An Alameda Garden: Thinking About Winter Gardens

Friday, January 08, 2010

Thinking About Winter Gardens

The New York Times has an article today by Paula Deitz about the beauty of winter gardens and how they allow us to move through them introspectively “without the usual distractions of colorful palettes and lush foliage.” The accompanying slideshow presents two distinctly different examples with shots of the botanical gardens in Brooklyn and Santa Barbara, the first snow-covered and frozen, the second still verdant but nonetheless subdued.

Winter gardens here in the Bay Area tend to fall somewhere in between those two examples. Those who say that the Bay Area doesn’t have seasons just aren’t paying attention. In winter, however, the seasonal change can be subtler here than in most other places. As a rule, there is no snow to wipe everything clean, and in those freakish moments when snow does come, it doesn’t last. But things are certainly not static. Winter gardens here are wet and wind-swept without ever being completely dormant. California natives, intoxicated by the sudden flush of rain, put on quite a show of new growth and some, such as manzanitas and ceanothus, are in full bloom. Even non-natives, like the flowering camellias, jasmine, and primroses, seem happy to be wintering here and come dressed for the occasion.

Since I’ve only ever lived in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles (my college years—don’t ask how long ago), I have no experience with more extreme winter gardens. There are times when I long for a garden that shuts down completely for the winter, giving the gardener a welcome respite. But ask me again on a day in early February when we’re having a burst of False Spring and I can experience that rare intersection of t-shirt weather and daffodils in bloom and I’ll deny ever having said that.

When I really stop to think about winter gardens there is one particular garden that my mind goes back to. It is the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris, where I spent an afternoon on a frigid March day 14 years ago. I’m not a fan of the prissy formality of French gardens. But in the winter, you can see the bones of the garden, and that forced symmetry that seems so fussy at other times takes on a kind of basic, skeletal beauty.

Without, as Deitz would say, the distraction of a colorful palette and lush foliage, Rodin’s garden was still able to enchant. Instead of preening, it was laid bare, adorned only by naked wood and odd iconic shapes…

And art. Rodin’s sculptures are installed throughout the garden, in all their bronze, muscled glory. The nakedness of the sculptures fits well with the nakedness of the winter landscape.

Both leave ample room for thought.

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1 comment:

  1. What a great post! I'm beginning to view winter as spring and summer as winter, since native plants go dormant during dry weather and come to life after the first rains.
    I second the T-shirt/daffodil days. I wouldn't live anywhere else!


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