Winter Garden
Ash trees and Red Twig Dogwood in Winter

Joan Shaw
rom my seat inside the house, the garden looks dead.  Permanently dead. A scant ten inches of snow is all that softens what is uniformly gray-brown underneath. That it will burgeon into a rainbow of colors, green predominating, in a bit over six weeks seems totally preposterous. And yet it's happened before, year after year.  Spring is out there, underneath the snow, an underlying reality beneath the frozen rind of last year's grass and plants, ready to quicken sometime around Palm Sunday.

The Greeks explain the phenomenon of winter through the legend of Demeter, Goddess of harvest and fertility. You remember the story - her daughter was Persephone, fathered by Zeus. Persephone had been cavorting with her playmates in the vale of Enna - that paradise of eternal spring - gathering flowers. Then she happened to pluck one out by its roots, alas, and up popped Pluto through the opening.  He peered about, this god of the Underworld, took one look at Persephone and fell hopelessly in love. So naturally he carried her off.  He carried her off screaming for her mother. He carried her off and down to the Underworld to be his companion forever.

Demeter could hear her daughter, didn't know where the cries were coming from, finally found her whereabouts, and went to Zeus for satisfaction. Meanwhile, she neglected the Earth while she grieved and it went into hibernation. Zeus eventually brokered a compromise between Demeter and Pluto, wherein Pluto was allowed to have Persephone at his side for three months out of the year and Demeter could have her the rest of the time. So the Earth came back to life, but only for nine months. For the three months that Persephone spent in the Underworld, Demeter grieved all over again and Earth grieved with her.  Hence the three months of winter in the Aegean.Bench in front of The Granary

But that was back when the world was flat and there wasn't much known of anything beyond the boundaries of Europe. Later on it dawned on humanity that the world was not flat, but round, and not only round, but tilted on its axis. The slanted rays of the sun striking the part of the earth turned away from the sun, they found, are spread out and less warm than the rays that strike head-on. So part of the earth experiences the watery sun of winter and part the bright sun of summer, and this by turns. Winter, therefore, was going to come to the world's temperate zones, willy-nilly, regardless of who was abducted or not abducted, and much of the wintery region's plants and most of its animals, resigned, would hunker down into hibernation until spring returned once more.

East of Eden

For gardeners it's a bit like living east of Eden, banished from our shrubs and perennial beds, looking out into the cold while attempting to blink back into life what the place out there was like the spring before. It's the winter exile, the wait for resurrection and rebirth. The deciduous trees are waiting, too. Their leaves are wrapped tightly in protective bud scales under all that snow and will only emerge after the air and soil warms up and the days grow longer. And waiting also are the leaf buds of all the other deciduous woody plants in this part of Utah. The forsythia, the hydrangeas, the mock orange, the lilacs, the roses.

The conifers loom shadowy behind the beds and along the hillside. The cold that destroys the chlorophyll in The drive looking toward the eastern mountains their needles has darkened the red cedars to a rusty purple, the junipers to a dusty blue, the spruces, firs, and pines to a dull black-green. They bring an elegant and somber quality to the scene, rising so silently up out of the snow. More so when great gobs of that same snow weigh down their branches. Though I still prefer the flush of life in the spring when a kind of passion starts up again among those stolid, heavy sentinels. I love the seductive droop of the lace-like spring-green growth that hangs from the tips of their branches.

A Paradise for bugs

The waiting garden is lush and so is the wildlife that makes its home there. The crab spiders (Misumena vatia ), that in the summer lurk in ambush in the roses and chrysanthemums for unwary insects have long since died with the season. But they've left webbed sacs of eggs behind them to overwinter under the leaf litter. They're out there now. They're waiting until the warming air and soil signals the spiderlings inside them to leave the shells and find homes in the plants around them.

The spiders' prey, the insects, are waiting, too, in the form of eggs or pupae or fertilized females - aphids, mosquitoes, flies, mites, and gnats; and the ants, wasps, and beetles that also feed on them; and, finally, the various families of bees. Overwintering butterflies like the Mourningcloak will have taken refuge long ago under the eaves of the house, around the window frames, behind the deck foundation, and amid the leaf litter on the ground, wings tightly closed. Other butterflies, like the Swallowtail, are tucked under logs, leaves, and branches as pupae ; still others as eggs, or as tiny caterpillars.

