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I had the opportunity to visit the Denver Botanic Gardens last week. As I pulled on thermals, several layers of fleece and my thickest socks I began to doubt my sanity! Temperatures were well below zero and I was the only person outside; other visitors were safely ensconced in the tropical steaminess of the orchid house or sipping hot coffee in the café. I wasn’t even too sure what to expect. I mean who has a garden that looks good in January? Certainly in our home gardens we can usually point proudly to a few berried bushes, interesting bark plus maybe a grass or two but the expectation is much greater for a large public garden.

Yet I was not disappointed.

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My first stop was the Monet pool.  Studded with dozens of water lilies in summer I had no idea what to expect in these arctic temperatures. The lake was iced cover disguised with a soft layer of snow yet the fountains were breathtaking. As the water continued to bubble up it had formed rippling ice sculptures, each like a miniature glacier, especially with their surreal mint julep glow.

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Japanese gardens are known for their restraint and year round beauty. Expertly pruned Japanese maples revealed their intricate branching structure now freed of their delicate foliage. These combined with assorted conifers, again lovingly pruned into open cloud formations and large granite boulders give the impression that this garden would look just as full in high summer as it did that day. Wooden bridges traversed the frozen streams while stone statuary adorned the lakeside. Presiding over it all was an enormous birch tree whose pristine white bark reflected the snow in this monochromatic winter garden.

 

Perhaps though I was most entranced by the undulating layers of grasses I found throughout the gardens. Crushed gravel pathways were lined by massed plantings of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), with color interest added by russet sedges (Carex species). Their billowing shapes softened the low stone walls and added a sense of intimacy, since it was not possible to see beyond them except for tantalizing glimpses. (See top photo)

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Giant silver grass (Miscanthus) towered overhead, the bleached foliage rustling dramatically in the slightest breeze. Ice crystals added diamond like sparkle to their feathery plumes. Standing alone, backed by a wall or juxtaposed with the bare, twisted branches of sumac (Rhus ) these were the most dramatic elements of the winter garden to my eyes and were worth my frozen fingers as I moved the tripod yet again trying to capture the perfect shot.

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Grasses also played a central role in smaller vignettes and I was particularly struck by a cactus seemingly corralled by Mexican feather grass in one of the drought tolerant gardens. A friend called this combination ‘Ambush’ which perfectly describes how these soft grasses have surrounded the wicked spiny paddles of the prickly pear. No escape!

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Was it worth the visit? Absolutely. I came away inspired to continue to develop my own winter vignettes and also to take the time to walk around my garden even on cold days. Certainly I look forward to spring but there is so much to appreciate at this time of year also.

 

Have you designed for winter?

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