A Garden in Winter

During the Sabbath of seasons, plants are napping while gardeners are planning

By Noah Salt


At lunch with a gardening friend not long ago, she bemoaned the end of the growing season and the onset of winter. “I really miss my garden. It was so beautiful this year. Now everything is so gray and lifeless. It’s downright depressing. No more blooms or fresh vegetables until April!”

She gave me look that assumed that I shared her pain.

I shrugged sheepishly.

“Actually, I love a garden in winter — might even prefer it over summer.”

She looked surprised, then amused — assuming, I suppose, that I was daft.

She defied me to name two things a gardener could love about winter in the garden.

“There’s no weeding, and a garden looks beautiful under a blanket of snow,” I came back.

“OK, that’s two things,” she conceded with a laugh. “Why even have a garden if you look forward to not having a garden come winter?”

“You still have a garden,” I pointed out. “It’s just taking a long winter’s nap. Gardens need to rest — and so do gardeners. Winter is the Sabbath of seasons. Life gone to root.”

She didn’t appear terribly persuaded. Then again her roses are legendary, all the way to first frost and sometime beyond it.

So I mentioned a few other charms I find with winter gardening.

Winter is the most private season, I reminded her, a reflective time when, generally speaking, tools are cleaned and sitting idle in the shed and the daily maintenance demands of making things grow is at low ebb. The perennial borders are neat and tidy, the insulating mulch fully spread, the ground at parade rest. Colder, darker days turn the body and creative mind inward, inviting inspection and introspection, making winter afternoons ideal moments for planning, thinking, revising or just plain woolgathering while noticing the amazing architecture of dozing plants.

“It’s the perfect time to build new beds and plan new paths,” I pointed out. “Because everything is bare and nature is stripped down, you see the architecture of the garden, lots of new places to go.”

Case in point, I’d recently commenced clearing what I call the “Lost Kingdom,” i.e., the northeast corner of my formerly overgown backyard, an area where elegant Cherokee dogwoods, Carolina silver bells and young linden trees once flourished in the company of several large azalea bushes but were now completely shrouded by invasive wisteria vines, wretched English Ivy and Mahonia-bushes-gone-wild, the three worst plants known to man — or at least this man. The azaleas had grown leggy and thin but could probably be saved with judicious winter pruning, a wheelbarrow of fresh compost and some moderate spring fertilizing. Behind them I’d found all sorts of woodland plants just begging for liberation. Winter was the perfect time to get this job done.

With winter’s arrival, I explained, my plan was to dig out every scrap of ivy and those offending Mahonias, save the dogwoods and silver bells, trim back the azaleas and build a new stone pathway to link the Lost Kingdom to my nearly completed Japanese garden on the opposite side of the yard. 

My friend laughed. “So no rest for you this winter. Be careful with old Mahonia shrubs,” she playfully warned. “They get mean when they’re old. You can easily lose an eye.”

Restoring paradise is never easy, I agreed — but winter helps. First off, one barely breaks a sweat. And there are few if any critters to disturb, since all are safely burrowed underground snoozing the winter away. Because all the action is below ground, it’s easier to see your progress, revising as you go.

“And if we’re really lucky this winter, it may snow,” I added, admitting that the sight of a garden under snow is one of the most soulful sights on Earth, perhaps the nicest thing about a garden in winter.

My friend gave a little shiver, smiled, sipped her hot tea and asked why.

Gardeners are the ultimate optimists, I told her. Regardless of the cold and snow, we know life is just waiting to bloom again. Even in the “dead” of winter, there lives a summer garden in every grower’s heart.

“I can drink to that,” she said, lifting her cup of tea. “Here’s to your winter work and Lost Kingdom — and most of all, an early spring.”   

Noah Salt will be wearing extra-thick gardening gloves this winter to avoid revenge of the Mahonias.

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