The Garden in Winter

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, that rimes the tawny pappus of goldenrod and aster seedheads.  In the woods at the edge of the 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 of 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.

In December comes a brief moment, lasting only for 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 seed heads 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.

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.

Winter days can pull the 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 come out of the woods and into the garden over 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 threw 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 a few other excuses to stay in the garden, absorbed by the magic of the place, until the knees start hurting and I begin to see the garden from Katharine White’s point of view.  Not half a hundred, but a sizable stack of garden catalogues 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.

Author’s Note:  The above post is from my upcoming book, The New England Gardener’s Year, coauthored by Marjorie Peronto and published by Cadent Publishing, Thomaston, Maine.  For more information about the book, visit us on Facebook,  Look for the ebook in December of this year, the print version in February, 2013.

Winter scenes like this make redvein enkianthus truly a four-season plant.

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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: