As gardeners, we tend to become immersed in the daily chores of tending our beds. We dig in, do downward dog, rip and tear, and forget about the big picture. It happens throughout the season, and winter is no exception.
As a gardener, I was guilty of all of the above. I spent my days myopically doing the duties rather than reaping the rewards of the bounty I created. Then one day I stopped and looked around to discover the splendor at hand. And from that day forward, there was no going back.
Not only do I perceive perks during the typical growing season, winter is also an awakening. When you really plug in, plenty is happening on all levels. Westchester County might be buried beneath snow, but if you inhale, listen, reach out to touch, taste, and look around, this season is ripe with input.
Here are some of the stimuli I discovered while writing The Garden in Every Sense and Season, but don’t take my word for it. Delve into your own landscape and explore the fruits of your labor. You will be amazed at the subtleties available from the world you’ve created, especially in winter.
The snow sparkles. Check it out and discover that your backyard is strewn with diamonds. In winter, the snow lays everything bare. Cloaked in a blanket of white, the land’s gentle contours can be seen more clearly. Appreciate its lines and perhaps accentuate its dips and rises gracefully when digging in is possible again.
The snow also reveals traces of the wildlife that shares your domain. Track the rabbits, opossums, crows, mice, and deer that hold dances in your backyard every night. The results can be an eye-opener and might make you take action to protect the premises from greedy nibbling predators next spring.
While hiking around with eyes wide open, take a look at the bare-naked trees and shrubs; notice their svelte limb structure. Bark can be absolutely beautiful. And if a silhouette might be improved by some strategic pruning, take note for later.
Did you ever notice that crisp, icy air has its own frigid scent? While digging your way to the front door, take a moment to inhale. Granted, your nose might be buried beneath scarves and mufflers of all stripes, but if you unwrap long enough to smell the air, you can detect everything from a hint of wood smoke to the first of the witch hazel blossoms on the air.
Meanwhile, winter might be holding you housebound right about now, and that’s where houseplants can come to the rescue. Grow citrus, winter-blooming jasmines, pinwheel jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), orchids, and sweet olive for flowery forays of the fragrant kind during the shortest days of the year.
Herbs can be an olfactory boon on all levels. Grow a little thyme, oregano, or mint in the kitchen breakfast nook, and your morning will be an aromatic feast no matter what’s going on outdoors. Or force some bulbs. Hyacinths are a cinch: Balance the bulb above water in a forcer (wear gloves while handling; the bulbs can cause an uncomfortable skin irritation), and in a matter of weeks, your living room will be infused with full-bodied fragrance.
Winter can be laden with all sorts of sounds. There are the plops of shrubs unloading their snow burden onto the newly cleared sidewalk, the rumble of snowblowers whirring into action, and the rhythmic cadence of your shovel biting into the drifts. But winter is the season to listen for a sound that you can hear at no other time. ’Tis the season for the blessed sound of silence.
When the world begins waking up and moving around again, listen for the birds. If you grow berries such as winterberries, viburnums, and rose hips, birds will flock to your property.
Some berries are palatable to birds only after several freezing/thawing sequences. Although no longer beautiful, they can mean the difference between life and death for some desperate feathered friend. Leave woody branches when pruning next spring and summer so the birds have something sturdy to perch on while feasting.
Reach out to winter and you’ll be amazed at how it feels. Of course, you spend the bulk of your outdoor time with hands cushioned in gloves. Don’t take them off at this point to explore the Braille of the garden; there’s plenty of opportunity to reach out and have that handshake with the earth at other times of year. But from scooping up snowballs to grasping chilled doorknobs, you feel winter firsthand even when mittened.
Meanwhile, your houseplants are there to provide all the interaction you require. Grow plants with pettable leaves for that purpose. Anything from lamb’s ears to plectranthus and scented geraniums can give you something soft and velvety to stroke. Steer clear of cactus, agaves, or thorny succulents if you happen to be the touchy-feely type.
Summer is not the only season gardeners can furnish their own lip-smacking treats. Again, you’ll need to garden on the inside of the windowpanes to make this happen, but you can grow your own scrumptious goodies no matter what’s going on outdoors.
Of course, tomatoes might not be on your menu, but how about nurturing your own organic citrus? The easiest, most productive citrus to host in a container is the calamondin orange (x Citrofortunella microcarpa) with its outrageously fragrant flowers that morph into little fruits. A hybrid between a kumquat and tangerine, it’s amazingly prolific. Calamondin oranges produce fruit on young plants and remain sufficiently compact to thrive in a bright, sunny window. Herbs also make winter a more delicious season.
Growing mint, thyme, oregano, winter savory, and sage on a sunny windowsill is a piece of cake. Rosemary is more of a challenge, but it can be accommodated in a very cool space like a breezeway or mudroom. Even parsley is possible. Herbs make winter meals into flavorful feasts, and there’s nothing better than growing sustenance for yourself.