Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Winter Garden

So many gardening books seem to be written in the U.K., and I've got quite a few of them.  I used to be frustrated that they could garden essentially year round, while here in the northeastern U.S. we're frozen solid for 4 months of the year (and that's being appallingly optimistic).  Winter gardening?  What a joke, a complete oxymoron.  But the older I get, the more I value this season of rest, for the garden and for myself.

Winter is the season of bare essentials in the garden.  You can see only the bones of your gardening space - trees, shrubs, and hardscape.  It's stripped down to the bare minimum of color and form, and you can see at a glance where the strongest and weakest views are.  It's like taking black and white photograph, and looking at it for four months to tease out every nuance of shape and form.  (Well, okay, after a big storm and a muddy thaw, it's more like a sepia-toned photo - but you get the idea.)  Take the time to look around your garden space, and really think about its permanent aspects.  Does anything need to be moved, removed, added to or pruned?  This is the best season to really look at trees and shrubs, and many can be safely pruned now while they're dormant.  I took the hand pruners to our weeping cherry tree this week, after I removed the Christmas lights, because I could clearly see that it had multiple long whippy branches that needed to be cut back before spring.  (And, it was over 50F - too good to waste the opportunity to play outside in the garden!)  It looks much neater now, and will be a mass of white blossom in May.

Winter is the season of visions and dreams.  Now, while the world is monochromatic, you can imagine your garden through the seasons and start planning ahead.  The tidal wave of garden catalogs helps with this process.  The garden industry floods us with glossy closeups of old favorites, gaudy photos of new plant introductions, impossibly perfect manicured landscapes, unnaturally perfect fruits and vegetables in still-life tableaux, and enough ideas and gadgets to bankrupt even Martha Stewart or Prince Charles.  The hype is fun, the catalogs are a cheerful and welcome blast of color in January, and if you can get past the advertising fluff and blather you'll find all sorts of new plants and gadgets to ignite your creativity.  I used to save all my catalogs for the winter, but after a number of years of gardening I realized that I only ever order from a handful of them.  So, I look through the ones that appear in my mailbox, then recycle, throw out, or give them away, and hold on to my favorites for any orders I might want to make.

Winter is the time to take inventory, especially if you are a seed-sower/seed-saver.  It's good to keep some record of what you have planted in the yard, and make some kind of notes about performance each year.   Some years I've done that, some I haven't.  This year I want to start an inventory for this new garden.  (I haven't done one for this house yet, and I've plunked enough stuff in the ground by now that I really should keep track of what I've got.)  Last week I pulled out my seed box and went through EVERYTHING.  I don't like to throw out seed, but quite a lot of stuff was several years old and older, and I noticed that I had reduced germination during last year's winter sowing.  Now, age doesn't necessarily mean that seed isn't good.  Some seed stays viable for decades, some for 10 years or more, some for 3-5 years, some for just a single season, and you can check online for average viability for different varieties. (keywords:  seed viability table).  But this time my main criteria for getting rid of seed was, "Will I ever grow this?"  I had a large number of seeds from a seed exchange in early 2007, and much of it was unused.  So, I tossed it, and I'm left with a core of seed for plants that I really do want to grow.  I probably got rid of 1/3 of the seed I had, but now I can see what I really will use, and where I need to purchase new seed to fill in any gaps.

Winter is also a time to hibernate and read.  I read more garden-related books over the winter than any other time of year.  I got a new garden book for Christmas (I always get a new book or two at Christmas), and I'll also go back and read old favorites while the snow falls.  Sometimes I'm planning plant combinations and have to go look up things.  I also love good garden literature.  I can't imagine gardening without books - they go together for me, like pieces of an elegant puzzle.  Read, think, imagine, do (repeat).


Sweet garden dreams 
to all of you, 
my friends!


Peony 'Amalia Olson,' a gorgeous creamy white double flower.

Have you ever played that game with the paper folded into quadrants, like four pyramids that meet to make one large one?  Where each flap has a number or name or question on it?  You manipulate it with your fingers as your friends choose numbers or options to arrive at the answer to a question.  (I can't remember what those are called - if you remember, please tell me, or I'll wake up at 3AM thinking about it. . . .)  Anyhow, our daughter came home from school recently talking about doing that with a friend.  The four choices of action her friend gave her were, "Hug, Kiss, Kill or Make Out."  She's in third grade - where do third graders learn about making out?  I know, it's a silly little thing, but I was sad to have to explain to our daughter that "making out" is physical affection that leads up to sex, and that it really is not appropriate for her to talk about as a third grader, let alone play at choosing who she'd like to kill as part of a game.

Maybe our kids are a bit sheltered.  I can take that criticism; there's some truth to it.  But I'd rather shelter them moderately now and explain things to them as they mature and need the information.  Corrie Ten Boom, in her book The Hiding Place, had a lovely illustration of that parental responsibility.  While a young girl, she asked her father a difficult question about a grown-up topic.  They were walking, her father carrying a large suitcase.  He thought for a moment, then handed her the suitcase.  It was very difficult for her to carry, and after a few steps he took it back from her.  He explained that the answer to her question was like that suitcase:  too heavy for her to carry at her age, and that she would learn the answer when she was older and ready to carry the burden.  What a wise father!  I think that so often we burden our children with adult cares far too early in their lives.  Let them be children.  Adulthood lasts a very long time.