A Time for Dreaming
The joys of a winter gardener
By Jim Dodson
Two days before Halloween, I sat in my home office over the garage — I call it my “Tree House” — watching the swirling winds and rain from Hurricane Zeta sweep over my backyard’s unfinished garden with December pleasantly on my mind.
Actually, as any self-respecting gardener knows, that phrase — unfinished garden — is a contradiction in terms because a garden is forever changing and never truly “finished.”
As an ancient Gospel reminds, every ending contains the seeds of its own beginning. Nothing embodies this truth better than the turning of the seasons from autumn to winter, a time for healing and rest beneath the soggy, leaf-strewn ground.
A time for planning and dreaming, too.
My only grievance on that rainy autumn day was that it delayed the arrival of a ground shaper who was scheduled to finish something I’d started a couple of years ago: clearing the overgrown backyard of the midcentury bungalow my wife and I purchased in the neighborhood of my boyhood.
The first two years were devoted to restoration work inside the house, plus a complete redo of the front and side gardens. That meant transforming it from a neglected suburban yard with overgrown shrubs and dying trees into a peaceful glen of shade trees and a classic English cottage garden full of hydrangeas, shrub roses, sages and ornamental grasses. As summer’s lease wound down, it was rewarding to have neighbors and strangers pause from their evening walks to comment on how fine the property looks these days. By nature, all gardeners are shameless show-offs, hoping others will take note and praise their efforts.
Now, following a year of working almost exclusively on my evolving backyard, an Asian-themed garden lies beneath towering white oaks, with stone pathways that thread through painted ferns and the lusty hostas I imported from my former garden in Maine. There is also young Japanese cedar — Cryptomeria japonica — that somehow survived being moved twice only to thrive in the heart of the garden. This holiday, it will glitter with tiny white lights.
But before I jump all the way to Christmas, earlier in the week — the second week of November — a landscaper named Dominic showed up with his friendly crew and a large Bobcat loader to help me finish what I started long ago: clearing the tangled mess of overgrown shrubs and vines in the backyard. In order for them to safely navigate the path that leads from the side garden to what I called the “Lost Kingdom,” I first did some quick spadework, and then hastily relocated several lavender shrubs and society garlic plants.
Little by little, over a three-year period, with sweat of brow and help from a young fellow with a strong back, I managed to clear away the jungle. But scraping the area bare of roots and stubbles and a stubborn tree stump — and then covering the space with a foot of clean topsoil that included a half-circle berm for privacy shrubs — would be the final step to achieving the blank canvas of earth I needed and desired for creating what may wind up being my most ambitious garden yet.
Botanically speaking, this moment is both thrilling and, if I’m honest, a little intimidating.
Yet this uncertainty is half the fun of being a winter gardener. Its real joy comes from pondering the possibilities, researching plants, turning to other gardens and their talented keepers for inspiration and working up potential schemes.
One’s garden lives in the imagination long before it lives on your own good patch of earth.
And so, as the days shorten, the last leaves filter down and the cold creeps in like a lullaby on the frosty breath of a Norse god, I shall be toiling toward spring in both mind and body, digging in the soil and delving in the soul, planting, revising and mulling, not to mention praying for a little snow to provide an extra quilt of comfort for my new garden’s winter sleep.
And when spring finally arrives, that ancient maxim of renewal will once more be revealed — that every ending contains the seeds of it own beginning — a return that will include a gifted new editor for this publication, a young woman I am honored to call my protégé.
As I gratefully step aside to write and spend more quality time in my garden, I am certain that you will learn to love Ashley Wahl the way I do for her poetic grasp of language, her deep understanding of the human spirit and her passion for all things related to home, garden and design.
Jim Dodson is the founding editor of Seasons and its sister publications, O.Henry and PineStraw.