Essays from
Giving Ground


Every time we have a below zero night now, gardening catalogs bloom in the mailbox, gently insulated by IRS tax forms. It is an ignominious beginning.

I leaf through all that blooming clay paper, the luscious clusters of fruits and berries growing in zones always immediately south of us.

The pages of beetle-beaters, cage traps, bird netting, cat and dog and deer repellents, inflatable giant horned owls: I know too well how a garden "under protection" can look like a carnival site, with plastic pennants popping in the wind, balloons with great eyes swaying, soap tied to trees, wires, nets. It is an exhausting environment to contemplate.

I come back to the restful idea that the true test of a garden's beauty is how it looks in winter. This is the time of year when "traceries" - the good bones - show up. It's often in shades of green, grey, black and white - a touch of deep red where rose hips still cling, or red osier dogwood grows. All that simplicity of form and color is its charm, like a fine lithograph.

It takes a great deal of planning, imagining, leafing through catalogs, wringing of hands at greenhouses, digging, fencing, tying, pruning and mulching to achieve a landscape with good bones.

Each of us chooses a different winter look. Friends who burn off a field every year or two, to keep the brush at bay, want a long view. They love to catch a glimpse of a wild creature just at the edge of the clearing. When people or wild animals visit us here, they have to duck. I spend some considerable time deciding just which balsam fir could be taken out as a Christmas tree, without having any gap in the conifer swaddling around here! I like to be enclosed, cocooned, sheltered. But I like many heights of trees: a nursery of balsams, with here and there Balm of Gileads - "nurse trees" -  nannies to shelter the new growth. I love the three towering old spruce behind the house, and behind the New Cottage.

There are plants and flowers whose bones have to be mowed down every autumn, and these empty spaces are part of a winter garden as well:  restful places for the eyes, as well as for the roots.

We all have our own likes and dislikes of colors and shapes, too. As for myself, I don't like scarlet flowers here - no scarlet geraniums in summer, no scarlet poinsettias in winter. The reds here are burgundies and dark barn reds; the scarlets look too orange among them. I always choose the fuschia shades, and the dark cranberry colors.

I don't like the double-ruffled hybrids of summer, either. They remind me of the crinoline slips we all wore in the 1950's - just too cute for a near-wilderness setting.

Friends have a white garden - though not in this climate. I have been savoring the idea for a long time, but in this far-north gardening zone, would it be possible to always have two or three different whites in bloom, or would I be the only one who knew it was a white garden?!

Names of flowers help me make choices too.... freesia, portulaca, coreopsis.... these are wonderful words to include in a landscape family.

Fred found me a second-hand, hard-bound copy of Katharine S. White's "Onward and Upward in the Garden." She was the wife of E.B. White ("Charlotte's Web"), and E.B. White was half the team of Strunck and White, whose classic handbook on writing well is still in use in colleges all over the world. Katharine's chapter headings could be books by themselves:  "War in the Borders, Peace in the Shrubbery"; "Before the Frost"; "The Changing Rose, the Enduring Cabbage."

I will borrow from E. B. White's introduction of Katharine's book to describe what all of us gardeners are doing at 20 degrees below zero: "calmly plotting the resurrection."

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Giving Ground
Superior National Forest
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