Writing about winter gardening can be like reviewing an opera performed by singers wearing bags on their heads. Something is missing. But without the top notes, we could pay more...

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Writing about winter gardening can be like reviewing an opera performed by singers wearing bags on their heads. Something is missing. But without the top notes, we could pay more attention, hearing and seeing details that we otherwise would skip over. So too in the garden, winter brings subtlety to the scene, and it is our opportunity to tune in to it.

In the garden, the supporting role played by the color green is like the orchestra at the opera. It provides essential background and structure to the more vibrant colors. In winter, an entire range of greens stands out, emerging in rich chords. The fresh green of ferns stands out against the brown tone of fallen leaves and soil. The steely blue-green of an Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) plays against the deep emerald of an English yew (Taxus baccata).

At our imaginary opera with the star performers quieted, we would pay more attention to the sets, the physical space in which the story plays out. So too in winter we have the chance to see the overall design of our gardens. We can look at its bare bones and, if they don’t satisfy us, winter is a good time for making changes. Plants can be moved out of the way without harm. If necessary, elicit assistance from designers and contractors — they probably won’t have a waiting list this time of year.

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Once you have made changes in the layout, winter is a good time to put plants in the ground. They will start to grow as soon as the earth warms in the spring, and you won’t have to water them during the wet season.

Absent the visual stars of summer, we can be open to other senses. Today I heard the excited twitter of birds in a holly tree as I walked down the street, and I smelled the sweet fragrance of winter sweet (Chimonanthes praecox), the blossoms just beginning to open.

For me, the dark season starts with Halloween, and it is a good harbinger of winter. The skeletons abounding in decorations foreshadow the bare branches that come with leaf-fall. I admire the tracery of dogwood twigs and the fat buds of the lilacs foretelling spring flowers. Viburnum x bodnantense blooms by the door that I go in and out of every day, flowers bursting out of dark branches like tiny pink explosions.

At times I wonder why life can’t just be one golden summer afternoon after another — just get me back to bees buzzing, flowers blooming and those blue, blue skies. Then I am reminded that this is like wishing to be eternally youthful, a charming thought but impossible. We trade our youth for experience, and I remind myself that I am getting the better deal in the exchange.

The key to maturing is accepting where you are and making the most of it and celebrating the seasons as they come. I once read that there is no such thing as time, there is only change. Somehow this is soothing. Instead of seeing the past as years that have disappeared, I see them as real experience that has created the gardener and person that I have become.

As we venture through life, think of all the changes we have seen. Our gardens are a perfect example, a record of the alterations we have made to it and the forces of nature that have interacted with those changes. Like a top let loose from our string, our gardens spin on without our direct guidance.

With a new way of looking, I enjoyed taking a walk today and observing the changes winter brings. Each deciduous tree offered a new silhouette. Branches etched themselves onto the gray cloud cover. My plum tree danced into the sky, free of the leaves that hindered my view of its swooping joy.

I know that spring will follow winter and surely summer will follow spring. We’ll be back to those golden afternoons again. Meanwhile, I will pay attention to the turning of the wheel of the seasons and the melody it plays.

Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Call 206-464-8533 or e-mail thegardendesigner@seattletimes.com.