Miss Elizabeth Lawrence begins her great work, A Southern Garden (1942) with winter.
This will seem counterintuitive, as she readily acknowledges:
Winter, in my garden, takes up December and January in ordinary years. Even in those months there is a breath of spring in good years, though in bad years the cold encroaches upon February. Perhaps it will seem contrary to begin the garden year with winter...We do not have to wait for spring to start the new season. After the slimy stalks of fall flowers have been cleared away, the garden assumes its winter aspect, and winter flowers begin to bloom.This is not the case in the garden I tend. Well, not mostly. For thirty years it has mostly been a half-acre of lawn. I have found and recovered from abandoned attempts at gardening: a clump of bluebells so close together they could not bloom; I have the bulbs in a bowl now, waiting to replant them. There is a small kitchen-garden, I learned from the remainders of the plastic plant tags I found. There are some tulips there, and two ancient rosemarys. Some money grass, as we call it, congregates in patches whose locations defy logic. I found an azalea locked between two overgrown boxwoods.
“A gnarled rosemary is one of my chief treasures,” Miss Lawrence writes.
I treasure it for the charm of its irregular outline, for the pale blue of its flowers in very early spring and for the refreshing odor of its foliage as I brush against it in passing.” I have two of those, entrusted to my care for the time I am here.I found three dozen iris bulbs last summer, buried in weeds in a side-bed along the driveway. I moved them to a spot where they got more sun, and they thrived, but did not bloom, this summer. A number of them are poking up out of the front bed, where I recently turned over the hard clay soil and blew in several inches of mulch. I have hope for blooms in 2016.
The weather here can be fickle, as Miss Lawrence, who moved here from Raleigh in the 1940s, notes:
During our open winters we have some of the most delightful weather of the year. There are times when we have the “little snatches of sunshine and fair weather in the most uncomfortable parts of the year” that Addison describes in his essay on The Pleasure of a Garden, and we frequently have days that are “as agreeable as any in the finest months.” During the false spring that almost invariably comes in December or January- sometimes in both- the weather is mild enough to permit finishing up chores that were left undone in the fall, and even pulling a long chair out of the summer house to sit in the sun.We have had such a week- sunny, 70s- and I have been trying to “tidy up the garden” even as a serious outbreak of the blues has bade me come to bed, there to pull the covers over my head and awaken feeling neither happier nor better rested.
But I drag myself out nonetheless. Come January and February it will be dark and overcast and cold. Last year we had several inches of what looked like snow but was, in fact, ice, in February. So we must store our memories of bright, warm days for the long stretch of drear and gloom to come.
This week I have been reckoning with leaves. I have blown them into mounds around the two oaks in the front yard, and ignored the backyard entirely. I figured it would be easier to wait until all the leaves were down from the six big oaks, and then move them. And no one could see back there.
This is not a sound strategy.
Once you get enough leaves on the ground, all a blower does is throw them up in the air in joyous abandon, so they can flop back down pretty much where they were.
I ended up raking them into eight piles, as, beyond a certain volume, they get heavy, too. A couple dozen wheelbarrow trips later, they are all in a new compost pile, ten feet long, five wide and three tall.
And that’s only half the backyard.
My enthusiasm for gardening tends to wane around the holidays as the annual Christmas blues come on This year it has smacked harder than usual, and not even a false spring- a week long- aroused much enthusiasm. I’d put off getting up from not focusing well on work, not wanting to go out, even when it was 70. Doing so, while productive, has not been much fun.
Still, a huge, year-old brush pile is now gone. All the limbs got shaved off, and carried away by the county, which will turn them into mulch. The trunks are mostly sawed up by now; about three or four remain and get done as I can get outside, and as long as the battery on the saw lasts.
Indoors, the plants I brought in are retiring. My pots of scallions have died out; only a couple remain. My mint is tiny but alive. The peace lily I split in two has finally begun to regenerate after I cut it down to practically nothing. My indoor rosemary is sulking a bit; the ancient outdoor ones seem indestructible. I plan to take some cuttings and see if I can root them over the winter.
A Christmas cactus I bought a year ago has doubled in size and gave us a riot of color- for Thanksgiving.
Outside, the mild weather is fooling some plants. A potato plant I thought died in the summer drought has put up leaves. Turning last year’s Great Wall of Compost, I unearthed five I had chucked in with some scraps; they were trying to root, so I replanted them in the potato bed, up against the house where it gets as much winter sun as anywhere and the brick foundation holds some of it.
My next door neighbor has a white camellia, which, in the schizoid manner of all Carolina camellias, is covered in buds. If the freeze this weekend does not kill them off, we may get some unexpected color for the Christmas-New Year’s week. There are also a few roses blooming on her two climbers; I have been counting the time till February, when I can prune them back after years of neglect.
I miss poinsettias: when I was a boy, we had a neighbor who was in the nursery business. What she could not sell, she loaded into her station wagon and bestowed on her favorites. She would arrive unannounced, and instruct me on the proper unloading and placement of her bounty in our house. Long gone, Edna Patterson and her poinsettia Pontiac remains a fond memory in an otherwise rather dark season.
Last February's ice storm: more to come?