At the Root

Story Felder Rushing

What gardener didn’t dread the end of Daylight Saving Time, when turned-back clocks plunged us into darkness before we were ready for winter’s dull embrace?

Me, I’m already over it. Changed the outdoor night-lighting timer, replaced frosted summer plants with cold-hardy flowers and spring bulbs, and topped off my bird feeder to bring color, motion and drama to the winter garden.

This time of year, greens and browns are much more noticeable, and can actually be used with élan. True, brown won’t be found in a rainbow — it’s a mélange of red, yellow and blue — and it’s sometimes thought of as a little dull. But color experts regard brown as a naturally warm, wholesome color that represents simplicity, friendliness and dependability. Think of the many hues that are in the brown spectrum: bronze, cinnamon, khaki, tan, beige, taupe, copper, terra-cotta; each has a distinct effect, especially when coupled with the many greens we enjoy in the Southern winter garden.

When plants and garden features are mixed and matched and contrasted in shapes and textures, there‘s more than enough color in greens and browns to command even the most color-obsessed person’s attention.

Still, for many folks the shorter, darker days of winter place a somber pall over their psyche. It’s a predisposition for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often called the winter blues, and characterized by listlessness, social withdrawal and even overeating.

Researchers lay blame for SAD on the brain’s under-stimulated pineal gland — the tiny “third eye” which René Descartes called “the seat of the soul.” With lower light stimulation during our dark, overcast winters, the gland produces less hormones to keep us upbeat.

One of the treatments for SAD is exposure to extra light. But gardeners may try another outlet: multi-hued glasses and bottles placed in windows or even directly in the garden to capture light and reflect color into otherwise dreary winter scenes. Those who have stained glass or even a simple bottle tree in the garden are proudly different from their neighbors — and are often happier as well.

Bottle trees, sometimes called “poor man’s stained glass,” can be made of dead trees, wooden posts with large nails, or welded metal rods simply stuck in the ground, then festooned with colorful glass bottles. While most are a kaleidoscope of colors, the most beautiful to me are all blue, or a gentler blend of green and clear bottles.

My favorite was made by metal artist Stephanie Dwyer of Jackson, whose fanciful creations grace gardens literally coast to coast.

They aren’t for everyone, of course, which is why we have camellias and other winter flowering plants. While I appreciate the browns and greens of my winter garden, I enjoy splashes of variegated foliage, including liriope, aucuba and euonymus. Throw in pansies, violas, purple kale, snapdragons, white dusty miller and silvery gray cardoon — and berries of nandina, pyracantha and hollies — and there’s color aplenty to keep my pineal gland stimulated to ward off the winter blues.