Snow Gardening

A nice big February snowstorm did roll in at last. Over the course of a few days it heaped and layered itself across the yard, stacked itself onto branches, mocked the cars, trucks, and buses trying to cruise around like they own the place, and wrapped

familiar objects in semi-disguise. Some features were emphasized and some obscured, recognizable, but surprizing.

The drag-footed deer trails made the backyard look like a freeway map

deer trails 2

tracks of deer, not people

drawn by cross-country skiers, and a new track ambled in among the others: possum, a neat line of single-file prints despite her waddle.

And now I have learned one more incredible feature of Michigan snow: you can plant native wildflower seed by throwing it directly onto the snow in February. Amazing, right? But these are seeds that need freeze-thaw cycles to settle them in, and enough cold weather to recognize the change when spring comes. I had tried a fussy process called cold stratification, involving baggies, wet sand, and a freezer, but frankly I have enough mysterious baggies in my freezer without adding Jacob’s Ladder and Milkweed.

Then I got an email from Prairie Moon Nursery with a picture of a woman in a big down coat flinging handfuls of seed onto a field of snow. Do this until March,

amusing deer trails

seeding site with amusing deer trails

it said. I had some packets of unstratified milkweed seed in hand, so out I went into the white, crunchy yard, where a cycle of thaw and freeze was expected to fill out the week. I didn’t have as much seed as the happy woman in the email, but it really was fun tossing it around like I was feeding imaginary chickens. In the imaginary barnyard. On the actual snow. I hope the neighbors weren’t watching.

I will let you know how this experiment turns out. I mean with the seeds, not with the neighbors.


January Thaw

Our nice layer of snow was completely destroyed by a patch of ridiculously warm weather bearing rain. What an outrage. The great consolation of winter is snow, its sparkle, its grace, the way it covers a multitude of discards and errors, its enormous blankness like a big, empty, brand new notebook. Dead grass showing through is an old draft. I want clean pages of deep snow, reflecting and magnifying the thin winter sunlight.

Because, come on, we know it’s not spring yet. Stop fooling around.

But this morning there’s a scrim of fresh snow on the ground, and cold enough to keep it there. I feel better. Seed catalogs have been sliding into my mailbox for weeks now, and as long as the snow’s on the ground all things are possible: tomatoes guaranteed to laugh at every blight, wilt, and virus known to man; pink marigolds, green zinnias, ruffled cosmos; long vines full of tiny jack-be-little pumpkins; roses safe from deer. The simple dreams of a gardener.

It’s easier to enjoy them, of course, while I sit on the warm side indoor winter gardenof the window, with my cup of cocoa and my indoor plants. The narcissus is about done and the amaryllis are starting. Geraniums, rosemary, and poinsettias are vacationing in their private tropical island, and will go home to the deck come May. But it’s that slice of snow you see in the middle distance that brings me a happy, settled sense that the world, despite all rumors to the contrary, is going on as it should.

January Flowers

One of my New Year traditions is potting up dozens of amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs. They respond enthusiastically to emerging from my chilly, dark closet into the brightly lit studio. I know how they feel. Some will sit regally on elegant glass pebbles; some will stand like linemen with their hands in the specially prepared dirt. The paperwhites aren’t particular about this, but the amaryllis like to be up to their round middles in storebought soil, top halves exposed.IMG_3095

Catalogs will tell you they need four to six weeks from potting to blooming, but their enthusiasm leads them on to precociousness. The first narcissus buds swell at about two weeks and they bloom in waves, from those nearest the windows on across the room. The amaryllis are right behind them.

This process is called forcing. Forcing the bulbs. Have I forced them to bloom indoors? Would they rather be outside right IMG_3093now? Their daffodil cousins are happy enough living outdoors, sleeping under a nice blanket of snow at the moment; but the paperwhites would die in the wilds of a Michigan winter. They are being coddled in here, with heat, and warm storebought soil, and water in its liquid state. They stretch luxuriantly toward the window. I may be waking them up, but no more than that. The force is theirs, not mine.

New Year’s Eve

I’m superstitious about resolutions. I always make one for New Year’s and keep it, but I am deeply certain that if I told anyone what it was, or even wrote it down, I would break it right away. So I can’t tell you what mine are, but I will tell you what they are not: they are not about diet or exercise. Ever. The obvious trick to making a resolution you will keep, is to make one you will enjoy keeping. Tedious and unpleasant subjects impose themselves on a new year without any help; no need to encourage them.

Sometimes I leverage a resolution with my annual urge to clean and organize. I get this urge every year, so it’s strange that I continue to find things I can’t believe I didn’t already throw out. Apparently uselessness takes a few cycles to register.

New Year’s Eve was very big in the Pasadena area, where I used to live. There was no post-Christmas let-down, because everyone was busy all week sticking roses into tiny vials, gluing chrysanthemums onto faux cartwheels, and giving directions to lost visitors.

