For most gardeners in the Mid-Atlantic region, winter is a time to reset, unwind, and reflect on the past season. Most of us stick to winter pruning, poring over plant and seed catalogs, and wishing for spring. However, winter can be a remarkably busy season for horticulturists in public gardens. I talked with three gardeners at Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, about what they do during winter. For them, winter is their time to design (and redesign) garden areas, take care of routine maintenance, repair structures, and build and install new features such as railings, furniture, and garden art.
New hardscaping will help guide traffic in Bell’s Woodland garden
When I met with Przemek Walczak, the gardener in charge of the Bell’s Woodland garden, he was in the process of installing a new stone path near the water mill feature. Large slabs of rock, carefully laid out, lined the path where guests would walk over what had previously been a turf path. The decision to make the path out of stone was a practical one. It linked to an existing stone path elsewhere and provided a clear area for guests to walk.
Przemek also is working on designing and creating a vinelike railing to span a small bridge in the woodland garden he maintains. He developed a mock-up where the railing will be placed, and it will ultimately be furnished from metal.
Careful pruning and maintenance make the Ruin Garden look natural, not ruined
Next, I toured a few gardens with Lisa Roper. One the first gardeners employed at Chanticleer, she has been there since it was a private garden, when tours were only informally given occasionally to industry professionals. She showed me the pruning jobs she was working on in the Ruin Garden. Winter, she says, is the best time to prune. While the Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis, Zones 3–9) and Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda, Zones 3–9) are dormant, Lisa prunes the vines to keep an open habit, as both species of nonnative wisteria tend to grow rapidly. She prunes now in the winter, careful not to remove all the setting buds, and will prune more than once after the flowers finish blooming to control the wispy tendrils. She is also pruning the English ivy (Hedera helix, Zones 4–9) that is growing up the pillars of the Ruin Garden. The goal of this job is to expose more of the stone by thinning out the dense stems creeping up and around the structure. Lisa will also tackle the ‘Frosty’ Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia ‘Frosty’, Zones 4–9) nestled in the corner of the patio of the Ruin Garden. She intends to eliminate cross branching and help better shape the tree after last season’s growth.
Lisa also will be supervising a controlled burn of a nearby meadow of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis, Zones 3–9). Every year around the end of February, the local fire company starts a managed fire to slowly burn the grasses. This process controls invasive weeds while restoring nutrients; because of this, it promotes healthy plant growth.
Design projects must consider views from a distance and tying different gardens together
In addition to pruning, Lisa is working on redesigning an area in the Gravel Garden under a mature tree that will get predominantly full sun with some light shade. Although the beds are not connected, she plans to tie the Gravel Garden design into the new bed while using some plants such as ice plant (Delosperma spp. and cvs., Zones 4–11) that otherwise would have gotten crowded out in the main area of the Gravel Garden.
I also met with Joe Henderson, horticulturist in charge of the Pond Garden, where a large restoration is underway. The pond renovation is by far the largest project any of the three gardeners I interviewed are tackling this winter. Due to a leak in the lining, Joe has drained the upper ponds, and he and a team of gardeners are in the process of rebuilding and relining them. It may not be the most glamorous winter project, but it allows Joe to consider a different design for the pond and to add a layer of shelves in the pond where he can add more plants to the garden.
In the winter and throughout the year, Joe is always thinking about how the garden is viewed. He does this by looking at what he calls “axes,” or long, straight lines of sight. In other words, he tries to connect the views seen in the distance to one another. This can be compared to rolling hills in a natural landscape, only Joe uses large beds and the garden topography to create this effect. While looking at the design and views of the garden, he also keeps in mind that it is a public garden, and so he must consider practical factors, especially about accessibility for the guests. This currently involves reconfiguring a path leading to the elevated walkway.
In addition to the vast plant knowledge Chanticleer horticulturists hold, many of them are artists and craftspeople, and their jobs allow their creativity to roam free. The artistic features installed by staff members create a whimsical garden setting while still keeping plants as the focal point. It is no wonder Chanticleer calls itself a “pleasure garden.”
—Michele Christiano has worked in public gardens for most of her career. She currently works as an estate gardener maintaining a private Piet Oudolf garden.