Most of the winter has been quite dark here in southern New England. That is, until the second week of February when a snowstorm dropped over a foot of snow. It is amazing what a difference snow makes to the light of winter. December and January were gloomy. All was brown, rust and gray with watery, limpid light. Snow transformed the landscape but the snow of February is doomed more quickly than the snow of December. The sun is getting stronger and the temperatures can and did fluctuate wildly. The back field gave way from white to bare in a matter of days. With an average February temperature of 40ºF here, February is a bridge to the coming warmth of spring. March will be ten degrees warmer than February and just perfect for working outside without breaking a sweat or battling bugs. That is the expected but expectations are not always realized. This past weekend we had three days of over 60º weather. Three days is quite enough. The initial warmth is welcome even while it is unsettling. Unsettling because gardeners know that plant dormancy is necessary for their survival. If a plant breaks dormancy in February here in my garden, it is often doomed. Cold weather and frost will put an end to those green bits of new growth on most plants. There are exceptions of course. Eranthis, winter aconite, shrugs off the cold. It just closes up at night and when morning arrives opens its sunny petals. The early crocus are also a hardy bunch. Those which are leaning against the base of the foundation open first and cooler temperatures keep the blooms happy much longer. Snowdrops are often the first of the little bulbs to bloom here but they are a bit later than the aconites this year. Hellebores with their thick leathery leaves and flowers are really the 'honey badger' of all flowers. Nothing bothers them. Not the deer nor the cold. They bloom starting in December depending on the weather. Their blooms will handle a heavy load of snow. They shrug it off multiple times with none of the exasperation of the winter weary gardener. I will thank Mother Nature for a spring preview and also thank her for returning us to more normal, bracing, late winter temperatures.
I have been worried about the vernal pool in the back field. It often fills with water in the fall and stays full until mid-summer. Vernal pools provide habitat for frogs and salamanders and a few other creatures. Without the vernal pool some species would have to look elsewhere for breeding areas. This winter it was just a depression in the field after a very dry fall. It finally filled with water about a week ago after a hard, late winter rain. Crisis averted. I look forward to the sound of the spring peepers and finding a spotted salamander or two. The sounds of silence from this dry pool would have been quite sad. I know, you might call this depression in the back field a puddle when it fills with water but it really is an important part of this field ecosystem. You can read more about vernal pools here. Gibbs and I have been walking to the back field each morning. He can run off a bit of energy and I can take stock of the slow changes which happen as winter saunters into spring. I have noticed the lichens and moss on the fieldstone walls and some of those stones seem to defy gravity. The walls have been here for more than 100 years and the freeze/thaw action of winter and spring cause them to move and sometimes tumble. They served as boundaries and fencing for livestock as the fields were cleared many years ago. The EM mows the front field fairly often but the back field is mowed just in the fall to keep them clear. A bit closer to the house the gardens are showing green bits and pieces. The sedum is starting to emerge and the winter aconite's clear yellow blossoms seem to be providing food for someone. There are a few bite marks on these flower petals. Gibbs has not yet learned his place among the flowers as he promptly ate all the flowers off the few crocus blooming by the foundation.
He also likes to find a discarded pot and chew it thoroughly. But that face is so sweet that it is difficult to be mad at him for any length of time. I will have some extra picking up to do this spring. Picking up and training. Puppies are so entertaining and demanding. I was going to end this post here but Gibbs needed to go outside where it is a warm 57F.
News flash-the tommies are blooming in the lawn. That is cause for much celebration.
The are sure signs of spring in the garden after a heavy, warm rain washed away over six inches of snow last week and a warm weekend took hold. Usually, it is the snowdrops which bloom earliest but this year I spotted a dot of yellow under the Chinese Dogwood. Eranthis hymealis or winter aconite has unfurled. Yes, it is tiny but it is bright. I am hoping to see a carpet of these someday but right now there are just a dozen or so and they are coloring up a bit erratically. Still, I am happy to see this yellow. The crows are cawing and the wind has been busy drying up the mud and those are both more sure signs that spring is close at hand. The Helleborus foetidus, Stinking Hellebore, has been in flower for months although it has been snow covered. It doesn't mind at all. The flowers are a plus as this plant is deer proof (I don't say that lightly) and the foliage adds great texture to the borders. This is often the first green of spring. Late winter is the time of glowing emerald moss. It thrives on cool moisture here in my garden. It grows easily on the granite ledge outcroppings.The moss doesn't always grow exactly where I want it but here by the fish pond bench, it provides a soft carpet around the stones in the small patio. The days are noticeably longer and the bright sunsets have been accurate predictors of the delight of the next springlike day. I am not sure how many more we will have before winter asserts its cold presence once again.That presence will not last long once those first flower blooms have been spotted. Now, there is no stopping spring.
