Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Gardener in Winter

It’s January. The wind is howling. The rhododendron leaves are curled and pointing straight down. Inside, it’s cozy. And what’s shown up in the mail? Garden catalogues!

I page through them, looking at the splendid plants and flowers, longing to be able to get out in the garden and work.

Of course, I remind myself that since I’m getting older, I really can’t work in the garden the way I’d like to. “Don’t kneel,” the orthopedic surgeon said. How am I supposed to weed if I can’t kneel?

And I became convinced, years ago, that the pictures in the catalogues are of professional flower models, not the ones that would grow if I ordered and planted those particular varieties. It’s just like clothes in a catalogue—the people wearing them are not only professional models, but the pictures have been airbrushed to perfection. If I order the clothes in the catalogue and put them on, I will look no more like the pictures than the flowers in my garden will look like the ones in the catalogue.

A weak winter sun is out, but the snow cover is scant, providing no protection whatsoever to the perennials
Squirrels, mice and moles
leave the daffodils alone.
wintering over in the ground. How many of them will actually survive? I covered them over with leaves and straw, but the wind is wicked, and, as far as I can tell, all the leaves and straw are now piled up in near the front door, ready to be tracked inside.

I did get some bulbs planted last fall. Mostly daffodils. My husband, who has some degree of colorblindness, can’t see yellow and orange. I’m not entirely sure, but I think they appear to him as shades of gray. So he’d rather I plant bright red and purple tulips, which he can appreciate.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I have gotten fine, healthy tulip plants, their sturdy stems sporting buds about to explode with color. And, the next morning, each bud has been bitten off, leaving ranks of empty, sturdy stems like so many soldier in drab khaki standing in formation.

Same thing happens sometimes with the daylilies. Strong plants, each with multiple majestic scapes rising flowerless above the leaves.

Deer will eat most plants.

Many of the evergreens are bare to the height that deer can browse, then fill out above. One especially snowy winter, I looked out the window to see a doe standing on the back deck, showing her fawn how to lean over the railing and eat the shrubs from above.

Most years, they leave the hosta alone, but once in a while, those, too, become fodder for the deer. Sometimes they come back the next year. Sometimes they don’t.

Ever since I lost a Japanese maple to a buck who chose it for repeated rubs, I encircle the base of trees I especially want to grow with chicken wire. That works pretty well. It also works well to disable the mower if it’s pulled off the tree and left in high grass or weeds. And there are two trees with chicken wire now embedded in the trunks, where I forgot I had placed it.

Still, I’m ever hopeful. And gullible. I eagerly read the catalogue descriptions of the flowers and believe them. Frost hardy! Tolerant of drought! Blooms in semi-shade! I have a blind faith that, if I buy them and plant them, I, too, will have a garden filled with thriving plants and flowers.

Meanwhile, the mice are undoubtedly chewing up the wiring of the mowers. The squirrels have long since dug up the crocus bulbs. The forsythia is preparing to set buds just prior to the last prolonged hard frost, which will kill them and mean a year without their shower of welcome yellow blooms. 

I did remember to disconnect the hose from the outdoor spigot before it froze, didn’t I?


  1. LOL, KM. I used to garden a lot when my children were little and went outside to play. I had to do something and figured I'd put myself to good use. But time after time I experienced disappointment. The topsoil in Northern VA was carted off and sold by the developers. Unconscionable, in my opinion, having been raised in South-central PA farm country. So after a few years of knocking my head against the rocks, I stopped. But we did have clay that reminded me of how easily the women of the Algonquian tribe could have a complete set of dishes within a few feet of wherever they stood. The brownish red wouldn't have suited my preference of dishware colors, but I'm sure they didn't mind.

  2. Kathleen, I idly thumb through perennial magazines while I'm cooking dinner or sitting on hold. New, improved, bigger blooms, stronger stems, longer-lasting flowers! Tempted, but not interested.

    I have deer, too, the smaller tree trunks wrapped in corrugated plastic drain piping. Daffodils, but no tulips.

