As I mentioned, I am reading naturalist Edwin Way Teale‘s Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year. I took him to task just a bit for suggesting that winter is a pause in the turning of the wheel, arguing that the life of a gardener and her garden doesn’t stop, neither for that matter does the wheel of life. This time of year, especially, we are treated to birds taking advantage of our feeders and shrubbery. The cardinals are a favorite.
While I still might quibble over the word “pause,” Teale makes my argument for me in the entry for January 7. He writes eloquently about life being everywhere even on the coldest winter day:
Protected by sweaters and a leather jacket against the biting blasts of the north wind, I walk along the hillside this afternoon. Snow lies drifted among the wild cherries. Where the wind has swept bare the ground, the soil is frozen and rocklike. On this day of bleak cold, the earth seems dead. Yet every northern field and hillside, like a child, has the seeds and power of growth locked within. From cocoon to bur, on a winter’s day, there is everywhere life, dormant but waiting (p. 3).Circle of the seasons, p. 3
He goes on to describe how some seeds and bulbs actually require a period of cold in order to thrive. For instance, tulips and lilacs signalled spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. So, when I moved to Virginia and started my own garden, that is what I planted. I quickly discovered, however, that we lived on the very edge of their range and growing them was challenging. It just didn’t get cold enough.
Now, as the climate warms and the plant hardiness zones shift northward, those spring favorites may become less common in Pennsylvania as well. Developed in the early to mid 20th century, the plant hardiness zones attempt to identify the average minimum temperature a zone. Changes to the existing zones were announced in November 2023 making changes to the 2012 maps. While I continue to garden in Zone 7b, my parents’ zone changed from 6b to 7a, making them warmer by 5 degrees, which may be just enough to discourage the tulips and lilacs from blooming. You can check out your zone on the interactive map. It provides your 2012 and 2023 zones for reference.
Part of the reason my lilacs struggled in Virginia was also the heat and humidity we experience in the summer. They survived but certainly did not thrive, already weakened by a too-warm winter. The American Horticultural Society developed a heat zone map that looks at the other end of the thermometer and what the high temperatures for each zone are.
Gardeners were not surprised when the new maps were released last fall. We have been seeing the changes in our own backyards for some time now. Collards, a staple of southern cooking, may be the canaries in the coal mine. The tradition is that you only pick collards after the first frost. It sweetens them up. But, lately, the frost has come later and later, and one recent year, we weren’t sure it would happen by Thanksgiving. There would be a hole on many holiday tables.
I am grateful to be able to live here on the farm, my own bit of nature to observe, my own bit of wilderness to tend. It affords me a golden opportunity to look closely and connect to the turning wheel of the seasons.