There is much to be said for winter in New England. I know, it is cold and dark but cold is good and dark is restful. Every gardener needs a bit of a rest when dreams of past and future garden glory can take over. Nothing is as beautiful as the garden was or will be next season. All is possible. As for the cold, it is necessary for some plants in order to produce flower buds. This process is called vernalization. The actual definition of vernalization is ' the induction of a plant's flowering process by exposure to the prolonged cold of winter, or by an artificial equivalent.' Other factors are, of course, important and you can read more about the process here if you wish. As a gardener, I would submit that I need a 'vernalization process' as well. The tropics are not for me at least not for more than a week or two in the middle of February. A warm climate is lovely but cool temperatures restore me. There is nothing like a walk outside on a cold day as long as one is properly dressed for the low temperatures. Anything over 15F is comfortable for a walk. The air is clear and there is often an energetic crunch of snow underfoot. The world is mostly black and white here in New England in winter but those few spots of color, color which would not be noticed during the height of June bloom, is cherished and appreciated. The boxwoods punctuate the landscape and the bleached stems of tall grasses lend subtle color and movement to the garden. A walk in winter requires greater attention to detail. The sights and sounds are much more subtle than at any other time of year. The trees talk in the rustle of the oak leaves, which are slow to fall, and they define this environment. Pine trees whisper and tell their secrets to each other. The lights of Christmas have been replaced by the few bright plants glowing in the garden. The bare stems of the Cornus stolonifera 'Midwinter Fire' cheer from the sidelines providing bright contrast against the Dwarf Alberta Spruce. The low cotoneaster sprawls at ankle height and its berries yell unnecessarily for attention. For me, there is yet another reason to walk in the cold these days since Gibbs has joined the family. Puppies need a bit of exercise and this pup loves to chase the secret scents of winter. He has already embraced the field and the stone walls which provide nooks and crannies to investigate. Gibbs is eleven weeks old today and it has been three weeks since he has become part of the family. He loves to chew sticks, acorns and pine needles not to mention socks and fingers. Many people think winter is not a great time to add a puppy to one's family but I would disagree. These short days with no gardening to be done seem just the perfect days to watch a puppy grow.
Fall is welcome here in this New England garden. Blooms are traded for bright and burnished foliage and glowing seed heads. While the foliage lasts but a short week or two it also signals the garden's respite. Everyone needs a rest. The plants, the gardener and the thermometer. The gardens surrounding the house look battered and worn. August arrived and left leaving little moisture for the garden. September wasn't much better. In addition, the white tailed deer have been enjoying the buffet of the garden. Lush hostas are reduced to single stalks. So it goes in the gardener's life. Some success and many failures. Still, there are a few spots of color. The monkshood has several toppled stems but the few upright ones sport a jaunty, royal purple bloom. Asters and persicarias carry the day in the left handed mitten garden and one can always count on the Pink Sheffield mums for apricot blooms. I took a walk to the back field yesterday. It is not a regular event since the loss of the pups who loved to run, play and chase the scent of wildlife. Autumn was in full swing. Maples can exhibit a vast color range, ranging from bright red through burnished copper. This maple was glowing in the lower light of a fall afternoon. I crossed the stone wall to check out the spring which was once in the field providing water for livestock. There is no livestock there now and the field has given way to hardwoods. The spring was dry. I have seen that only one other year in all the years I have lived here. Each season gives us different challenges and each season teaches a gardener something new. Next year there will be a bit of drip irrigation for some of the vegetable garden. The mixed borders will have to deal with whatever Mother Nature decides. Except for those white tailed deer. These two beloved guys did a good job of keeping them away from the gardens.The dogs are gone but the deer, well, they have to go and the best method for control, other than the expensive fence just might be a new puppy. Yes, it is time this garden and this gardener had a new Job Supervisor. It may take a while but there will be a new face here at Ledge and Gardens sometime in the future. Now, what might be a good name?
Frost signals a seasonal finale. The exuberance of the garden is gone and the gardener is left with subtleties. The small blooms and berries of fall would be overlooked in the abundance of the summer garden but late in the season, after the frost, their significance increases. Who would even notice the tiny purple flowers which develop on the mint plant if they were to appear among the peonies, roses and delphiniums? Color has shifted from outrageous orange to warm bronze and copper. The bright foliage of the maples is now underfoot. Scuffling through this debris brings the scent of childhood and the memories of raking the bounty into a plan view of a child's home. Doors, windows, kitchen and living room all made flat on the ground with neat rows of raked leaves. How powerful is the scent of fall? It is transporting. Mom and I walked through the leaves in her yard yesterday and reminisced on those long ago days of childhood. She has seen 91 autumns, a feat many of us will never achieve but one to which we can aspire if only to gain a bit more knowledge of the garden and the seasonal cycles. This season has been one of bounty. The last of the tomatoes are in the trug and the vegetable garden is holding some late season treasures. Fall tomatoes are not perfect but their tang is as appreciated as that of the very first tomato. Swiss chard, kale, brussel sprouts all shrug off the first frosts of the season.The last flower and the last fruit of this season's garden is close at hand and all are treasured along with the knowledge gained from the passing of yet another season.
