The Long View – Meditations on Gardening: The Soft Season

Occasional essays by Christa Watters, Extension Master Gardener

The Soft Season


“Softened Branch Outlines” Simpson Garden, March 2015 by Christa Watters

Undefined, blurred, softened – that’s how the gardens look under snow. We call it harsh winter, but, in fact, it’s a soft season in many ways. We cannot garden outdoors during snow, nor trample the beds afterward while the soil is all soft and damp and sheltering the turmoil of life under the surface. So we ourselves get a little soft, physically, in terms of outdoor labor.

There are things left undone. Who could bear to uproot the last annuals when they were still in bloom on New Year’s Day? Who could cut down all the perennials when they still had a few seed heads that the birds might eat, no matter how untidy they looked? Then came the deep freeze of early January, the day the last remaining begonias froze solid and their stems cracked like glass when touched.

The Simpson Demonstration Gardens in Alexandria, where a group of us gardens through the growing season, encompass a variety of beds, all pretty clearly defined most of the year. Yet under a blanket of snow, the big berm — normally a riot of color, texture, and shapes layered up toward the apex — virtually disappears. The other beds of the garden lie undefined, barely discernible unless you know exactly where they are or what dry stalks mark them. The garden as a whole recedes into the distance, marked only by the outlines of benches, the bright green masses of evergreens, a few masonry walls, and the lumpy terrain of the tufa gardens.


“Winter Hush Simpson” Simpson Gardens, January 2016 by Christa Watters

That January snow has mostly melted, yet as I write this, more snow is falling, reinforcing the urge to stay warm indoors. I venture out to feed the birds, but beyond shoveling out the car, there’s not much to be done. Not now.


“Paths & Borders Disappear” Simpson Garden, March 2015 by Christa Watters

Still, the days are lengthening and the sun grows stronger. We may be in for more harsh weather before spring truly arrives, no matter what that Groundhog said. The “dormant” season is a bit of a misnomer in our region. Something is always going on in the garden, and green and growing life will soon surge back. Even before the recent snows, the daffodils were up a few inches. The roses will soon leaf out and need pruning, and there are other shrubs to thin and cut back. Some of the hellebores have bloomed and are still there under the snow; others have suffered from the harsh freezes. We’ll need to tidy up. The fragrant Daphne odora was in full bud before the big January snow. Who knows if the buds will survive? If recent years are an indicator, most of them will make it, and even if the Daphne buds go brown, the plant will likely survive.  So far, the rosemary and lavender bushes seem to have survived.

It’s way too early for this kind of optimism. But gardeners stay hopeful – else we would not keep planting and tending, watering and weeding and harvesting. We dream of spring, we read the catalogs or scroll through Web sites. We plan for summer blooms, herbs, vegetables. Whatever our plans, we are bound to be surprised by the way it all works out.

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