Dear Margaret: Those two words are how each “letter” in this new series will begin, whenever I write here to my friend Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. Installments will include a letter from each of us, unplanned and posted simultaneously to our websites. It will be interesting to see how our correspondence develops and what similarities and differences occur between our two gardens: one urban and the other rural.
The first instalment coincides with the launch of Margaret’s new book — giveaway details can be found at the end of this post.
Margaret’s corresponding “Dear Gayla” letter for this week can be seen here.
Attached to my home is a south-facing, unheated porch that I use as a cold greenhouse of sorts. In the winter I store many potted half-hardy plants there with the most tender of the bunch huddled together against the brick of the house where they can benefit from a bit of passive heat. I long to line the windows along the east side in bubble wrap for added insulation, but the porch faces the street and there are already so many off-kilter things about us that sully our reputation locally as-is. Covering the windows in packaging materials may be one step too far. When it comes to the neighborhood sensibility, I generally try to keep my outward appearance on the side of eccentric, avoiding the line that crosses into street weirdo. Our previous neighborhood was full of freaks and weirdoes so we blended in easily.
The other morning I stepped into the greenhouse (I need to find another name for this space as it is not a “real” greenhouse) to check up on my plants and was horrified to discover that winter had well and truly arrived. It was my own fault; I have a bad tendency to push things further than they should go. I’d been half-bragging for months about how well even the most tender Pelargoniums (scented geraniums) were doing out there in the cold. They were flourishing and some were even blooming. I got cocky. Truth be told, we haven’t had a proper, true north winter in years and I was starting to believe that those days were over. I’d become too bold. I didn’t protect things as I should have, telling myself it wasn’t worth the bother. And then I woke up one day to find dozens of potted plants frozen.
Barry’s cyclamen have begun their yearly emergence from dormancy and his small, cold greenhouse is alive with them. My own few pots of Cylamen coum (gifts from Barry, of course) have also begun to emerge, although I have noticed that they are behind his.
What you see in this photo isn’t even half of Barry’s collection — there has got to be at least a hundred — pots upon pots upon more pots that he raised from seed seven years ago. He has transplanted some outside into the garden where they have propagated into a million different leaf patterns, colours, and forms. It’s fun to pull back the leaf mulch and observe these tiny new creatures. What new designs will we find? Barry keeps his favourites in pots in the glasshouse where he can enjoy them more closely.
No matter the season, there is always something of interest (many, many things of interest) going on in Barry’s garden and even though I know not to show up without a proper camera, I can’t deny that sometimes (most times) I am lazy and the camera stays at home. Of course, I always regret it later as I did when I visited his place on Friday to see what was new.
And what was new was everything. It was the day of the epic thaw. One day our city gardens are buried in snow, the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages, and the next the sun is shinning, the birds are getting busy, and some guy is traipsing down the street in a T-shirt and flip-flops like it’s August, except that it isn’t August it’s January, and it may be unseasonably warm, but it’s nowhere near Spring Break in Cancun 2013 (Spring Break! Woooo!). That dude is going to regret it next week when he’s stuck in the bathroom suffering the symptoms of the NoroVirus, I tell you what.
I love these first big thaws. First of all, they are a desperately needed reminder that the winter isn’t forever. Spring will come again. They also reveal that life has not ceased underneath the snow. Plants are alive. Some of them are green and fresh. Take this lush and very alive hellebore (above) in Barry’s garden. Before meeting Barry, I had never paid hellebores much mind. Now I can appreciate their merits, the main one being that they stay green year-round!
Some of them, like this Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’ bloom in December and January when most plants are months away from breaking dormancy, let alone making flowers. Let me repeat: I took this photo just a few days ago. In January. In Toronto. What a plant!
The entire block is festively adorned with swaying animatronic santas, flashy light extravaganzas, and colourful wreathes. There are plastic moulded nativity scenes, herds of wire-frame deer, fences wrapped up to resemble presents, and branches stuck into urns and tied around with oversized velvet bows. There are garlands, enough to form a line across the world and back. Garlands wrapped with ribbons, stuck with oscillating lights, and dotted with strange glittery baubles. There are holiday messages written on windows in spray snow from a can, and others spelled out in lights.
And then there is our house, the sore thumb. The sole, cheerless home on the block. Scourge of the neighbourhood. Don’t get me wrong, there are lights — a single, short string of white solar lights that illuminate feebly when and if it does at all, unable to collect enough sun energy through these long and bleak early winter days. It worked too well through the sunny, summer months, announcing our neglect loudly, “Here be your weird, lazy neighbours (or are they hippies? They don’t look like hippies…), too apathetic to bother removing their single, feeble attempt at Holiday participation. There they go. The couple that hates Christmas.”
It happens every year. Whine, whine, whine, gardening season is winding down, the winter is coming, we’re all going to die!!
I want so badly to be the sort of garden writer that composes eloquent, graceful pieces that encourage gardeners to appreciate the cooler seasons and respect the importance of the winter. The fact remains that I am a summer baby. While I understand and respect the seasons, I absolutely abhor the winter months and am full of anxiety as they approach. I spend much of the off season huddled up indoors counting the days until I can be outside in bare feet again. I would avoid going outdoors completely if I could. I am at my happiest when the sun is shining through the plants, the tomatoes are coming in, and I can run out into the garden to collect a few fresh herbs for dinner.
Wonderful smells. Warm soil. The cicadas in the trees. Fuck the winter and its all day five-oclock greyness, layering up like the Michelin Man just to take a walk around the block, and general malaise.
In lieu of my usual annual fall season meltdown, I thought I’d provide a recap of a few previous meltdowns. I’ll see you back here next month for the first snowfall of the season meltdown.
[Incidentally, I wrote the above and then went out to my garden to take a few pictures for the post. This colourful sedum was a good reminder that it's not all bad.]