A winter gardening occupation


By Kit Flynn

With the onset of winter, gardeners at first tend to sigh a huge sigh of relief as the garden is finally quieting down. With the world occupied with the holiday season during the month of December, there is a void in the gardening world: The plants do not need much attention and the garden catalogs filled with their spring offerings have not yet arrived. After enduring days of heat and humidity, suddenly, the temperatures appear to be a trifle cool, causing us to huddle by the fireplace.

And then a restlessness settles in precisely because the garden doesn’t need us. So, what is the gardener to do?

My advice is to read about gardening – and by this, I mean “fun reading.” The how-to books are filled with very serious matters, such as soil composition, the importance of composting and the use of fertilizers, all necessary information, but it’s not conducive to keeping our minds focused in front of that aforementioned roaring fire. Now is the time to search for good writers who write about gardens.

Good garden writers have opinions, opinions that I want to be made known. I don’t want a list of what grows well in a particular garden; what I want is to know why a writer favors Bletilla striata or Spigelia marilandica. I want to read about the weather conditions a particular writer faces when gardening; James Roush’s blog, “Garden Musings” is interesting primarily because I like to know the challenges of gardening on our great American prairie.

A garden writer’s prejudices are also of great interest. Gertrude Jekyll, whose influence spread far and wide over twentieth-century gardens, was famous for her dislike of magenta. We gardeners were instructed to avoid using plants producing magenta-colored blooms for years. It took gentle persuasion from Henry Mitchell, whose weekly garden column appeared in The Washington Post for eighteen years, before I dared to break this mantra.

According to Mitchell, Miss Jekyll disliked the color due to the difference in sunlight in the UK versus that in the US. In the relatively low light of the UK, magenta manages to look a bit drab, whereas it can serve as a wonderful accent color in our high-density light. For many of us, a large swathe of magenta should be avoided, simply because it’s too strong a color but do feel free to use it as an enhancement if you enjoy the color.

Mitchell extols the virtues of some plants we disparage, such as Barberry, asking us to look at it with new eyes. The fastidious Miss Jekyll understood its virtues, with its red berries and black-red stems that serve us so well in the winter. Because it has the reputation of requiring no care, this makes me ask the question: Are we ungenerous in our estimation of those plants, such as barberry and the daylily, because they require little in their growing requirements?

Good garden writers mention their gardening mistakes and the mistakes they observe. After all, don’t we learn by making mistakes? Haven’t all of us, forgetting that many hydrangeas bloom on old wood, pruned one back at the wrong time – only to discover we have cut off its future blooms for that year?

Most roses bloom on both old and new wood but if I cut back my Lady Banks rose now, I would have no flowers greeting me in late March because it, too, blooms on old wood. Fortunately, in the nick of time, I did my research so I stashed my pruning shears until its blooms were spent.

Nancy Goodwin of Montrose fame has written two of my favorite gardening books that are meant to be read: Montrose and A Year in Our Gardens, one that she wrote with another garden writer, Allen Lacy. Lacy, who died in 2015, was a man of great wit who wrote about gardening for both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This book is composed of letters they wrote to one another, purportedly about gardening, but also about life in general.

While both gardened in Zone 7, this book can appeal to those who garden in different zones because what they, as all gifted garden writers do, widened their writing to include life and death matters. When Nancy mourns losing a magnificent white oak, Lacy consoles her with the thought that, as a toddler, this tree undoubtedly saw Redcoats marching on the horizon. What a lovely vision this leaves to the reader, making me wish (a wish shared by many gardeners) that we would love to contemplate those tales our trees could tell us if only they could talk.

Their worries are our worries. While fretting about potential hurricanes and 95° heat combined with high humidity, they discuss cataract operations, the perils of quitting smoking (Lacy) and yes, even cancer. Of course, this resonates precisely because to garden is to deal with both life and death issues. As Goodwin says, in one of her letters, “I realize that every garden can grow some plants that others can’t.”

And, of course, this is what every gardener has to accept sooner or later.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.
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