We tend to create gardens for summer. We use plants that revel in hot full sun and plant to create pools of cool shade. Our focus on summer living risks making winter nothing more than the space between summers. That’s not fair; winter has its own garden treats to offer, best among them – shadows. Shadows are more striking in winter primarily because of the low angle of the light – at midday in summer in Sydney, sunlight streams in at in 80 degrees from the vertical. But by midwinter it’s slunk down to 56 degrees, and that means longer shadows thrown by the spare geometry of leafless plants.
Trees make the most dramatic shadow patterns, an exception being the leafless frangipani which is too stumpy to make a good shadow, but which nonetheless has a certain stolid charm when bare. If there are no deciduous trees casting shifting patterns where you are, consider remedying the lack. Winter is prime tree planting time: it’s no coincidence that National Tree Day is July 27. Sydney’s go-to deciduous trees with shadowy elegance are crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (the old-fashioned large ones have the best bark, but all colour well) and Chinese tallow wood, Sapium sebiferum. Also good are the small forms of Gingko, (with butter yellow fan-shaped leaves in autumn), and the ‘Osakazuki’ Japanese maples.
The best shadow patterns from deciduous trees are cast on a solid-coloured surface. In fact the way shadows are displayed on render might be the best reason to have rendered walls. Light-coloured paving or gravel also makes a good canvas for shadow sketches. In summer, lawn is a wonderful background for the shifting patterns of lacy trees, but in winter there’s not as much sparkle in the sunlight and the effect is not the same.
When a deciduous tree is not a possibility, shadow patterns can be added to the garden with the use of fixed features. A pergola could be roofed with an eye to creating a changing picture of shadow on a packed gravel or sandstone-paved floor. On a smaller scale, a carved screen could cast patterns on the floor of a courtyard or balcony. Laser-cutting makes such screens open to all kinds of designs. See what’s around at Garden Life, Eco Outdoor or Lump sculpture studio. Lump is a Melbourne-based sculpture studio which designs laser-cut corten screens as well as sculpture and water and light features. The studio’s ‘tree ring’ screens featured in the Australian Garden that won Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show last year. Of course there may be no need to shop at all to appreciate winter’s shadow play: the light slants, the shadow is thrown, we just have to see it.