Thanksgiving is over, leaving us only with several Tupperware containers of stuffing, ham, and the memory of gluttony. I spent Black Friday wandering around the garden, muttering to myself and contemplating What Is To Be Done About The Raspberries.*
Today is the first really cold day of the year. The high will not crack fifty, the low is in the low twenties. In Minnesota, where I spent a decade, this is a heatwave. For North Carolina, this is brisk.
In my garden, things are bit…skewed. I am in Zone mumble, which means that the zone maps used to think I was Zone 7a, readjusted that down to Zone 7b and after four years here, I can say that unless something dramatic happens, I’m really Zone 8a. Things overwinter here that have no business doing so. (Lack of wind, I think. We are in a small clearing surrounded by woods—a belt of conifers near the house and a larger belt of pines around that. Wind gets no shot at us.) I have never lost a tender perennial, and at least one salvia, which should be pushing Zone 9, is snuggled up to the deck and is currently the size of a haystack.
Some day I will be used to gardening here. I read the descriptions of how you are supposed to leave things standing for overwintering insects, and find myself in a quandry—certainly I have nothing but love for our bees curled up in the hollow stems of Joe Pye Weed, for Luna moth caterpillars nestled under leaf litter, but what do I do when the plants are yelling “DORMANCY IS FOR WEAKLINGS!” and those worn-out stems are sticking up from dense, glossy new foliage?
Winter here is one of our major growing seasons. Some of my plants don’t do anything from March to September, then go mad come November and end the winter twice the size they began.
I compromise, as usual. I cut back the dead bits from plants that are clearly planning on plowing through straight to February, and lay them gently on the brush pile on the sideyard. The leaves pile up any old way, and other than brushing them off the thyme and the yuccas, it’s all mulch as far as I’m concerned. Any Luna moth cocoons tucked under the leaves will go unmolested. Raking is something that happens to other people, and presumably other Luna moths.
Some day I’ll get used to the weather here. It hasn’t happened yet. When I see the jalapeno peppers covered in flowers at the end of October or asters blazing past New Year’s Day, I think What is this weird place I live in? I read gardening books talking about the treachery of warm days in March that convince the flowers to bud too early, which are then killed with a late freeze, and I think March? I plant peas and runner beans in March. I put out the first round of beets in March. Talk to me when you have seventy-degree days at Christmas!
This does not seem to be a year with a seventy-degree Christmas. I have a gardener’s suspicion that we’re looking at a cold winter, at least relatively speaking. It may even snow. (I both love and dread snow. Snow makes it a real, honest-to-goodness winter, as far as I’m concerned, not just a weird dragging fusion of autumn and spring. Snow is a visual delight and nicely insulates the plants. On the downside, they do not know what to do with snow here, they have no infrastructure for it, and the sight of a snowflake a hundred miles away closes schools and causes cars to flip over and explode.)
Today, though, it’s cold. The tufted titmice are using the birdbath on the deck. The juncos, my one true sign of winter, arrived last week. (One is sitting on a sun-warmed rock edging the pond right now. I associate such behavior with cold-blooded animals, but he’s hunkered down and fluffed. Perhaps it is the warmest rock available.) Yesterday I spied a hermit thrush skittering across the yard. It had ventured out from the fence-line, where they usually lurk, and was boldly crossing the broad mulched area where (some highly ambitious week) I will be building a raised stone bed. He found a worm somewhere and bore it off triumphantly to the woods.
I think he’d have a harder time finding a worm today. If I were a worm, I’d be curled up in my burrow with a cup of tea and a copy of The Annelid Review.
To make up for the lack of worms, I pull on my ridiculous hat—the one that looks like a small, cheerful shark is devouring my head—and slog outside to the feeder. I have suet cakes and safflower seeds. The squirrels are supposed to ignore the safflower, but no one has told the squirrel this. As he sits in the hopper and eats, he knocks seeds down to the ground, where the juncos skitter and hop about.
The vast majority of food in my yard comes from the plants, of course—seedheads from the river oats, berries from the American holly and beautyberry, rose hips from the roses. (One of the roses, a Pink Drift that is supposed to make an attractive but cat-resistant groundcover in the vicinity of the bird feeder, has decided that late November is its time to shine. All the other roses have vermilion hips on them. This one rose has extraordinary pink flowers. I am puzzled by its choice, even as I applaud its enthusiasm.) There are probably seedheads on the coneflowers, too. Lord knows, there are still a few straggling bees on the asters, so anything’s possible.
Nevertheless, despite the bounty of the plants, I lug suet out in winter, partly because I fear for the Carolina wrens, who do not migrate and will freeze to death in a hard winter,** and partly because it’s nice to have the bird population concentrated somewhere where I can get a good look at them with the binoculars.
And also partly because, as a wildlife gardener, I feel responsible for the beasties that come into the yard, as if I lured them there with the offer of Free Organic Produce and now am required to keep them fed. My plants do their best, but it’s a young garden still. There are enough rose hips for a couple of mockingbirds to have a very nice lunch, and then what do we do for the rest of the winter?
In five years, I hope that this will be less of an issue—that there will be such lavish abundance that it will feed an army of small birds. Until then…well, it’s cold outside. We do what we can.
*The trouble with raspberries is that the middle ground between Saddest Raspberry Ever and Nuke Them From Orbit, You Fool, You Have Doomed Us All is nearly nonexistent. Either you have no raspberries or you have ALL of them.
**Books will tell you that Carolina wrens do not come to feeders. I can only assume that the same people in charge of telling the squirrels they don’t eat safflower are in charge of telling the wrens they have no interest in suet.
© 2012, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.