The Rigors of Winter Begin

Here on Canada’s west coast, the first snowfall always seems grossly unfair. “It’s not supposed to do that here!” we grumble, looking frantically for ice scrapers and snow shovels. This year’s first snowfall was kind of early — mid-morning on November 22. The interesting thing was that the temperature dropped significantly from 9 a.m. to after noon, from -2 Celsius to -5. This meant that the snow didn’t turn to slush in short order, even on well-travelled roads. It became ice instead and traffic chaos ensued. Now, four days later, the snow is pretty much gone, but its effects linger on.

I thought my garden was ready for winter. I had brought inside a few frost-tender plants I wanted to preserve, and wrapped up the pot containing the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff.” Its ungainly overcoat is made of an old bath mat, toilet clothes — an absurd invention if ever there was one — and bubble wrap, topped with a couple of old car floor mats. This wrapping has saved the dahlia through several winters during which the temperature hit -8 C. On November 23 it flirted with -10 C, so I’m a bit apprehensive, but won’t know until spring whether the Bishop has survived.

Pot with Dahlia and Senecio wrapped for winter

That’s the thing about these cold-and-snow events — you often don’t know what damage they’ve done until months later, when plants that were teetering on the border of winter hardiness fail to come up. I leave dahlias, both potted and grown in the ground, out all winter, and they have survived for years. I used to half-bury pots with various perennials and shrubs in the vegetable garden, but got lazy and now just move the ones I suspect are especially tender close to the exterior walls of the house, where they may have a bit more shelter than in the open garden. Somehow I haven’t had any devastating losses — yet.

What is immediately distressing after the first snow is the decline in the aesthetics of the garden landscape. It’s one thing to see bare trees and cut down stalks replacing summer lushness, but that’s just the transition to the autumnal scene. The basic structure of the garden is still there. Until this week, leathery hellebores and stalwart ferns maintained spots of living green among the dormant perennials and fallen leaves. Today everything looks battered. Hellebore leaves lie flat on the ground, fern fronds are broken, making tent-like messes around the crowns of the plants, and blackened flags of Japanese anemone foliage stir feebly in the breeze.

Winter wreckage in the perennial border

As with most garden-related distress, the solution is to do some work — cut down anything that looks really ugly, like acanthus foliage turned to mush and the dessicated, broom-like stalks of Gaura. Saw down the mulleins that are way past their best, looking like pathetic scarecrows. Rake out the leaves packed in between perennial stalks by the wind. Pull out or straighten leaning stakes and cut down or tie up whatever it is that they were supporting.

Inevitably, moving around in the garden, doing whatever needs to be done, improves the gardener’s outlook. As you work among the plants, you see things that don’t look too bad, despite their seasonal decline. Once the worst offenses to the eye are dealt with, you even find a few sights worth admiring. As always, the gardener serves the garden, and vice versa.

Mixed border going into winter

Pot with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum by icy pond


  1. And I thought life was tough at 39 degrees. You are living in a freezer. Great excuse to throw a few more logs in the fireplace:) Here in the SF Bay Area we have days where we aren’t even supposed to use our fireplace no matter how cold it is. Yet people need warmth. Swing on by my site sometime. I’m a fellow Smashwords author too:) YAY!!!


    1. Well, yes, it was pretty cold for a week or so. Minus 10 C is 14 degrees F, so if you find 39 cold, 14 would be downright arctic. The thing is, that’s pretty abnormal for us here, and since then we have returned to normal — lows of 2 C (36 F) and highs of 7 C (45 F). Of course, this is supposed to be a La Nina winter, so who knows what will happen. Right now we are getting SE gales of 30 knots, but no snow at least.


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