I am not sure how it happened. Summer is gone and today is the first full day of fall. I thought it the perfect summer. Many would disagree. It was clear and not overly hot. The tomatoes loved it. Lots of bright sunshine brought a huge harvest. The flowers loved it. This gardener loved it. Still, the weeds crept into the borders in late July. It happens every year despite my resolve to keep at it. No matter. There is much to keep one busy in summer. You can see the coloration beginning. The poison ivy which receives the morning light is one of the first plants to color up. The colchicums bloom, the spiders are busy spinning away and the lower light causes deep shadows and nice back-lighting. This morning the temperatures dipped for the first time into the 30's. High 30's, no frost yet. I cannot say that I am ready for a frost but there is the smell of damp decay in the air and the days are shorter. Night is coming a bit more swiftly. It is time to set the mouse traps. They will be trying to share the warmth inside. I will attempt to thwart their efforts. The border has a few flowers left. The deer have started cutting back the hostas. It is so kind of them. I never see them but they leave their mark. They are foraging for the long, cold months and I cannot say I blame them but there is a field out back just for them. If only they would stay there. Fall in New England is usually lovely. I will have to wait and see what it has to offer this year. I hope it is long and warm. Hoping is the gardener's trademark after all.
Leaving one's New England garden in the winter is very different from leaving it for a few days, a week or more during the other seasons. I am reminded of this Robert Goulet song which, I know, dates me but Camelot is still one of my favorite plays. Listen here if you wish. Ten days is an eternity in spring, summer or fall but in winter the frozen mass of a garden resists change. There might be more snow or less in the winter when one leaves and then returns but the garden is either covered with snow or uncovered and dormant. I visited Titusville, Florida recently. They were having a cold spell. Frost even appeared one morning in Florida but cold spells are relative and the 57F high one day seemed fine to me. It was 10F here at home. There were exciting adventures. I did play golf with my Mom. She is 90. She trounced me. Short and straight. That is how she hits them and while a long drive is showy, one always putts for the dough. There are obstacles on the golf course which one never sees here in RI. It was warm on this golf day, in the 70's. While I was visiting, NASA launched a communications rocket which was a thrill. Titusville is a shadow of its former self since the elimination of the shuttle program. The cost to this part of the country was high. Jobs were lost and many tourist related businesses are closed. You can read about the losses here. There still are launches and they are very exciting. I just had my small hand held camera and little time for careful composition but I did step out the front door of the house to see the rocket light the night sky. If you have never seen this sight, it is impressive. Mom and I also went to see the manatees but the manatees had left for warmer waters. The birds were still around though. I have left Florida and I have returned to the garden. I can never really leave it for long - even in winter. When I left, there was little snow on the ground. I returned to bits and pieces of snow which has now been replaced by a full layer with more due today. But in my absence it seems there has been a change. The snowdrops are showing a little bit of promise. I also noticed that the sun was quite warm on my face yesterday. Today we are back to winter. It is, once again, snowing here. This seems to be the never ending white winter. I will just have to remember the sight of the green shoots of snowdrops. They are covered once again.
In New England, Southern New England that is, the bronze days are upon us. Most of the native maples have dropped their leaves but the oak leaves are persistent and hang on until the abscission layer fully forms. This is as variable as the oak varieties and the season in the woodland and garden. There are black oaks, white oaks, red oaks and pin oaks. Some do have bright red coloration but the majority of oaks in my garden turn bronze. It has been clear and bright and very dry here this fall. The spring in the back former field which was walled up a century ago and used for watering cattle is dry. The frost has arrived darkening the fern fronds and stripping the color from the late annuals and the foliage. Yellow is left, brown is left and bronze. The bronze offers golden afternoons with low slanting sunlight. The drone of the bees is now absent from the garden but the birds are still singing and there is a distinct crunch under foot. In the early morning it is the crunch of frost but later in the day it is the dry, fallen leaves which are begging to be lifted and turned into compost. The old manure spreader has a bronze patina of its own lending to the warmth of this season. What color is your fall garden today?
It happens quickly. The turn from summer to fall. Here in southern New England we are in 'The Golden Days' of fall. The whites pines shed their needles this past weekend creating a blanket of burnished copper under their boughs. This blanket muffles sounds, covers the imperfections on the floor of the pine woodland and it also creates a spongy and inviting carpet for the casual hiker or hapless gardener on the way to the compost pile. There is still brilliance in the garden and the surrounding woodland. Crimson and gold mix together as the low angle of the sun illuminates the leaves. It is a turning point-Nature's last colorful gift to the gardener before the onset of gray and dreary November which is perhaps a necessary respite from the color of 'The Golden Days' of fall. There is much still in bloom here as the first frost has been reticent to show his face. That is fine with this gardener. The moonflower vine was planted late and has just started its show which will be short indeed. The Spanish Flag vine or Mina lobata self seeded next to the tutuer in the island garden. It has cheery tricolor flowers which match the colors of fall here perfectly. It was a gift from Mother Nature this season and it is much appreciated. Did anything crop up unexpectedly in your garden this season?