The Life of the Garden in Winter
The crystal times, the silence times
I’ll learn to love their quietness
When deep beneath the glistening snow
The black earth dreams of violets
– Judy Collins, “Fallow Way”
At first glance, it may seem as though there is no life in my Maine garden in mid-winter. Indeed, herbaceous perennial plants are said to “die back” in winter. But a closer look reveals the life of the winter garden.
First, those perennial plants are perennial because their roots are alive beneath the thick blanket of snow that protects them from freeze-thaw cycles. This period of dormancy is a time for them to gather their resources so that when they burst forth in spring, the plants will be larger than in the previous year. Through this miraculous process, I can expect the plants in my new fence border to “leap” this year, and those that seemed miles apart last year will fill in all that space with lush new growth.
With the herbaceous perennials hidden beneath the snow, the woody perennial shrubs in the garden take on greater importance. In the more subdued palette of winter, I can see life in the different hues of wood in these plants. The newer growth on the mock orange (Philadelphus) is a glowing jewel-toned red, while the forsythia takes on yellow-orange tones.
Not all the shrubs in my garden go dormant in the winter. I have two different varieties of evergreen rhododendrons that retain their foliage through the winter, and these turn out to be my most accurate winter thermometers. They curl their leaves to protect themselves from the cold, and the colder the temperature, the tighter the curl. If I want to know how cold it is outside, I just need to look at the rhododendron.
|This photograph was taken in temperatures between 5 and 10 F (-12 to -15 C). The leaves not only curl, but they droop. They look so pathetic, it’s hard to believe they will ever revive.|
|But later in the same day, after a snow that brought warmer temperatures behind it, they look quite perky.|
Plant life is not the only life in the winter garden. Winter is a great time to observe and appreciate animal life. Snow cover makes some animals easier to see. The fisher I have seen scurrying through my woods in winter is probably there in summer, too; but its sleek brown coat is very visible against the white backdrop of winter snow. Turkeys, too, are more visible in the winter woods. On one very cold day last winter, I glanced out into the back yard to see a group of wild turkeys hunkered down in the shelter of some trees. They had their feathers fluffed out for warmth, and they looked enormous!
Even when I don’t see the animals in my garden in winter, they leave behind the tell-tale signs of their tracks in the snow. A number of years ago, some friends gave me a guide to reading winter tracks, and it has given me many hours of enjoyment as I’ve learned to decipher who has been passing through my garden. The deer travel in fairly straight lines from point A to point B and their tracks are deep holes in the snow. The squirrels’ tracks are on the surface of the snow and show a lot of busy scurrying around. My favorite tracks are those of the fox. Because they put one foot precisely in front of the other, they leave a single line of tracks which can sometimes look as though someone has hopped around the garden on a pogo stick!
If you think there is nothing going on in my garden in winter, you’d be wrong. Those of us who garden in cold climates may not have flowers in the winter and we may not be able to go out and work in the garden, but we can enjoy the special qualities of life in the winter garden.