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The Life of the Garden in Winter

January 21, 2011

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”

The garden in winter (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) 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.

Red color on new growth of mock orange (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Yellow wood on forsythia (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

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. Curled and drooping leaves on rhododendron (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
The same rhododendron leaves at warmer temperatures (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) But later in the same day, after a snow that brought warmer temperatures behind it, they look quite perky.
The leaves on this variety of rhododendron don’t droop in the cold, but they curl up very tightly. It was about 10F (-12C) when this photograph was taken. When it gets down to –10F (-23C – not uncommon on cold winter mornings), these curl so tightly that they look like needles. A different rhododendron with tightly curled leaves in the cold (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

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.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2011 10:16 pm

    lovely reminders for the winter gardener…

  2. January 22, 2011 12:35 am

    I’m on my way up to our garden now and can’t wait to see what it looks like without the snow; another wonder of gardening in cold climates is that you can almost forget that those white piles are actually plants laden with snow, or even which shrub is under which pile!

    And yes, animal tracks. A beautiful – if temporary – ornament in any winter garden. Perhaps more beautiful for its fleeting nature?

  3. January 22, 2011 2:28 am

    I think gardeners in the colder climates will be searching for their back-door keys after reading your post. Beautiful pictures & writing.

    • January 30, 2011 2:41 pm

      Donna and b-a-g, Thanks for visiting and for your positive comments.

      Soren, I can’t believe that the snow is already gone where you are. Even in my southern PA garden, I think it will be weeks before we see bare ground again.

  4. January 22, 2011 7:28 am

    Ah, I saw a lot of that leaf curling behaviour this year, on evergreens and on my Oakleaf Hydrangea. The latter seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that it is an evergreen, and denied me the lovely fall colours I bought it for in the first place. I think I forgive it as the leaves are so wonderful and have recovered well.

    • January 30, 2011 2:44 pm

      Janet, Thanks for visiting. I used to be alarmed by the leaf-curling behavior; but I eventually figured out that this is just the equivalent of the plant curling up in fetal position for warmth and that the leaves uncurl as soon as it warms up. I’ve never seen a Hydrangea do this. I wonder why they didn’t drop their leaves in fall?

  5. January 22, 2011 10:53 am

    Your post is a good reminder of the wonders all of us northern gardeners see when we venture into the outside world.

  6. January 22, 2011 11:22 am

    Lovely post Jean! Great points about the life that continues on in our winter gardens. Boy is it about to get really COLD! I hope all the life will breathe deeply and stay protected. Keep warm . . . though you must be back to your milder climate! Have a good weekend.

  7. January 22, 2011 2:58 pm

    I always enjoy your writing, Jean. So much winter activity–both visible and less so–is clear in your post by your words and photos. Those rhodies sure do know how to curl;-) There is so much ‘unspoken’ brilliance in mother nature’s design…she just knows how to do her stuff, without any of our help along the way;-)

    • January 30, 2011 2:48 pm

      Joene, Carol, and Jan, Thanks for the kind words. I do think it helps to be reminded that the fallow period is not a dead time and is good for our gardens. Carol, I am back in my milder climate (classes started week before last), so I don’t need the reminder as much as Joene does with all those feet of snow in Connecticut. Jan, it is humbling to be reminded of how much we are tempted to take credit for in the garden is not our doing at all!

  8. January 22, 2011 8:53 pm

    I too used to use my rhododendrons for thermometers until the deer ate them all. Now I can always look at my Italian arum. Thanks for reminding me that a lot is actually going on in winter. I love the snow though so I am happy. It’s snowless winters I hate.

  9. January 23, 2011 5:54 am

    A lovely post, Jean. Winter in New England has taught me how to truly appreciate the changes that take place through the shifting of seasons. In addition to the wildlife, I also enjoy observing the light and shadows which seem much more prominent against the winter landscape. And, I enjoy the quiet of the garden while it is covered in its wintry blanket – everything appears fresh and clean. It is a time to sit back and enjoy the garden without thinking about weeding, pruning and tidying. 🙂

    • January 30, 2011 2:56 pm

      Carolyn, I figured I wasn’t the only one to figure out how good rhododendrons are as indicators of temperature. (I don’t even need to find my glasses first thing in the morning in order to “read” what they’re telling me.) I’m sorry to hear that the deer ate all yours. I’m lucky that deer damage in my Maine garden is not a serious issue because the deer still have lots of wild habitat available. They do trim back my variegated euonymus each spring, so that it’s exactly the same size now as it was when I planted it almost a decade ago, and I’ll be interested to see whether they “prune” the clematis growing on the fence for me in spring. If you like snowy winters, you must be one of the happiest people in the greater Philadelphia area this year and last!

      Liisa, I hadn’t consciously thought about how much more dramatic the light and shadow effects are in winter. I suppose the white of the snow contributes a big part of that drama, but that it’s increased by the fact that there is no dappled shade from deciduous leaves in winter.

  10. January 23, 2011 8:32 am

    How exciting to see the fisher!

  11. gardeningasylum permalink
    January 23, 2011 10:15 am

    Jean, You are so right, life goes on whether we take the time to observe it or not. I love especially the animal tracks all over the yard this time of year – it’s fascinating to look at the prints and where they go!

  12. patientgardener permalink
    January 23, 2011 1:27 pm

    I think your Rhododendrons are wonderful, our temperatures dont drop as low – well not so far but if they do I will not panic if my plants behave in the same way. As for animal tracks when we had snow before Christmas I was fasincated at the tracks in the front garden – I eventually worked out they were fox and squirrels

  13. January 23, 2011 4:02 pm

    Please, what is a fisher?

