Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice Reflections

On this the shortest day, even with today's dark clouds and rain making it seem as though the sun forgot to come up at all, I am somehow feeling happy! And it's probably because for the next 6 months the light will return more and more each day, and bring with it the abundant renewal of growth and color in the garden. The dark seems easier to enjoy with that perspective, especially in combination with the celebrations of family and friends that are more abundant during these last weeks of the year. I hope you are enjoying this season too.

Another December Deep Freeze
I’ve recently returned from a visit to cold and windy Northern Indiana, where prolonged deep freezes are expected and delivered each year. The weather here feels absolutely balmy to me in comparison! However, now that I’ve had the chance to walk through my garden to see what our own recent deep freeze left behind, all I can say is… sigh…

Much of the damage is reminiscent of last December’s weather adventure: evergreen shrubs with blackened leaf edges, winter-flowering plants with wilted buds, and perennials that have turned rather gooey. Yet once again, the "stalwarts" that sailed through last year’s ice and snow without a problem have done the same with this go-round. All the conifers look great and the Sarcococca shrubs are ready to burst into bloom. But if I was handing out blue ribbons, I'd have to give the group prize
to the native plants in my garden, for once again coming through the deep freeze with little or no damage. The flower buds on both the Low and Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa and aquifolium) are firm and plump, as are the leaf buds on the Red-flowering Currant and Vine Maple. The glistening green leaves of the Wild Ginger, Salal, and Evergreen Huckleberry are just as beautiful as they were before the freeze.
My advice to other gardeners is the same as I give to myself:

1. Focus on what looks great in your garden.
2. Make a note of the plants you see in your garden and elsewhere that are flourishing despite last summer's drought and the recent freeze.

3. If you love your Daphne, Viburum tinus, and other plants that got hammered again by the freeze,
be patient with their recovery or decide you are ready for a change.
4. When you have the opportunity to replace or add new plants, remember the "stalwarts" to guide your choices.

Winter Feasting

One other major change I've noticed is the absence of many of the berries and seeds that adorned my garden shrubs throughout the fall.
There are only a few glistening purple gems left on the Beautyberry, all but one bunch has been eaten from the Red-twig Dogwood, and even the California Wax Myrtle and Japanese Barberry are nearly stripped bare. Only the Parneyi Cotoneaster and Snowberry still have their full clusters, because their berries do not ripen for a few more months. The birds who spend their winters here obviously needed extra food to stay warm during the cold snap, and I am glad they could find it in my garden. Despite the feeders I have stocked with black-oil sunflower seed and suet, the first choice for birds is always food that can be found on plants- whether seeds, berries, or insects. Northern Flickers and Yellow-rumped Warblers are two of the many birds attracted to the California Wax Myrtle seed clusters, tiny red Barberries are just the right size for Chickadees and Sparrows, and Robins make quick work of those iridescent Beautyberries. Ground-feeding birds such as Juncos and Sparrows have taken a liking to the Boxleaf Hebe seeds, and spend part of each day foraging in safety underneath this hardy evergreen shrub. Bewick's Wren and Spotted Towhee are gleaning for insects and their eggs amidst the fallen leaves, and helping themselves to the "leftovers" under the suet feeder after the Downey Woodpeckers and Bushtits have visited. So considering all that, I guess I don't really miss seeing the beautiful berries on my shrubs....

Winter Water

When our recent deep freeze hit, one of the first things my husband and I did was to set up our birdbath heater in our little fountain on the deck. This kept the water just above freezing, which provided our cast of "regulars" their usual drinks and baths. But it also caught the attention of dozens of robins, jays, warblers, nuthatches, and other less-frequent visitors, which created a lively scene that was fun to watch from the kitchen window. Water is essential for birds and other wildlife all year long, and prolonged freezes can ice up even the edges of streams and ponds, and add to their winter hardships. Providing fresh water during winter is
definitely well worth the effort considering the delightful reward for them and for us!

Wrapping up the Season
I love plants of all kinds, and get a lot of joy out of helping them thrive in other people's gardens as well as my own. Yet I think the best way to have a garden with year-round beauty is to create one that attracts birds and other wildlife. Plants alone are great, but the addition of vibrant life right outside your windows, no matter what kind of weather Mother Nature brings, is something that plants alone can't bring.
And the winter months, when so many trees and shrubs are bare, are the easiest time of year to see how many of wild creatures are in your garden. Their survival depends greatly on the planting and maintenance choices we make, and there are benefits to both humans and wildlife when we keep them in mind. This is the reason I always recommend including plants that feed birds, butterflies, and other wildlife in my designs, no matter what other garden goals are on our wish list. And when clients agree, it makes my work even more joyful.

Thanks to all who have helped make this past year chock-full of good times, good work, and good memories!