It’s January, the dead of winter by the calendar, but in California it is the beginning of spring. In our summer-dry climate, winter rains mean the landscape starts to come to life and gardens come alive. Yet the trees are still dormant, standing as sentinels as life is breathed into the earth and gardens begin to swell.
The energy seemed palpable in the best California native plant garden I know – the East Bay Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park, Berkeley. I waited for a friend by the entry gate in the Southern California Section – and noticed the winter trees. Off in the garden trees beckoned. Big, bare branch patterns waiting to fill my camera frame with texture.
I love this garden, in any season. But in winter I see the bones, the structure; the trees show why they define the garden. As a garden photographer I delight in finding trees in a mature garden, as they are the best way to promote sustainable gardens – visual, indisputable evidence that a garden has been sustained. The how and what for of sustainability is a long discussion for another day, but here in this garden, big old trees are just plain proof that native plant gardens can be beautiful.
Standing in the Southern California Section, the naked arms of a Black Oak tree (Quercus kelloggii) down the hill by Wildcat Creek in another section spread out to beckoning the camera. (On the Garden Map I am shooting from Section 0 to Section 1. I will refer to shooting locations throughout.) What a great pattern !
Oaks have got to be my favorite trees, but need to be used sparingly in gardens since they get so big. However, the more oaks we can plant, (they are native to almost every gardening climate), the more we create sustainable, long term garden settings for those who will inherit what we plant. Trees become oasis of habitat, provide shade and shelter, and like the Ents in Tolkein’s Middle Earth, trees command respect far greater than the humans who live under them.
I was surprised this one, darn near the center of the garden, was a Black Oak; it’s multi-trunk habit is unusual and its spreading crown made me think perhaps it was a small grove of alders. But really, it is much too big. Just a magnificent specimen, and situated in the low part of the garden, it is easily framed by the conifers across in the Sierran Section so that the pale branches stand out.
Because the Black Oak is in the center of the garden, is hard to avoid seeing it from any other Section looking back into the garden.
From the Juniper Lodge in the Sierra (Section 6) looking back past the Quaking Aspen, I see a Fan Palm all the way back in the Southern California Section where I started, across and above the ravine where the Oak lives. This is a marvelous point in the garden, and in winter the trees are the show.
In order to make a stronger, more graphic picture, I recomposed in the camera to crop out the palm and the pathway.
The trees are now the whole story with the Sierran Juniper (Juniperus grandis) and aspen (Populus tremuloides) flanking the Oak. This picture is now entirely different than the wider one preceding it. In the first one, by including the palm in the upper right side, and a bit of path in lower left, the frame is filled, wasting no space with another story.
I doubt I would have even noticed this composition in summer when the foliage would obscure the striking branches. Here in winter, the graphic elements of shapes and lines allow for a strong photograph.
Once I started noticing the bare trees, I found photos everywhere. Simply moving to the right past the Aspen a magnificent Buckeye tree (Aesculus californica) commands the southern edge of the garden across a lawn, that seems out of place here.
However that bright green lawn provided a special opportunity to create an image I have put in my gallery as an art print. There are several groves of aspen around this lawn area, and I found a spot where I could stack up their white trunks juxtaposed with the green.
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The red twig dogwood branches add just the right amount of color so that the abstracted version becomes a composition independent of the garden details. Print in the Store
On a previous visit to the garden when this sequence was photographed I spent many hours playing with the white bark of the aspen and the red of the Red Osier dogwood shrub (Cornus stolonifera or C. sericea). These were taken in February, still winter, but the color of the Cornus intensifies as spring approaches
At one point in my play, as I was trying out different lenses and focal points, composing for different amounts of red and white, and working with different areas of critical sharpness, I realized I should include this in my workshop lessons on lenses. This became part of The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop (lesson 4.2) and will be a Workshop Tip here in the Learning Center soon.
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I’m still not sure which I like best.
Back to my visit yesterday, I used the white bark of the aspens as a way to show off the branches of White Fir (Abies concolor).
The white becomes a wall behind the dark green conifer branches, a means to actually distinguish them.
Trees are a tough subject to photograph. Not only is it hard to find a vantage point far away enough to see the whole tree, they tend to blend in with other trees. Whenever there is an opportunity to juxtapose them, I look for photos. Which is why winter trees are so much fun for a garden photographer. Bare branch stand out.
This huge Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) would certainly not stand out when all the branches are green.
This next photo was almost a throw-away, but came after a long day of looking at the white shapes and the green conifers. The Mountain Alder (Alnus tenuifolia) was at the end of a shrub border with another deciduous shrub. I looked and saw the shapes and colors but did not think it would be a strong photo because the alder branches blended in with the other white branches.
Well, it may not be a great shot to help understand the alder, but as a combination of deciduous shrubs in an winter garden, abstracted with some computer work it became my favorite photo of the day.
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It is a print in the Store. Making it involved another sort of play.
More in the Camera and Computer section of the Learning Center.