On New Year’s morning we often went out to watch the parade live, but sometimes we were too tired. One of those New Years led me to write this poem.


January First, From Pasadena

On New Year’s morning we wake
to the sound of airplanes over the house.
The children run outdoors
and read the sky for us: Happy New Year
From 31 Flavors. We yawn and stretch.
They watch the parade on television.
Network coverage ends in time
for us to hear the groan of real drums
muffling up the canyon from the park,
where sixty flower-covered fantasies
of a thousand high-school girls
who couldn’t babysit for me last night
are pulling into numbered spots,
the end of the line, to lose their flowers
slowly to the crowd.
The logo of a finance company
tangles in our trees;
lost messages smudge the sky
like last year’s resolutions.
I feel my yearly impulse to clean house.
Raising all the windowshades,
I start with the sky.

(first published in Seneca Review)



Yesterday we had a long snowfall, hours of it floating peacefully by the window as I finished making Christmas presents and packed them up to mail. I have no idea whether indigenous Alaskans have hundreds of different words for snow or not, but judging by what fell past my window, they should have. It varied from almost gritty fineness to fat puffs; from white to grey; from sparse to heavy. It varied in how fast it built up, how much it blew around, and how much in glittered in reflected light.

It did not vary in how deeply happy it made me. Sitting in this chair, at this window,


blue morning snow

I have seen the hundreds of narcissus I planted blooming in April; the progression of flowers from foxgloves in May to asters in September; the bright leaves of October and the elegant bare branches of November. And now there is the snow, decorating the last standing seedheads and smoothing all things low and rough into voluptuous cushions. I put on my big coat full of feathers and took a little walk in it, leaving the packages to be mailed in the morning.

It is that morning now, the snow no longer falling and the roads all plowed.

deer tracks

deer tracks

The sun’s not over the pinetrees yet, the light soft and blue. Looking out the window I can see where the deer have foraged among those standing seedheads. Much as I complain about the deer, I hope they found something to eat.

A Memorial

Shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, still puzzling over how to garden in this very different place, I went to a quilting session at the home of Kathy French. One look at her front yard and I knew this was the person whose Michigan gardening advice I wanted. A gentle slope down from house to street bore an elegant tumble of gorgeous perennials, varied in color, shape, and contrast, but always companionable with each other. She told me the front lawn had been dug up to connect to the city sewers, and when they said ok, now we’ll put the sod back, she said, please don’t. She did this instead: compost, mulch, more soil, and perennials galore.

It was from Kathy that I learned I could plant perennials in October here; that sage kathy's peoniesand thyme would stay green all winter; that deer didn’t eat fragrant herbs; and that it’s true, as they say, that the best thing for the garden is the shadow of the gardener. Not only did she give me advice, she also divided her peonies and gave me the divisions.

Kathy was very keen in her observations of the natural as well as the constructed world. She brought a level of portraiture to her quilts whether the design was scenic or geometric, working with very small pieces of fabric to bring out light and depth that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It was exactly the way she did her garden: with care and attention to detail, but with freedom of spirit. She got all the pieces not just to work together, but to be happy in each other’s company.

kathy's peony 2Kathy moved away from Ann Arbor to another place she loved, but she kept in touch with us. I saw her for the last time in the spring; this fall she died after an illness of a few months. But the world still holds her beautiful quilts; and the peonies she gave me are doing well, growing, and in their proper times still blooming, in my front yard.


Rain, Snow, Rain

Fall is getting ready to shift into winter. There’s some color left in the trees, but a little snow sifted in with the rain the other day and clung to the north-shadowed parts of the yard for a while. Like any premonition it soon passed.


last bed of bulbs going in

A few last chores stood ready for me: planting the rest of the bulbs; cutting the tops from the asparagus patch which I’d left because they were still green; raking up more leaves for the compost pile; sweeping up pine needles to mulch the blueberries; checking that the dogwood trunks are well wrapped against the deer. The buck that has moseyed through my yard for a few years now is up to eight points, and I’m sure is one of the destroyers of bark on my dogwoods, but has yet to leave any antlers in the woods for me, the ungrateful wretch.

I also had to bring in the ceramic birdbath, which is not winter-proof. It had a skim of ice this morning, and the birds did not seem to be bathing in it any more, though they were still enjoying the seedheads left standing a short distance away. Zerlina watched from the window, wearing an expression of slight alarm. She has always preferred the inanimate objects in her life to stay put unless she moves them herself.


Deer respectful of a crabapple tree

And then Sunday morning Doug and I ate the very last of the tomato crop. These were the ones I brought in green on a first-frost warning, and they have ripened nicely indoors. Even ripened this way they are much tastier than supermarket tomatoes, not being varieties bred for shipping carton survival. I cut them up and scrambled them into some eggs, and we had one last bright burst of harvest before the seasons move on to their next thing.


Our very late first frost came in the early morning hours of last harvestOctober 26th.  A frost advisory can lead to much agonizing – what to cut and bring in, what to cover and leave out – but this time it was clear. Harvest everything that was left, which wasn’t much. In the shortened hours of late October daylight very little was ripening anyway. I brought in my last armload of green and part-green tomatoes, and a few last cosmos and cornflowers, which looked oddly like William Morris wallpaper as they stood in their vase.

On the chilly weekend that followed, I pulled deceased plants, collected tomato stakes, and Doug brought out boards cut to length and fitted with corner pieces, to set up one more raised bed in last flowersthe last remaining spot in the garden. He had offered to do this last spring, but I’d already planted the area in its unraised state so it had to stay as it was. Setting the bed up now would avoid timing issues next spring.

I had a warm jacket on, and a scarf, and gloves. Doug was in shirtsleeves. He did have gloves, but they were work gloves to keep splinters out of his hands. I’m not sure if he was always a polar bear, or if he became one after some number of years living in Michigan.

“This is great,” he said, “I’m not sweating.”

I like to avoid sweating as much as the next person, but we could have had another twenty degrees out there before it became a problem. Still, I was glad he wasn’t suffering as he built another garden improvement for me.

When we finished and went inside, Zerlina came over and nudged my leg. I reached down to pet her, and though she didn’t scream, she did jump and run away, only to come back and sniff my hand suspiciously. No way she was going to let me warm my hands up on her. I would have to warm them up on Doug, instead.

Quieting Down

The roar of tomatoes in the garden is dialing down to a low rumble. They ripen very slowly now, but on the positive side the squirrel has stopped eating them. I’m guessing cooler weather has inspired him to gather more walnuts and acorns, things he can stash for the winter. Mucking around in my tomatoes is all very well in late summer, but it’s October, and time to get real.

The squirrels need things to eat all winter because they’re up, out, and running around. They have this deal with the trees, where the trees give them all the nuts they can haul away, and in return the squirrels plant them in ridiculous places the trees could never have come up with on their own. The squirrels plan to dig them all up and eat them as winter proceeds, but as you’d expect from their louche and scatterbrained behavior, they lose track; thus establishing the next generation of trees.

Woodchucks, on the other hand, hibernate. I can hardly wait. Once there’s a frost, ours will tuck into her burrow and stay there, offering me relief for a few months. Until then, she is havoc incarnated. I caught her in full wallow yesterday, lazing in


tired October garden

my plumbago groundcover, scarfing down all its pretty blue flowers that she scorned just a couple of weeks ago, when there were tastier options. Would that she would scorn them now, but she is dedicated to padding out her waddly flesh so that there will be something left of it when she wakes up after her long fast.

There are still cosmos in the garden, and some zinnias, but everyone looks so tired. It’s time to take down the berry nets. It’s time to bring in the cushions. But the end of one cycle is the beginning of another. It’s time to plant bulbs.


They are slowing down as the hours of daylight decrease, but the tomatoes are still rolling in. And the squirrel, having acquired a taste for hot peppers, is still eating


bonus tomato

them. Sometimes when I stand at my kitchen window I see him out there, making free with the fruits of my labor. At first I would rush out in a rage to run him off, but eventually I realized this was useless. True, as soon as the screen door creaked he was gone in a flash; but screen door, rage, or not, once he had his three bites out of the tomato he looped off anyway. I could think of only two ways to keep him out of the garden: stay out there all the time; or put a roof over it. Not very practical.

In some years there would have been a frost by now, so I try to look at the abundance side of this situation: the tomatoes the Perp eats are bonus tomatoes; those

tomatoes of grace

tomatoes of grace

he leaves behind are tomatoes of pure grace. Even the ones I pick half green and ripen in the house in an attempt to defeat him, are way tastier than common supermarket tomatoes. Supermarket tomatoes are not bred for flavor – they are bred to withstand the shipping and handling necessary to sell them in supermarkets, as they have to be, since no one would buy them in the bruised and leaking condition a garden tomato would demonstrate when so shipped and so handled. We need to keep this in mind before we scold supermarkets. Until someone invents a tomato transporter to beam them into supermarkets directly from farms, supermarket tomatoes will continue to be bred for sturdiness.

My squirrel, who seems almost able to beam himself into the garden, appears to have been bred for persistence. Did that first tomato burn your tongue? Try another. That one too? Keep going. How can I argue with desire that will fight through the pain of fire on the tomato skin, to get to the luscious heart inside it? I’m not sure if it’s fear that motivates him to flee at the threat of my approach, or something more like taunting. He is a Siegfried of squirrels. Unless I am wrong about his gender, in which case she’s a Valkyrie.