Far under that frozen ground, the earthworms are curled up into balls, surrounded by mucous sacs to keep themselves moist until it's warm enough to get back to boring softly through the soil to filter out nutrients and leave the byproducts on the surface as castings.  Darwin estimated  that castings thrown up by earthworms can amount to as much as ten tons of earth a year per acre on an average piece of grassland and can add as much as one-fifth of an inch of soil to the surface in a year 1. Which might explain why we found, one late winter day, a very old, two-foot-long pipe wrench over a foot down in the lawn that could well have been dropped by one of the early owners of this farm in the 1930s.

Do rodents ever hibernate?

My guess would be, no, the little devils never hibernate. Take the voles, for instance. Voles number in the thousands around here. Under the snow cover, they make mazelike tunnels of close-cropped grass from one end of the lawns to the other. Females can produce a hundred young a year and all of them have insatiable appetites. What they're doing out there - out under the snow where I can't see them - is looking for my tulip bulbs. They love tulip bulbs. I keep replacing them, finding new beds that show no vole activity, and plant the replacements with many prayers and incantations, but  the wily voles eventually find them, and so I move on and plant again.

The tulip bulbs, those that are momentarily safe from the voles, are slowly pushing up toward the surface the green shoots that herald what's waiting far inside them - the cups of color, some fringed, some long and pointed - they're right there, under the snow, and some of the shoots may have already broken the surface by the time the snow melts away.The east garden looking south

The voles avoid the poisonous bulbs of daffodils, so I plant them everywhere. The daffodils have no predators, in fact, except the deer who eat the tops off, always when the green begins to break through the soil. Well, we can spare a few.  We have thousands of them and besides, the deer eat only the ones in their path.

In their path as they pass through the lawns and beds and copses, searching for our crab apple trees.

The deer are nearly as active around here in winter as the voles, and look upon our crab trees as much more robust fare. They don't necessarily wait for the opening of their leaf buds, either. They like the tender, sweet-tasting limbs, managing to keep them well pruned to above their head level. The sturdy little crabs seem to thrive under this yearly pruning, nevertheless. The trunks of all the smaller trees on the place, you see, are already wrapped in winter against the voles. Deprived of tulip bulbs, the little beasts, streaking here and there under the snowline, would girdle the trees by nibbling the bark clear around the trunk, given half an opportunity. So, yes, the crabs survive both deer and voles. Indeed, they seem to flourish.

Flourish. What a wonderful word to contemplate while looking out at this frozen garden. Lush is another word that rolls comfortingly off the tongue. And vibrant color - yes! And soon it will be out there, all of those things, and I'll be carrying a hoe around, grumbling about the weeds. Because the weeds are out there, too. They're waiting for me. They're pumping up their muscles under the snow.

Best wishes on Presidents Day,

Joan Katherine Shaw
February 21, 2000

'Mourningcloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) We'll be watching for a sight like this in the coming weeks: an early harbinger of spring, the Mourningcloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), spreading  her wings to dry in the early March sun. The Mourningcloak is a common butterfly in Utah, having brownish black wings with yellowish margins. The larvae feed mostly on willow, elm, and poplar, all of which are abundant around here. This is one of the few butterflies that overwinter in the adult stage.

Photo was taken by Melanie Shaw.

1Reported by George Ordish in a delightful book called, The Living Garden, the 400-year History of an English Garden. It recounts not only the plant life above ground, but also the microbial life below, and the wildlife inhabiting both.  Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print, although will search for a copy of The Living Garden for you.

My Weeds by Sara Stein (author of Noah's Garden), recently reissued in paperback, is a must have for gardeners in the battle of the weeds. I've read it through with great pleasure a few years ago, laughing out loud at times. And I've since gone back again and again to consult it. It's full of essential information on this bane of gardeners - the aggressive and persistent tribe of weeds - all of it offered up with terrific wit.

Winter scene photos by Joan Katherine Shaw
Graphic artist/researcher: Melanie Shaw

Link to check out Sarah Stein's My Weeds at

My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany by Sarah Stein

Link to search for The Living Garden at

The Living Garden by George Ordish

Link to browse for books on  gardens and the wildlife inhabiting them:

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