How to Turn the Brown Season Around

Saffron Flower

Our snow-covered winter days seem to be dwindling on either end of the season’s edges—the brown season of dormancy stretching on longer and longer each year. Plants and trees need soil temperatures to be above certain degrees for any growth to occur, so despite our lack of the fluffy white stuff, our growing season won’t extend quite the way our brown season will. Brown season starts as early as March and can extend until mid-May, returning by late October and lasting until the end of or past December. This potentially adds up to four months of the year, with the growing season being about the same amount of time. Given we only have a few inches of snow cover as I write this on an early February day (with 40 degrees Fahrenheit on the way tomorrow), this leaves us with some room for creative additions if we want to keep the landscape interesting.

There are many ways to keep the brown season thriving, and incorporating just a few can alleviate that muddy feeling we all have in November and April. Four-season interest items would include things like stones or rocks, artwork, people spaces, animal places, shrubs of dormant valor boasting textured or colored bark or berries, spring or fall bulbs, and even some perennials can keep the dull season from being lifeless. Being sure a few of these items are more than three feet off the ground helps with the topography of your space and will ensure they stand out amongst the snow we do get.

Large satellite stones, benches and other outdoor furniture, and winding gravel paths can be amazing foundational additions to any yard. Terraced edges of large boulders, rain trenches, or flowing dried riverbeds can lend strong lines and hold their ground all year long. Waterways carved out and filled with rock will melt sooner and freeze later than other ground surfaces, leaving more time for tread into dormant spaces.

Patios readied for winter with seasonal planters, optional heating or lighting, and some artwork can keep any space feeling friendly. Artwork that can endure our freezing depths would be made of wood, metal, or resin; be sure to avoid anything that could hold water. Folks could find respite around a firepit or some temperate furniture adorned with blankets. Birdhouses or nesting areas can create fantastic habitat building, while heated birdbaths make your house the dream for any wintering bird family. With more than 20 kinds of birds wintering in Wisconsin, they could provide great entertainment and some companionship through our brown time.

Shrubs or small trees are quite possibly the most efficient way to impact your dormant space, with certain varieties lending more to the beauty of dormancy than others. Exfoliating bark, such as birches, stewartia, or nine barks, can be captivating whether under ice, snow, or sitting dry. Birches, nut varieties, and several others have catacombs that last the whole winter through. Crabapples, highbush cranberries, aronias, winter berries, cotoneasters, and callicarpas will keep gorgeous berries until just before spring’s thaw. The right rose will be abound with bright orange hips. Other shrubs can have showy stems that color the landscape, versus texture it. There are hot-red and golden dogwood’s that keep fiery colors all season. Cherry bark has a dark spotted print; magnolias are elephant grey and smooth, with the canopy coated in large fuzzy buds; and aspen bark taunts a fresh green under an opaque finish. Witch hazel can bloom in either November or February for more than three weeks and comes in oranges, reds, and yellows. Oaks will keep their leaves until spring buds break the seal, dancing on the chilly breeze and frosting delightedly. Then, of course, there are the evergreens and coniferous groups which stay green all through the year. Yews may seem outdated, but are easy to prune back to interest. Mugo pines and curly white pines differ enough from their larger relatives to keep the variety high. Boxwoods hold a solid place, and the funkier spruce and chamaecyparis lend a more unique feel. Forsythia, redbuds, magnolias, crabapples, juneberries, and cherries color the landscape long before any leaves emerge.

Perennials are true summer lovers here in Madison, but some stand still, even dormant, while others lay green all season. Yuccas stand tall and green while ground sedums remain as is, poised for frost. Plants like grasses, echinaceas, monarda, and stiff asters can remain standing long after they’ve finished their season (it’s important to let them age three to five years before being left for winter interest, as ice buildup will crack the crowns on younger generations). Cutting them late April is just in time for new growth to emerge and allows your baby insects to emerge and sink into the soil. Some perennials, such as hellebores; bergenia; and ground covers, like wintergreen and ajuga, never really go dormant at all. They store any photosynthesis they can for early blooming and so remain green all winter long.

Bulbs are spring’s glory color for sure, with snowdrops and crocuses blooming right around thaw and extending through daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, alliums, and more. There are also fall crocuses that show an electric pale purple amongst November’s fallen leaves. Most bulbs are perennial for three to six years, so additions are needed to keep the bulb season glowing. Almost all bulbs are planted just prior to ground freeze for the next spring.

Another small thing that can drastically change the way your garden feels as it’s waking up is applying a thin layer of mulch on top of your fall leaves. This can help bulbs to have a fresher carpet while still allowing insects to come to life. Heavy mulching too late in the fall or too early in the spring will kill beneficial insects in their young stages. Mulching for the summer should ideally happen in June, when thrip-staged insects have aged to be strong enough and moved onto other life stages. Leaving your leaves in the beds adds quality nutrients and supports all sorts of microorganisms.

Our brown landscape doesn’t have to be boring, we just need to think outside the growing box and imagine more for your visual palette.

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI