In the dead of winter, landscape designer James DinsmoreÂfs garden comes alive with a special beauty
by Jay Blotcher
When winter arrives with signature fury in the Hudson Valley, gardeners tend to retire indoors. Many think of the season as bleak: monotonous whiteness if it snows, grey if it doesnÂft. But James Dinsmore, an Ulster County landscape designer, says that by planting the right varieties and installing structural elements, you can ensure enjoyment of the garden throughout the cold months.
Dinsmore, 52, has been gardening since the age of eight, but the California native was attuned to the sunny climate of his home state. When he moved to Manhattan three decades ago, he had to learn about plants that would survive our Northeastern winters, while also providing the color and variety he was used to. ÂgLiving in the city, my outlet for gardening was as a volunteer at the gardens of St. LukeÂfs Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village,Âh Dinsmore says. ÂgI learned from talking to local nursery owners, and people who lived in the area who had gardens, and from looking around and seeing what grows well.Âh
His job as an antiques dealer kept him in town during the week, but on weekends Dinsmore retreated to the Hudson Valley. After a while, he began looking for a plot of land where he could create his dream garden. His search ended in 1990, when he found the seven-and-a-half-acre plot in Olivebridge that is now his home. ÂgI was looking for a cleared lot, because I wanted a blank canvas,Âh he says. ÂgBut one of the things thatÂfs nice about this property is that it has a bit of everything: a large open area, some woods along the road; thereÂfs a pond, a stream, flat areas, steep areas. So you could do any kind of garden you wanted. And unfortunately,Âh he jokes, ÂgIÂfve tried to do that.Âh (ÂgUnfortunatelyÂh because he does all of the work.)
It took Dinsmore 13 years to carve out the garden and build his house, which he designed himself. (Not only is the garden organic, but the two-story house, with its Gothic Revival influences, is equally earth-friendly. As few of the buildingÂfs materials as possible contain noxious chemicals.)
Dinsmore designed his garden along traditional English lines, dividing it into several separate areas. ÂgItÂfs a formal layout, with garden rooms and hedges, geometric shapes and symmetry. ItÂfs like looking at a pattern,Âh he says. ÂgWhen the perennials die back, that geometric layout becomes more obvious and looks beautiful, I think.Âh Planning for year-round beauty, he chose shrubs and trees, trellises and arches, fountains and sculpture that lend character to the property.
One area has Italianate influences, including a double row of columnar junipers. ÂgThey give the effect of cypresses, which donÂft grow here,Âh Dinsmore remarks. At the end of a dry stone creek stands a copy of a Roman statue: a maiden carrying a water jug that Dinsmore says he thinks of as ÂgRebecca of the wells.Âh Nearby are a fountain and a birdbath.
Dinsmore is a perfectionist, but he is also a realist with a straightforward gardening philosophy: never make more work for yourself than you have to. ÂgI only plant things that are hardy to zone 5 or lower,Âh he says. ÂgWith a garden this size, and my working on my own, I donÂft have time to coddle anything.Âh He plants tree and hedge varieties that grow only to desired heights and shapes, so he doesnÂft have to spend time shearing and pruning. Columnar yews, for instance, grow tall and slender, as do columnar oaks. A hedge of Rhamnus frangula, which maintains its natural shape with very little pruning, forms the walls of one garden ÂgroomÂh and casts strong shadows on the snow during winterÂfs short but intense days. ÂgThe best light occurs in the winter, when the skies are unclouded and a crystal-clear azure,Âh Dinsmore remarks. A weeping beech in the center of this room loses its leaves but maintains its color in winter, too, Âgresembling a purple obelisk.Âh
ÂgEvergreens anchor a garden,Âh notes Dinsmore. A circle of boxwoods dominates one area, setting off a weeping mulberry, whose graceful form is even more evident when its leaves drop. ÂgAs I was designing the garden, I selected things like red twig and yellow twig dogwood that have beautiful colored branches that contrast with the snow, and trees with interesting shapes and bark,Âh he says, pointing out the plane trees, with their mottled bark, and the spiral branches of the corkscrew willow. ÂgStar magnolias have flower buds that set in late fall and look like pussy willows all winter,Âh he adds.
Trees and shrubs with berries attract birds and animals, which Dinsmore calls the Âgmoving ornaments in the garden.Âh He has planted crabapple, ornamental ash, and viburnum, as well as different varieties of holly. Similarly, the leaf buds of the weeping Cercidiphyllum swell and turn red in late winter, which Dinsmore says make it look Âgas if it were strung with red jewels.Âh
Four perennial gardens each have a different color scheme, and Dinsmore added to all an element that reminds him of those colors in winter. In one, massive blue earthenware pots are emptied and upended for the season. The yellow garden is planted in an x-shape that forms four triangular beds where golden arborvitae are planted. In the Âghot colorÂh garden, metal sculptures are painted red, yellow, and orange.
Dinsmore found a massive slab of bluestone on the edge of the property and persuaded a construction worker building a house nearby to relocate it for him with a backhoe. ÂgIt took an hour for him to move it,Âh Dinsmore remembers. It now rests at the end of a path like a piece of sculpture, with each yearÂfs frosts increasing its surface complexity. By the pond bordering the road, Dinsmore has planted Petasites from Japan. No matter how unforgiving the weather, this perennial is one of the first to flower, sending up its odd, purple, spiked blooms in March, when the worst of winter is over.
Dinsmore continues to experiment with plant combinations. ÂgIÂfm always tinkering and replanting,Âh he says. The transplanted Californian has developed an appreciation for his Hudson Valley home. ÂgThere is a wonderful variety and change that happens in a garden throughout the winter. It can be as beautiful as any other time of the year; its beauty is just more subtle.Âh ÂÂ¡