winter gardens

The Disconnected Gardener

I have become disconnected from my garden. Yesterday I realized that I had no idea what was going on out there. During the active gardening season, I manage to take a walk around the place nearly every day, but since the period of short days and long nights began, it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I return. That leaves weekends, but lately I have been preoccupied by other things, and of course there’s winter inertia…

October and even November were full of activity, mostly cleanup — cutting down withered perennial stalks and raking up a zillion leaves. The compost pile is overflowing, or was last time I looked at it. Once it sinks a bit I’ll have to get out there and poke it with a crowbar to introduce air so as to avoid anaerobic decomposition, which produces slimy, smelly results.

But this morning, the garden has an abandoned look to it, I think — slightly dishevelled, with leftover leaves here and there, the oriental hellebores flopping their foliage all over the ground, not much in the way of colour besides tired greens and muted browns.

Tired Garden

Of course, here on the west coast, gardens never really go dormant the way they do in places with real winter, where snow covers everything for months. In my south-facing front garden, snowdrops are already poking up and will be blooming in January. The Corsican hellebores have buds that will open in the next couple of months. The place is full of bird visitors, from sparrows to hummingbirds (Anna’s), and there are a couple (maybe more) raccoons hanging around. Life is definitely going on out there, but just now I am not a participant.

This brings up the idea of the link between garden and gardener. So often, the state of one mirrors that of the other, although if the gardener goes out of commission and becomes a couch-dwelling lump or computer-fixated zombie, the garden really doesn’t care. Plants can look after themselves, for the most part. The place just gets messy, slowly losing the characteristics that distinguish it as a garden — neatness, tidiness, edges and selectivity. If it remains untouched indefinitely, a garden reverts to whatever it was originally — a forest, a Garry oak meadow, a piece of prairie. Of course, all the non-native plants introduced since the area was settled prevent a true return to nature. Then there are municipal bylaws about maintaining one’s property. Long before this happens, I know I’ll be out there again, engaging with the plants, the shrubs, trees and pond, dealing with the depredations of hole-digging, rock-rolling raccoons, being a gardener again.

On another topic entirely, I went to a most entertaining concert last night, of the Winter Harp ensemble — three harps, flutes, a variety of medieval instruments and an amazing, one-woman percussion section. Clad in jewel-toned velvets and silks, they performed Christmas tunes with a medieval/celtic twist, along with brief narrations on seasonal themes. Percussionist Lauri Lyster wielded an array of drums, shakers, bells, chimes, metal bowls and a clay pot with flair and precision. It was truly a feast for the ear and the eye.

Old Man Winter Revisits Paradise

Earlier this week I was planning to write a post about the arrival of spring. I mowed the lawn last weekend for the first time this year. There were crocuses, hellebores and even a precocious daffodil in bloom. Even though it was a month until calendar spring, it seemed to be under way here on southern Vancouver Island.

February 19, 2011

Then, four days later, this happened:

February 23, 2011

Between 20 and 30 cm. (almost a foot) of snow fell on Wednesday, February 23. Last night the temperature fell to -7 degrees C (19 degrees F), with a significant wind chill factor.

I admit it — we’re spoiled here. We think of “wind chill” as something that happens somewhere else. Many of us resent snow, especially in spring, already. The annual Flower Count is scheduled for next week! Snow isn’t supposed to happen.

But it did. And it’s hanging around, despite some melting during the sunny afternoon we had today, when the temperature actually approached 0 degrees C (32 degrees F). Tonight it’s predicted to go back down to -6. We won’t be back to normal (rain) until Sunday, and even then snow flurries are still in the forecast.

That daffodil? Like many in our slice of paradise, it’s not very happy right now.

February 25, 2011

Then there are the hellebores — a sad sight.

Before

After

Fortunately, they are hardy creatures that recover once things warm up, but in the meantime, I avert my eyes.

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