    Cincinnati yellow clay soil bakes to rock hard with half-inch cracks during the summer. During the spring digging season, I can make softball-sized balls of the stuff.

    I discovered, quite by chance and with a dash of laziness, that coneflowers self-seed if I leave the dead stalks and seed cones for the birds over the winter. Who knew?

    Almost time for the first snowdrops!

  3. Kathleen, as you've heard before, my vegetable garden was totally wiped out by rabbits last summer even though it's entirely fenced in they got under it. All I got were tomatoes, and even those because of the blight, weren't many. Usually, I cover the rhododendrons by the side woods with deer netting, but I'm trying to remember if I did that.

    Like E.B. and Margaret, I have a lot of clay which makes it very hard to weed when it's wet because the weeds come up with huge clumps of clay attached to them, and when it's dry, it's just as hard to weed because the ground is then almost like cement. I've tried adding mulch from the pony manure pile, but gradually it sinks in and the clay comes back. Also, the pony droppings add more weeds to the garden.

    Have you tried one of those garden bench things. If it's turned up, you can sit on it and lean forward to weed. If you turn it the other way you kneel on it. One of my sisters gave
    it to me for my birthday one year. I can still get down with a kneeling pad to weed, but it
    comes in handy if I want to sit and sort through things.

  4. In my experience hastas are tough. They always come back.

  5. E.B., we've got that hard clay, too. We're in southern PA, but in the foothills, and the soil is not good.

    Margaret, I leave the coneflower seeds for the birds, and they do reseed a bit. I think the mice get most of the ones that drop, though.

    Gloria, your gardens put mine to shame. Too bad about the vegetables. I don't even try--maybe a couple of tomatoes--but there are a few kids who run a vegetable stand down the road from us. Their produce is cheaper than it would cost me to grow most of it, and they are so thrilled when they sell something, it would be worth paying a lot more.

    Warren, I have a foolproof way of telling the garden plants from the weeds. When you pull them, if they come back, they are weeds.

  6. LOL, KM! Your comment about the "flower models" is one of the truest things I've read in a long time.
    Since we are renting, I just wait and see what comes up - usually wonderful, tough things that have managed to survive salty air and cold winters for decades - lilacs, daffs (more fox than deer here) and mutant ivy that nothing can stop. In my last house I gave up planting and enjoyed my stella d'oro lilies (immortal) and two potted roses that were too well bred to give up on me.

  7. In my heart, I am a gardener. I love flowers and the different seasons of plants. Sadly, I'm also lazy, so my garden, inherited from previous owner, is neglected. We have an azalea tree to the right of our house. Yes, I said tree-- it should be a bush, but it's 15 feet tall and why tell it that it's overgrown at this time in its life?

  8. Deer are such a wonderful trade off. They are so lovely to watch, you almost have to root for them. I didn't know they ever ate daylilies, though. I thought they were the one safe flower. I laughed out loud at the flower model concept. Can you imagine the airbrush guy!

  9. You have my sympathy, Kathleen. We gave up planting hosta, daylillies, and other plants that the deer thrive on. One night I came in late and saw that my tulips were about to open and thought I should spray them before the deer got them. The next morning when I went outside with anti-deer spray, I saw that the deer had already gotten the tulips.

  10. Shari, it's a good idea to see what comes up. I had friends who bought a house in October. The property sloped down to the house, with big windows in front. They decided it would be lovely in spring with daffodils, so they bought a hundred and started to plant them. A neighbor came by and discussed the lovely view. "You should see it in spring. It must have a few hundred daffodils there."

    Carla, I've got some huge azaleas out front, too. I hate to keep chopping them down to size, but if I didn't, we'd never be able to get in the front door.

    Kait, I've found that the deer will ignore some things for years, then all of a sudden one will nibble at it, decide it's really quite tasty, and the next thing you know, a whole herd of them are munching away happily.

    Grace, that's been my experience. Just when the tulips are ready to open, the deer feast.