    • January 30, 2011 3:01 pm

      Cyndy, I enjoy both the animal tracks and the visibility of the animals themselves in winter.

      Diane, It was exciting to see the fisher (not a common sight for me).

      Diana, a fisher (Martes pennanti) is a medium -sized native American mammal (about 1 meter long), in the weasel family. They were traditionally trapped for fur.

      Helen, I panicked the first time I noticed my rhododendron leaves curling up, but no need. Temperatures below -20 C are pretty common in my Maine garden in winter, and the leaves always recover as soon as it warms up. They only curl when it is below freezing.

  14. January 23, 2011 5:40 pm

    Hello dear,

    Brrrr, but it is so wonderful for me to see the twiggy shrubs, all ready to burst into life come spring.

    I have never seen the rhodie’s leaves curl like that. Isn’t Mother Nature amazing? Thank you for teaching me about this.


    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  15. January 23, 2011 8:13 pm

    I appreciate having time to contemplate the little changes in your garden. I suppose that you could say that the less there is to look at, the more you see. Winters like yours and slow times of year in my climate are great chances to see the subtle shifts and differences that we’re distracted from seeing during times of year when the garden is growing more robustly.

  16. January 24, 2011 9:57 am

    I so enjoyed this post! I always “stare down” my garden in winter and think about what is going on out there … inside the buds, underneath the snow, deep in the soil, inside the mason bee house. A book I am enjoying (and an author I enjoy), is entitled Winter World, The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich. It is fascinating the way animals and insects keep warm and survive the winter. I do hope to add a rhododendron to my garden eventually – what a beautiful weather gauge!

    • January 30, 2011 3:08 pm

      Sharon, The twiggy shrubs are wonderful. This week, just before a big snowfall, I went out to my back garden in Gettysburg and cut some branches of forsythia for forcing. And suddenly this week, I can see lots of “twigginess” and color in the deciduous trees around my neighborhood here. I’m guessing you’ve never had an opportunity to spend time on your Maine island in winter. If you do, I’m sure you’ll get to see the leaves curl!

      James, I agree that it’s important to have times when we slow down and look much more closely at the small things in the garden.

      Violet Fern, I’m a Bernd Heinrich fan, but I haven’t read Winter World; I’ll have to look for it. My favorite books of his are A Year in the Maine Woods (naturally :-)) and The Geese of Beaver Bog.

  17. January 24, 2011 5:28 pm

    How funny, I now have visions in my head of a fox hopping about on a pogo-stick! I find it quite fascinating how plants adapt to weather extremes. I must admit, usually when I’ve seen such droopy rhododendron leaves, the prognosis has only been fair, but I was impressed to see how quickly they bounced back once the weather warmed.

    • January 30, 2011 3:14 pm

      Clare, The pogo stick image came to me the first time I saw fox tracks at my house. There were no other tracks in a fairly deep new snow — just this regularly spaced, single line of tracks that went three-quarters if the way around the house.

      I wonder if your droopy rhododendron leaves don’t bode well because they are a reaction to lack of water rather than to cold.

  18. January 25, 2011 10:43 am

    Hi Jean, I love all the same things you mention about a garden in winter, especially when snow-covered. The birds are more visible, the flowering shrubs often have very attractive bare branches, and it seems like a miracle that all those perennial roots are down there waiting to emerge. And then the snowdrops start to peek out!

  19. January 25, 2011 10:47 am

    I enjoy reading your posts for it transfers me to a clear serene atmosphere, now that here we are inmerse into the greyness of last days of January. Uplifting writing, I can hear the whisper of vegetation trying to awaken!

  20. January 25, 2011 6:06 pm

    I can tell your winters are colder just looking at that rhodie picture. Ours do curl back a bit, but not like that. I’d love to see the foxes and turkeys in your yard, so different from what we see here.

  21. January 26, 2011 12:15 pm

    I always love how clean and sparkly a garden looks under a foot (or more) of snow!

    • January 30, 2011 3:21 pm

      Barbara and Lula, It will be a while yet before I have any awakening vegetation start to peek out. I don’t have snowdrops, but I do have crocuses in my Pennsylvania garden, and those will probably start to appear in another month or so.

      Catherine, I definitely have colder winters than you do. I’m guessing that you can grow many varieties of rhododendron that are not hardy here. I especially enjoy seeing the wildlife in my garden in winter, in part because I don’t have to spend my time trying to keep them from eating my plants! One Thanksgiving morning, I looked out to find about 30 turkeys in my front yard — which I thought was rather brave of them. 🙂

      Byddi, There is really nothing to compare with the way the world looks with a fresh, clean coat of snow. One evening this week, I walked home from work in the evening just as a day-long snowstorm was winding down. It was just magical to be out in that fresh, silent, sparkly world.

  22. January 29, 2011 4:54 am

    Jean – I was wishing for a letter to a new Blotanist. I find your insights as a professional sociologist eye-opening. You make aware of the things beyond what I don’t agree with, taking me to things I never thought of. Beyond I do it this way because, to she does it THAT way BECAUSE. And I know you could play with ‘one size fits all, NOT!’ Put it in your muse-basket for one day … Have a good academic year, and I look forward to whatever blogging you can share with us along the way. (With your imaginary eye looking over my shoulder I have toned down my current post from a fulminating rant, to one which is perceived as – how kind …)

  23. February 15, 2011 3:19 am

    No snow in my winter here new Zealand. But I am going to learn to love the bleakness. A good project for May to September.

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