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THE GARDEN IN WINTER

January 25, 2015

One mild winter day, I took a bag lunch to the gazebo at Hatcher Garden. The ten-acre woodland preserve within the city limits of our town was quiet. Two men were busily working near the entry to the garden. They quickly finished their task and disappeared. As far as I could tell, I had the place to myself, except for a large red-tailed hawk perched on a tree limb above a pond. I thought he, too, must have had food on his mind. There was evidence that work was being done. I guess the staff and workers had gone to get something to eat. After lunch, I strolled through the beautiful landscape, a gift to our community from Harold and Josephine Hatcher. Now this public area is open year-round. It features a series of ponds and an impressive waterfall. The main attractions are the plants – trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers. Birds and insects add to the garden’s interest. The peaceful solitude and quiet beauty of Hatcher Garden in winter is quite a contrast to the happy sounds and active people that fill the space in the warmer months. Along one of the paths I found a bench in the sun. I paused there listening to the birds and the breeze in the trees. In that moment the garden became a sanctuary for me, a place of contemplation and prayer. I told a friend who has a passing interest in gardening about my winter afternoon visit to the public preserve. She commented, “I’ve never thought of going there in the winter. What is there to see anyway?” “Try it sometime,” I said. “I bet you’ll find plenty to see, to hear, and to enjoy.” One of my friends does not like gardening at all. Yard work for him is just one more thing on his honey-do list, usually the last thing. The only plants he admires are the grasses on fairways and putting greens. His philosophy regarding his own yard is: if it is green and growing, leave it alone. He knows that I do not play golf, but he also knows how much I enjoy tending my plants. Last week he commented, “I play the links all year long, but I guess there’s not much for a gardener to do in the winter.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There is never an off-season for a gardener. In fact, gardening in winter is one of the delights of those of us who love tending plants. Here is a list of a few things that winter gardeners might consider.

  1. Study your garden. Now you can see the bare bones of the landscape. Winter provides an opportunity to see where the gaps are that need to be filled. You will also notice branches and limbs that overhang paths or crowd other plants.
  2. Pruning is a winter chore. There are also plants that should not be cut back in winter, especially flowering shrubs that bloom on last season’s growth. If in doubt check with the Clemson Extension Service or your local garden shop.
  3. Plan now for new garden projects in the spring. Much to the dismay of my wife, I have a stack of gardening magazines and nursery catalogues piled next to my favorite chair. Whenever I have a few minutes, I read and make notes about interesting plants that I would like to add to my garden.
  4. Visit your local full service garden center. Browse through the shrubs and trees. Look for plants that have colorful berries, pleasing shapes, or attractive bark. Consider adding some of these to your own winter landscape.
  5. Keep a garden calendar that can also serve as a journal and a notebook. Keep track of when certain things bloom in your garden. On my visit to Hatcher Garden I not only enjoyed the solitude, but I also took a few notes about plants and features I would like to add to my own yard.
  6. Compost organic matter. I have a compost bin that receives vegetable and fruit scraps, dead leaves, and grass clippings. When these materials decompose they yield rich soil that can be used to mulch plants or amend the flower beds. Making compost is one of the smartest things a gardener can do in any season.
  7. After a heavy rainfall, weed a flowerbed and turn the soil, mixing in some compost to get a head start on spring.
  8. Repair arbors, trellises, fences, and other structures while nearby plants are not actively growing and can be pruned or trained without disturbing the roots.
  9. Cold weather is the time to try your hand at propagating hardwood cuttings. The extension service can provide detailed information about this method of creating additional plants for your garden.
  10. Buy some year-end bulbs for half price. Don’t worry that it’s a bit late in the year to plant them; they’ll do just fine.
  11. Cool weather is the best time to add hardscape to the garden. Place rocks, sculptures, and garden whimsies in aesthetically pleasing locations. Prepare raised beds, walkways, and other features so you’ll be ready to plant at the first hint of spring.
  12. Take a day to clean and sharpen all of your garden tools. An old fashioned grinding wheel is just the thing for the task.
  13. Transplant shrubs. They will resettle best in winter. The relocated shrubs will awaken in spring far less shocked; barely realizing they’re in a new spot.
  14. Feed the birds and clean and repair birdhouses. Just last week I saw a pair of bluebirds flitting around one of the cedar boxes that are ready and waiting for spring occupancy.
  15. Most important of all is to enjoy your winter garden. Look at the night sky through bare limbs. Take time to appreciate the simple beauty of mosses and lichens. Winter-blooming perennials are a special delight. The winter Daphne beside our front door is poised for a fragrant display. Lenten roses are blooming beautifully. Crocus and early jonquils will soon be dazzling.                                                                                                                                                                      Two winters ago, late in the season, we were graced with a light overnight snowfall. In early morning I walked through my garden as the last few flakes were drifting from the sky. Hungry birds crowded the feeders. Bright berries of holly, pyracantha, and woodbine were touched with frosting. Rising above the snow, happy faces of pansies and violas danced in the cold breeze. Then I saw a bright red cardinal chirping a winter greeting from his snowy perch.The garden is a joy for all seasons!
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