Winter Gardening - The Hard Work Really Starts Here

Winter Gardening - The Hard Work Really Starts Here

I was NOT thankful when I sat up Thanksgiving morning to find the ground covered with snow. OK - so it was only a light scattering, more like a dusting of powdered sugar than anything threatening. But to me it spelled something dismal. The gardening season is over.

Unfortunately, I am not done gardening. I have one full bag of 100 miniature daffodils to plant, not to mention some cyclamen and about 100 miscellaneous other bulbs. To top that off, I received an order on Tuesday that I had placed way back in August. And those are perennials - much more difficult to store than bulbs.

Some glimmer of an optimistic part of me keeps thinking that I will somehow manage to get these things planted. And I no doubt will seize whatever time I can on a day that seems tolerable and do just that. But the fact that it takes optimism to contemplate planting says more clearly than anything that gardening is over for the year.

So what do we do now?

From early spring on a great part of my day was spent touring the garden, joyfully greeting little noses of green that were poking up through the soil, then watching them grow, deadheading, sorting them out from the weeds. Or sitting in the garden inhaling the fragrance, watching the butterflies flit from flower to flower, simply enjoying the day, the warmth, the sun on my face - the sheer bliss of gardening.

Ironic, isn't it - that on the day set aside to give thanks for all of this, the season ends? So instead, I must be thankful for the gardens of summers past and the imagination and ability to dream that will carry me through the winter.

Already I am envisioning my next year's garden. It is glorious, bursting with health, color and fragrance. There are no awkward holes in need of filling, no lacy leaves riddled with Japanese beetle bites, no chipmunk and vole holes - not even any weeds. Enjoy this garden - it only happens in winter when there is no reality to contradict it.

This new garden will change endlessly over winter. Every catalog I pore over brings a bounty of new blooms to the beds - which conveniently leave as I find new things to plant in the next catalog.

The very contours of the yard change with each garden book that I page through. And it's personality goes from formal to informal to tropical and finally to heavenly.

This is when I pull out the garden journal that I neglected all summer. Mine is more of a dream journal, where I record all the inspirations that come to me in winter. Some are realizable - but never realized. Some are pure fantasy. But all send me to my books and catalogs once more, searching out the best plants and combinations of plantings to turn dreams into reality.

You might say I garden more intensively all winter than I do when I have trowel in hand. I know that I learn more, because I can never resist researching each idea to see exactly how impractical it really is.

For instance, my husband has a fantasy that began when I took him through Longwood Gardens last month. He fell in love with the round tower in a wooded area of the gardens and now wants a folly for our own yard. While he thinks about logical things like rock walls and staircases, I dream of the setting in which his dream jewel will be placed. And if the folly never materializes, I will still use much of that dream garden to make our woods less of a neglected jumble of weed trees and more a place with presence and a purpose.

My own fantasy last winter was to create a garden that gave the impression of being a stream running down the slope across the pond from our gazebo - as if it were the river that fed the (man made) pond. I searched out all manner of foliage plants in greens, blues and silvers - some to look like the foamy forth of rushing waters, and others to represent the more still waters beneath the surface. It hasn't happened yet - mostly because those slopes are mostly fill dirt over rubble, and very hard to plant in - but perhaps some day I can create a dry stream bed using the rocks that rest just below the surface. Same idea - different media.

I spent part of one winter trying to do something with the stone terrace off our kitchen. It is just enclosed enough that it could be made to resemble a New Orleans courtyard - except with northern plants. A few weeks ago I ran across the sketch my husband made as I described my ideas. It looked strangely familiar until we both realized that that plan could just as easily have been a sketch of my walled garden at the back of the property. Right inspiration, wrong garden - but it goes to show that our dreams are not wasted. They burst forth in unexpected ways, perhaps, or only in small segments - but those dreams, and the lessons we learn in our search to discover whether they could be realities feed our creative spirit and open us to ever-increasing possibilities.

This winter I will be dreaming and scheming about things to do to the half an acre or more of sharply sloping land in the side yard. I will probably start with beautifully terraced beds and stone walls and balustrades - and a waterfall gently descending to the street below, so shallow that I can walk down it. I was fascinated by exactly such a waterfall as a teenager hanging around the beautiful grounds of Cranbrook, which was located outside of Detroit, where I grew up. Not long ago, I found a similar cascade at Longwood, and was finally able to show my husband what I had been babbling about for two decades.

I may then scale down to something like dry stone walls and a rustic pergola at the top, replacing the waterfall with earth-packed steps held in place by upright fieldstone. But I will have a good time doing it and will emerge with some ideas that can actually be used.

That's how my gardens grow - starting with a grandiose idea is no problem when you are faced with four months of winter cold. There is no possibility of rushing into things. And so I wait, let the ideas take hold, discarding some, embracing a few and modifying others. This is how I can haul rocks and uproot major trees, create mountains and build pyramids - and STILL come into spring out of shape with soft, un-callused hands. By then I am exhausted from my grand schemes, all done dreaming and ready to get back into the dirt with a few good ideas that will make a difference in my garden schemes.

Isn't it nice how things work out?

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author