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This time of year is bare.

Cold, biting winds cause life to recede. The birds and the bees are nowhere to be seen. Leafless branches fill the forest - moaning now, rather than swaying in the breeze.

Interestingly, though, the eye can see things now that are hidden in the flush of summer leaves. Our view expands. Both trash and treasure are no longer out of sight.

With the flowers and greenery gone from your yard, what remains? Structure.

Structure is the name given to trees, bushes, rock walls, fences – the more permanent aspects of your yard and how those elements relate to one another. This is a good time of the year to get a unique perspective on the placement of those elements and decide what you may want to change or add.

With a few extra minutes in the late January afternoons, take some time to walk around the yard and see how those elements are holding up. Do they anchor your property – or look out of sync? Do they add interest to the landscape – or look lonely and out of place?

You may even want to take a camera out with you and snap a couple pictures from different views. Of course, curbside is a view you want to pay attention to, but also, right out from your front door – do you like what you see in the winter?

One way I always judge the yard is how it looks when the snow falls. With a little white-wash, your eye tends to focus on the structure. Here again, is the placement pleasing? Does your landscape have interest without all the blooms? Are there bushes that have become overgrown and might need to be pruned or replaced?

You could also take a walk around the neighborhood (or a neighborhood you admire) and take note of what other yards in your area look like at this time of year. If I see something I really like, I’ll snap a picture – discreetly of course, trying not to look too creepy. Unlike landscapes you may admire in a magazine, those nearby will have plants and ideas that will likely thrive in your area. (Always write down a few notes, because you’re sure to forget what you saw come time to plant.)

Good structure can take a yard from average to admirable. This is one reason landscape architects exist. Usually hired for public parks or corporate properties, landscape architects are multi-disciplinarians who consider site planning, design, storm water management, soil conditions and other environmental needs of larger projects. Most homeowners can’t really afford to hire a professional, but often times reputable nurseries will include a landscape designer – especially if you are starting at the beginning of a project or planning to spend quite a bit of money at their establishment.

I tend to stick with books or websites I can refer back to – with my primary focus on designing what is pleasing to my eye. The overall plan doesn’t have to be what you plan to do in the spring, but it can be tackled piece by piece as time allows. Making a plan for your structure/hardscape, though, is worth your time and energy.

Because just like with life, the bare times don’t define us. There are sure to be seasons of sickness or retirement or empty nest or some other type of stark change where life looks bare and empty. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could use the opportunity to assess what is trash and what is treasure?

Rather than just jumping into the next season and filling our life up again with things to do, the bare times afford us the chance to look at what anchors our life and make some changes if necessary.

Just like the Master Plan that a professional draws up for a grand manor, your life has a purpose and plan that may become more evident when the leaves are stripped. It may just be that you can clearly see the Master Gardener’s hand.

"What a severe yet master artist old Winter is.... No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel." ~John Burroughs, "The Snow-Walkers," 1866

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