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THE GARDEN IN WINTER

January 26, 2020

One mild winter day, I took a bag lunch to the gazebo at Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve. The ten-acre public space within the city limits of our town was quiet. The conifer planting near the gazebo displayed an stunning collection of small trees and shrubs of various shapes and colors. I took a deep breath, offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving, and allowed the peace and calm of the garden to enfold my soul.

Two men were busily working near the entrance 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 in several areas of the garden. The staff and volunteers are always busy with one project after another.

After lunch, I strolled through the beautiful landscape, a gift to our community from Harold and Josephine Hatcher. 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 interest to this public treasure.

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. I have officiated at weddings and conducted memorial services in this space. But on this winter day, I felt as if I were in a secluded sanctuary. 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 place of contemplation and prayer for me.

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?”

“Try it sometime,” I said. “I’ll bet you 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 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. However, some plants, such as azeleas, should not be cut back until after they bloom in spring. 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 catalogs 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. Take note of when certain things bloom in your garden. On my visit to Hatcher Garden, I not only enjoyed the solitude, but I also recorded which plants and features I would like to add to my own yard.
  6. Compost organic matter. I have a tumbler 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. Mix in some compost to get a head start on spring.
  8. Repair arbors, trellises, fences, and other structures while nearby plants are dormant and can be pruned or trained without disturbing the roots.
  9. Cold weather is the time to try your hand at propagating hardwood cuttings. This method of creating additional plants for your garden is both useful and enjoyable. The extension service can provide detailed information.
  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 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. 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 tree limbs. Take time to appreciate the simple beauty of mosses and lichens. Winter-blooming perennials are a special delight. Lenten roses are in full flower now. Crocus and early jonquils will soon be dazzling.

Two winters ago, late in the season, we were graced with a light snowfall overnight. In the early morning, I walked through my garden. The last few flakes were drifting from the sky. Hungry birds crowded the feeders. Bright berries of holly, pyracantha, and woodbine were touched with white 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 joyful, calming retreat for all seasons!

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