Category Archives: gardening

An Apology to Mr. Teale

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.

The Cold Plateau of January

Naturalist Edwin Way Teale connected with nature throughout the year. I have added Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of the Naturalist’s Year to my daily reading. In the selection for January 4, he describes midwinter as “a pause in the turning wheel of life” while “the whole circle of the seasons stretches away before us as we view the year from the cold plateau of January” (p. 2).

I don’t know if Teale was a gardener or not. While gardening life slows down this time of year, we never stop completely. I planted garlic in a raised bed in December. We ordered onion sets last fall and will be building a raised bed for their arrival in February. The seed catalogs are arriving daily.

Nature doesn’t stop completely either. As I was taking pictures the other day, I discovered Nigella seedlings in a pot. Also known as Love In a Mist, they are one of my favorites, with sweet blue blossoms that turn to balloon like seed pods, self-sowing and sprouting in the fall, surviving through the winter, then blooming with the first warmth of spring.

Winter Garden

In the winter, my husband and I spend a lot of time on our south facing sun porch. On a sunny day, it is the warmest spot in the house. The porch looks out over the flower garden that borders this side of the house. Winter has taken its toll on the flowers and foliage, but as with the trees, it has also revealed the foundations of the garden and offers me a chance to reconsider and rearrange. I did a bit of that work in the fall but also have a window in the spring when I can make some changes.

In her book about Beatrix Potter’s garden, Marta McDowell comments that every gardener is tempted to start from scratch, but Potter was too “practical-minded” to do that. I am of a similar mind: this particular garden has been a work in progress for almost as long as we have lived at the farm, and each year, it gets closer to some kind of vision. But, also much like Potter, I don’t mind a bit of messiness. McDowell comments, “She never aimed for a show garden” (p. 271).

Here are a few pictures of the winter garden. I find the dry hydrangea blossoms and pineapple sage branches beautiful. And not everything is dead. That lovely green plant beside my bottle tree is rosemary, a winter garden stalwart.

Winter Garden

Winter Trees

You probably know Beatrix Potter from her children’s books that feature animals such as The Tales of Peter Rabbit. But, Potter had many other interests and talents including gardening. I was thoroughly entranced by Linda Lear‘s biography of Potter. While obviously having affection for this extraordinary woman, Lear wasn’t above describing her occasional rudeness or imperiousness. She also deftly connects the three periods of Potter’s life: her work in natural science, her work as a writer, and, finally, her work as a farmer and conservationist. Throughout it all, she found Potter found inspiration and personal peace in the country, amongst the animals and their keepers. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a wonderful tribute to this amazing woman.

I followed up with Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell. The first half of the book provides biographical detail related to Potter’s purchase of Hill Top Farm and other properties in the Lake District along with her preservation work. The second half moves into the garden and the life of its caretaker as we move through the circle of seasons. I was reading the book in October when I had just finished covering my mop head hydrangeas in hopes of blooms next year and felt an instant connection to Potter, a kindred spirit who loved nothing better than gardening and reading and wasn’t concerned about a solitary life in the country.

Even in the winter, Potter found beauty and satisfaction in the natural world around her. She encourages a young protegee to take time to look at the trees in the winter when we are able to see their underlying structure, how the trunk and branches interact to shape the tree. She writes:

We can tell every tree in winter without reference to foliage by its mode of growth. So study them in some spare moments…they will repay–they are in the right place as beautiful as rocks. They have a nobility of growth which is usually entirely overlooked (p. 154).

Beatrix potter’s gardening life

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Since some of the trees in my front yard keep their leaves, it can, as Potter suggests, be easy to overlook those who spend the season with bare branches stretching skyward, casting shadows in the winter sunset.

Farm Life

Our first planting of corn has been producing for almost a month! Eating fresh and freezing as much as possible.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, about her family farm in southwest Virginia, she describes the extensive preparations they took to protect the garden from weeds and critters before going away for a week. I was away for two weeks at the height of the growing season with no time for preparation, and my gardens, both vegetable and flower, were busy both producing and returning to the wild when I returned. I was able to wrestle back some control from the weeds while also harvesting corn, green beans and tomatoes for consumption and preservation. My freezer is slowly filling up with bags of beans and plastic containers of corn and tomato sauce. It will be a delicious winter.

The Pear Orchard
The pear orchard with six trees and lots of delicious, eat-off-the tree pears.

I have also been canning pear jam with the bounty from our six pear trees, all of which have produced amazing fruit this year. I am using this great recipe from Practical Self Reliance; it makes a beautiful, chunky but spreadable jam. My only hack is that I use my pressure cooker to cook down the pears as it requires less tending than the stove top.

The world of “real” work is calling, and in between gardening and cooking, I got started on a couple projects for the fall semester. I was worried that, after feeling very retired for the first months of 2023 and especially while I was hanging out with my parents and then digging into my part-time farmer life, I wouldn’t have the energy or motivation to deal with timelines and deadlines and other people. Fortunately, my skills at prioritizing and focusing kicked back in but with a better sense of balance. I was able to integrate work without it overwhelming the rest of my life the way it might have in the past. Plus, it has been a great time to learn new tech skills: I am incorporating AI into both my edtech courses and have been having fun learning about and experimenting with ChatGPT. More on that later.

For now, I’ve got pears to prep and tomatoes to pick, and I might even take a bike ride on a Monday morning.

Pears hanging low on the branches