs, grasses, garden structures, and water features are all bones of the landscape, trees are the spine. And bark is an often under-appreciated characteristic of trees. The texture and color of bark are revealed after leaves are liberated in fall.

The geometric pattern of a plant espaliered against a brick wall is evident when it is defoliated. A bird’s nest pleases visitors who take time to see details.

The intricacy of branching is enhanced and the scene is grounded by evergreen shrubs and ground covers.

Conifers are the superstars of the winter landscape. Their foliage of green, blue and gold, often taken for granted in summer, are celebrated in winter.

Red twig and yellow twig dogwoods flaunt wands of brilliant color. Notice how their colors pop in front of evergreens.

Not many of us have landscapes large enough to enjoy a lake, but even small ponds or fountains add to the beauty of the garden.

We all have room for structures like arbors, trellises or garden walls. Ours may not be as grand as those at the Chicago Botanic Garden, but structures in our landscapes are just as important.


Statuary and garden décor contribute even more character to the landscape in winter than in summer. I hadn’t even noticed the statue in the rose garden on a summertime trip.

Entrances to outdoor rooms, either through gates or arbors, give a hint of what’s to come and invite garden walks even without flowers beckoning from beyond.

Paths, whether they are formal straight-lined walks in an allee or informal meandering flagstone trails, encourage garden walks to continue. Our curiosity insists we find out what waits for us at the other end.

Besides giving gardeners a place to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labor during the growing season, benches give the landscape a feeling of residence. Benches say, “This is not just a landscape, it is a garden.”

Crisp, clean edges define beds and borders.

While considering garden bones, don’t forget about some of the details that make winter landscapes delightful. Berries, seed heads, and mosses are just a few that ornament the garden.

So there you have it – great examples of garden bones. Now take a walk through your winter landscape, looking at the bones of your garden. Take photos and make notes on ways to improve them in spring. Then get your bones ready to garden with me!






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *