In like a lion

My garden stirs in late winter. I bundle up and venture out to witness the first faint pulses of change, looking for proof that spring is on the horizon. I quickly find the goods.

IMG_2022The air smells different now, no longer tinged with snow but with an earthiness brought forth from the tentative thaw. Hellebore flowers, from under their winter-battered leathery leaves, are dragging their fresh ruffled chartreuse blooms from the cold soil like tousle-headed teenagers trying to wake. Birds dart in and out of the viburnum hedge, noisily staking out their nesting territory. I round the corner and gasp, delighted as spring smacks me full force. Why am I surprised? It happens every year.

In all this hesitant spring business—the freezing and the thawing, the occasional teasingly bright warm day or half day—there it is: the black pussy willow, trumpeting spring and not pussy-footing around about it in the least. I stand marveling at its silhouette against the gray sky, a huge ugly hulking pile of sticks that are now dotted with inky tufts along their lengths. How long has it been in full bloom? It never says. But it might wonder why it took me so long to notice.

I admire these intrepid winter bloomers—the hellebore, the witchhazel, the pussy willow. What they lack in floral glitz they make up for in grit. Their sap stirs long before our sights are on spring and their curious flowers flex from within icy buds. These early risers seem impatient to get the business of flowering and pollination out of the way and, in the process, offer up life-saving nectar and pollen to woozy bees and other insects emerging on those first warm days.

I bought the black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) as a mere twig in a four-inch pot decades ago from a long-defunct nursery. I remember seizing on it as a great prize, something unique. I planted the tiny stick in what seemed a huge area at the back corner of the garage where it would have room to grow and receive runoff from the downspout, since willows love water. I fretted when my husband ran over it with the lawn mower, twice. It must have enjoyed the abuse because it never looked back from that point, growing wider by the year. Its twiggy bulk now stretches above the roof gutters, trashing them with its slender leaves. My husband complains when he mows under it and the branches knock his hat off. Who’s getting the last laugh now?

For much of the year the black pussy willow is an unremarkable plant, save for its size. But as winter drags on and spring seems distant, I am always astonished when the glistening black catkins emerge amidst the unsettled throes of late winter. I clip a few of the red-tipped stems to bring inside so I can closely watch the black fuzzy flowers open further. Some are capped with shiny maroon bud scales that eventually litter the table, along with yellow pollen that dusts the tips of the shaggy flowers. Soon I will sweep up the mess and drop the spent twigs into the compost pile as the daffodils finally dare to bloom.

Consider the winter garden

Most people don’t think about their gardens in winter. Who wants to be out in the cold more than they have to? But if you’re looking to changesnow-on-rudbeckia-black-eyed-susan-spent-flowers your landscape next summer, winter is a great time to consider your options without the distraction of foliage or flowers. Grab some paper and a pencil and come with me on a little landscape soul-searching.

First, look out your windows from indoors. What do you see? Does it please you? Now go outside and tromp around. With fresh eyes, envision what people see when they walk or drive past your house, when they walk to your front door, and drive up your driveway. What do you see when you collect the mail, take out the trash, take your kids to the bus, or walk the dog? Really look. Do you like what you see, or is it lacking? Why? Jot down all your thoughts.

Next, assess how you use or want to use your outdoor spaces. Do you have children who need play space? How about a dog? Do you want to entertain outdoors? Do you enjoy grilling outdoors? Do you want to grow edibles? Do you intend to play lawn games like badminton, bocce, or croquet? Or is having a relaxing oasis more your speed? Add these thoughts to your other notes.

It’s critical to note the physical attributes of the property too. How much sun do various parts of the property receive? Are there areas where water ponds after a rain? Are there other drainage problems? Where are all the structures on the property—house, garage, shed, children’s play house or tree house, pool, driveway, vegetable beds, septic system, gas and water lines, overhead wires, etc.? Making simple sketches helps record these important points, or you can use a copy of the survey you received when you bought your home and draw on that.

Now take your survey copy and lay tracing paper over it. Using different colored pens or markers, draw lines that represent where you drive and park your car on the property, the pattern of where your pets move around, the path you take to pick up your mail, place your trash for pickup, where your kids play, how they walk to the bus stop, how visitors travel to your front door, and other pathways that might occur on your property. This exercise can reveal faults, eyesores, and difficult access paths in a landscape.

Note the style of your house and think about garden styles you like (cottage, formal, modern, etc.). This is the time to dream and have fun. Websites like Pinterest are great for helping you find the garden styles, colors, and detail you like. Magazines and books are great resources too, as well as real gardens you may have visited. Keep track of things you like to help guide a style for your new garden space, either scrapbook style or electronically.

Taken together, your notes and sketches synthesize the facts about your landscape as well as your thoughts, desires, and needshalesia-carolina-silverbell-buds-in-snow-closeup-winter-10 for it. You can use these materials to come up with a list of changes to make: pathways to remove or change; eyesores to screen; spaces for play or lounging to create; or more pleasing views to establish.

With all your thoughts and ideas recorded, come next spring, you’ll have a starting point for creating a landscape that pleases you and suits your needs.