After the first winters’ snowflake has lost all its dainty charm by reducing the garden to a pastiche of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, the marketing ploy “winter interest” begins to seem like some sick joke. My adorable husband introduced me to both the phrase winter interest and to the book The Road, an interesting coincidence.(Have you ever noticed how people who don’t like your art or your writing or your new haircut will say, oh, um, well that’s very…interesting? The term winter interest seems as suspicious to me as their politeness.) Thankfully, I read The Road in the summer. When I looked up from its pages I would see tomatoes and flowers and weeds. If I had seen winter interest I might not have survived.
Who coined this term and why did they do it?
The answer is that it seems to come from the British. They may be in earnest or they may just be having a little fun with the colonists, especially the loyal Canadians ones. Planning for the cold season with hellebores in bloom and actual leaves on your rhododendrons is all fine and dandy when the worst you can expect is a zone 7 chill, but try keeping cheery when you’re buried under three feet of zone 5 snow. Optimism fails under the weight of it.
It’s true the angle of the light in winter provides a stark photographic brilliance to everyday scenes. It’s true the black branches of leafless trees contrast poetically with the white sky. And just before the evergreens begin to look like fat tourists carrying too many suitcases, their branches lilt gracefully under a sugary coating of snow. Winter imposes a beauty on the land that asks all things to turn inward, and to rest. But this is America. We don’t rest. Winter interest has been adopted by our garden centers and landscape designers to convince us to never stop working and never stop shopping. Winter interest implies you can’t let the garden go to hell in the winter, the way nature intended it.
I for one plan to let my garden go to hell in a handbasket this winter, au naturel.