The Garden in Winter

(Author’s Note: The following essay is composed of excerpts from The New England Gardener’s Year by Reeser Manley and Marjorie Peronto, published in April, 2013 by Cadent Publishing and distributed by Tilbury House Publishers, Thomaston, Maine.)

“As I write, snow is falling outside my Maine window, and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.”
— Katharine S. White

An early frost on the leaves of highbush blueberry.

An early frost on the leaves of highbush blueberry.

November brings the first hard freeze, the kind that forms ice needles on the bright red and yellow leaves of highbush blueberries and the still-green foliage of raspberries, the kind that rimes the tawny pappus of goldenrod and aster seedheads. In the woods at the edge of Marjorie’s Garden, the tamaracks are golden.

The vegetable garden sleeps, all but the beds sown to winter oats. They look out of place, out of season, bright green swaths of grassy leaves dripping rainwater into the soil, their roots mining minerals leached beyond the reach of tomato or squash roots. In spring we will turn over the oats and return those minerals to the roots of summer vegetables.

Leaves have all fallen, except for the dry brown leaves of garden oaks and the still-green leaves of a peach tree that has no inkling how to behave in a Maine garden. Persistent winter fruits, berries and seed capsules of the garden’s trees and shrubs, give reason to pause as I stroll around the November garden.

Snow-capped seed capsules of red-vein enkianthus.

Snow-capped seed capsules of red-vein enkianthus.

In December comes a brief interlude, lasting only a few hours, when snow works magic in the garden. Often it is early in the morning after the season’s first real snowstorm. I awake to a landscape of stark contrasts, snow packed in branch forks, dark green fir boughs bending under their loads, brown seedheads wearing gnome-like hats of white, clusters of golden seed capsules crowned with snow at the tips of enkianthus twigs, and the north-facing side of the old pine’s furrowed trunk whitewashed with wind-packed snow.

On such mornings the garden is mostly a blank canvas. The lines of the garden beds are buried, along with most of the herbaceous plants and smaller shrubs. Plants that catch my eye, like the enkianthus, do so because they offer contrast in color and texture to the whiteness. It is tempting to take credit for the sighting of the enkianthus, to say that we framed it with the fireside window for mornings like this one, to pretend to have that much foresight.

The honey-colored bark of yellow birch in the winter sun.

The honey-colored bark of yellow birch in the winter sun.

Winter days can pull a gardener away from the fire. Trying to stay on the invisible garden paths, I visit some of my favorite trees, the yellow birches with their shaggy honey-gold bark, a sight that always warms my heart on a sunny winter morning, and the old white pine. I wish we had planted a beech tree for the dried paper-like leaves that hang on through the cold months, giving voice to the winter winds.

Wild turkey tracks emerge from the woods and cross the garden after surmounting an old canoe propped upside down on cinder blocks. I find the snow shovel and clear a few square yards to nearly bare ground, then throw down cracked corn, hoping the turkeys will check back later in the day.

Suddenly it is snowing again, a shower of feathery flakes floating down from the high branches of a yellow birch where a single black-capped bird pecks at a sunflower seed taken from the porch feeder. Snow drifts through blue sky. Chickadee snow.

I find other excuses to stay in the garden, absorbed by the magic of the place, until my knees start hurting and I begin to see the garden from Katharine White’s point of view. A sizable stack of garden catalogs have arrived in the mail over the holidays. When tramping through the snow is no longer fun, it’s time to sit in a rocker by the fire and repaint the canvas outside the window.

Persistent Winter Fruits

From November until the midwinter thaw, the red berries of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native shrub, will brighten both woods and garden, as will the larger red fruits of the American cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. trilobum). Both of these provide late winter food for songbirds.

Some gardeners compete with the birds for the viburnum fruits, preserving them in jams or jellies with, I suspect, a lot of added sugar. After tasting these berries straight from the shrub, I understand why the birds eat them only as a last resort. I read that the winterberry fruits are also highly astringent and, as I think about it, I can recall winters in which the fruits of both plants were left to wither on the branches.

The gray waxy fruits of bayberry in winter.

The gray waxy fruits of bayberry in winter.

Not all persistent fruits are red and showy. The waxy gray berries of northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) hug its twigs through the winter, eventually to be eaten by songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. These are the same berries that we harvest for scenting of bayberry candles.

Winter seed heads of summersweet clethra.

Winter seed heads of summersweet clethra.

Not all persistent fruits are berries. The pale brown to red-brown seedheads of meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia) persist through winter, extending the usefulness of this native shrub in the garden. And I love to watch the snow build up around the summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) in Marjorie’s Garden until only the uppermost dried seedheads remain exposed. I imagine a field mouse beneath the snow, snuggled close to the ground with a cache of seed, waiting for the thaw.

Hunkering Down, Waiting for April

What a great snow! The garden is now covered with a foot-deep insulating blanket that will protect plant roots from killing temperatures, at least until the next thaw, and birds, including goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees, a male cardinal, and an American tree sparrow, are in a feeding frenzy at the porch feeder.

The Christmas tree is now in the garden, propped up by the root system of a fallen spruce, close to the spot where I clear away the snow and scatter cracked corn for the blue jays, mourning doves, crows, and wild turkeys. It was a good tree, a fir that Lynne chose on a street corner lot the day after Thanksgiving. It spent more than a month inside our home, presents wrapped in colorful paper accumulating under its branches. On weekends and during the holiday break, Marjorie and I sipped pre-dawn coffee by the woodstove and the light of this tree, listening to carols playing softly in the background.

Taking down the tree always saddens me. We remove the ornaments collected over the years, carefully wrapping each one in paper before packing them all away in boxes, then unwind the strings of lights, fir needles dropping at our feet as we circle the tree. Suddenly there is only the small tree, its trunk propped up in water that it no longer uses, and it drops a trail of needles as I lift it from its stand and carry it outside. For the rest of the day, there is the faint smell of balsam in a corner of the room.

If I lived in a city, I would never throw out my Christmas tree, never leave it at the curb with cardboard and wrapping paper. I would cart it into the closest woods, where birds could seek shelter among its branches, at least for one winter. This is the message of Brad Kessler’s tale, The Woodcutters Christmas. A small book perfect for a winter evening read, it tells the story of a night in New York City when abandoned Christmas trees cried out and a woodcutter’s life was changed forever. Read it before you take down your tree.

Despite the cold and the whiteness of the landscape, there are still tangible connections to the garden. Buckets of compost and wood ashes need to be emptied, and this means shoveling a long path through new snow to garden beds where the ashes are spread and then on to compost piles at the back of the garden. The piles are brick hard, and all I can do to cover fresh compost is throw on straw and cover it with snow.

A native bee next box capped with snow.

A native bee next box capped with snow.

So now it begins, the long wait for the start of the new garden year. Hunker down, place your seed orders, read a good book or two, take care of the garden’s birds. April will be here before you know it!

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)