Home & Garden

Winter Beauty

In the Garden
By Edythe Falconer

Finding satisfaction in your winter garden

Another winter is just around the corner. As a weary gardener, I can finally put my feet up and relax.

While the winds of winter howl, I could join an army of armchair gardeners — all of us poring goggle-eyed over pages and pages of enticing pictures in plant catalogues. Maybe I could make a well-organized checklist, marking off the plants I really want, practical or not! You know how it goes — “I like it, so I will find a spot for it” or “I need more blue.”

Perhaps I could borrow books on landscaping with awesome styles I’m unlikely to duplicate. Books will tell me how to do things perfectly, more perfectly than is possible for me. But it is always fun to imagine perfection, refresh old knowledge and tuck away floral inspirations for next summer’s extravaganza. My own photos of gardens past can provide a pleasant and colourful winter escape.

But what I cannot enjoy while cuddled in my armchair, with or without my favourite tea, coffee or something stronger, is the satisfying sensation of hard work. Those days of muscles tensing, foot perched on my ancient stirrup-handled shovel, ready to dig into rich well-composted earth, or even into the tough spots in my clayey backyard.

Nor can I play martyr as sweat pours salt into my eyes, while I persist in working on a too-hot day in order to reach this year’s goals. Nor can I feel the anticipation of the future beauty of the seedlings that I’ve just gently snugged into the soil in their vulnerable infancy.

In my summer garden, my senses are alive —touch, smell, taste, vision, hearing, even the feel of sweaty gloves. In winter, I’m left with only faint dreams of freshly harvested vegetables, beds full of fresh flowers and the scent of freshly mown grass. Cold winter days present a conundrum for this gardener. Is it possible to find equal satisfaction in a winter garden, on fine cold days in November or sparkling days in January with temperatures below zero? I think it is! The winter garden — both indoors and outdoors — is the perfect foil for the utopia of my summer garden. I can match the wonders of my summer experiences with similarly satisfying activities in a winter garden.

I can revel in the lively activities of hardy winter birds at the feeders. Outdoors, I can be in the company of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, juncos and many more — all busy foraging for their winter needs. Squirrels and rabbits may annoy me from time to time, but they do provide great entertainment, especially squirrels when they try to breech the defenses around the feeders. Some are quite Olympian in their efforts!

During winter, outdoor plants are in survival mode, asleep beneath protective layers of fallen leaves and deep snow. Preserved by their own sturdy crowns and by the additional mulch I have applied, especially to those new to my garden, they can usually withstand the challenges of an Ottawa winter. But what about rabbits? They’re not asleep. Trees and shrubs need some protection if we want them back next summer. I can provide rabbit-proof winter jackets by wrapping them in a protective layer of burlap or felt — not plastic — it doesn’t breathe. This is best done when they’ve dropped most of their leaves in late fall. Certain pruning jobs are also best done when plants are dormant, and cuts can be more accurately determined. At the very least, I must remember to make sure that my tools don’t get snowbound in the back shed, inaccessible in early spring.

In winter, I can admire the beauty of leafless branches and bare trunks — trees proudly showing the bones of their summer selves — photography is a must: tricky photos of intricate seed heads, especially those with fluffy little snow caps are irresistible, little white gnomes poking their heads from under their snowy covers.

And there’s lots of muscle work in shoveling snow! As I shovel and dig in midwinter, with the heady neural perception of the scent of snow, my mind becomes a turmoil of possibilities — I could build snow people with my grandchildren to populate the garden, adorn evergreens with colourful vegetable and fruit leftovers for my furry and feathery winter guests. I can envision a brilliant display where every tree and shrub is festooned; with twinkling lights, colourful bird treats, or both, and saucy winking lights are hung over arches, gateways or pergolas for even more dazzle.

My grandchildren would probably enjoy hurling snowballs at a bull’s eye board and miniature luges would add to the action. I could cut a trail in the snow between parts of my garden — a surveyor path through the garden in order to monitor and deal with signs of animal damage. The shovelled-out paths could be part of a make-believe maze for the children.

But I can’t do everything every winter, so I have to choose. Winter jackets for vulnerable plants are a must and maintaining paths for regular monitoring of the garden will be my second important goal. The third will be adorning an evergreen with treats for the birds. Three goals are enough for this year.

I’ll be aiming for winter to be a breathtaking prelude to another sumptuous, sweaty summer.

Edythe Falconer has been a volunteer with Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton since 1999. Besides gardening, her other interests include quilting, writing and music. Working with her Master Gardener group has been a wonderful adventure.