Garden Bones

Just the other day I remarked to a colleague about his garden and how we designed gardens with the “bones” in mind. Garden bones of course, are not the bones of any animal, but the strong plants that hold the garden together through all seasons, when perennials have faded and annuals are put to rest in compost pile. Trees and shrubs are the “bones” of the garden.

The author’s garden in winter, with young “bones”
highlighting the central bed spaces

Four years ago my wife and I bought our little home in the woods. It is nicely settled with large shade trees of oak, walnut, hickory, cottonwood, maple, and hackberry. These shade trees are the backdrop of the gardens that I have tried to cultivate. When we got there, there were no large gardens, just and empty expanse of lawn and a poor bubbler by where our stone steps are now. After removing some cedars and a rotting redbud, I started my design with the bones of the garden to be, shrubs. 

A summer shot of the author’s garden with doublefile viburnum and Seven-Son tree in the foreground

For my garden, I used shrubs with multi-season interest. The doublefile viburnum has creamy white flowers in spring, lovely purplish fall foliage, and wide spreading branches in winter. Oakleaf hydrangea is a great shrub with large white to pink fading blooms, purple-red fall color, and orange peeling bark in winter. Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ is in my opinion the most fragrant of all magnolias, with light pink, double blooms in spring, and glossy green leaves through summer. I cannot say enough about the Seven-Son tree, which has an open habit, with white peeling bark, white flowers that bloom in late summer, and red calyxes following the flowers; autumnal color is yellow. Ninebark ‘Amber Jubilee’ has dark purple leaves, pink-white flowers in early summer, new growth is orange-tipped, and on older shrubs the peeling bark is exquisite. 

‘Leonard Messel’ Magnolia blooms are wonderfully fragrant

These shrubs and others, along with small trees hold the garden together through all seasons of both activity and inactivity. Both large and small trees can hold the garden together, it just depends on the location. If you were to build a new house in an empty lot or the middle of a cornfield, then trees may be the bones of the landscape there. Trees make excellent bones, enclosing open spaces and balancing the landscape and house. 

The Seven-Son tree has great landscape value year-round

When all is bare and bleak, look for and think about the bones of your garden, those trees and shrubs that do and can bring out the best of every season.


Happy planting!

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