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The Garden in Winter, 2021: Pruning Trees, Just Noticing

Ice on dill umbel.
Ice on dill flower umbel.

By Lisa Brunette

We tend to think of gardening as a strictly warm-weather activity, not something to do during the winter months when the garden goes dormant, especially in climates that enjoy a full-on cold season, like here in the Midwest. During the decade I lived in the Seattle area, I found a certain quiet solace in the months of seemingly unending rain, as the winters were mild, the landscape electric green with moss. Here the green gives way to brown, and then white. That's a different kind of beauty, equally welcome.

There's good reason to take a cue from nature and have a rest ourselves. So for the most part, I've put the hard gardening work aside, and I'm just out noticing things. Like how lovely these dormant plants are after an icy cold snap.

Ice on  sedum flower.
Ice on sedum flowerhead.

But there are things to do in the winter garden, such as prune trees. I've been out there on milder days, trimming back an overgrown knock-out rose bush, as well as taking care of errant suckers and misshapen limbs growing into each other's paths on the fruit trees. I'm taking a light hand with these, however. After reading a lot across the full-spectrum debate about whether to prune or let nature take its course, I've decided on a just-right-of-center road. Or maybe just-left-of-center? I'm not sure what's left and what's right when it comes to trees. What I do know is extreme permaculturists say don't prune them at all, yet the mainstream orchardists tell you to get out there and hack away. I've opted to let the tree tell me what it needs.

Yeah, I'm not joking: I stand there and listen, sensing. I tune in for the shape of the tree to emerge. I cut suckers. I cut branches that cross paths, interfering with each other. Besides that, I leave the tree alone.

While pruning is best done while the trees are dormant, the truth is, there's not much else one can do this time of year. Outside, at least. Inside, of course, there's a pile of seed catalogs and planting charts galore! But only if you're a nerd like me.

Bird bath in  snow.
One bird bath...
Ice on bird bath.
Two bird baths.

Besides the sheer beauty of the garden in winter, another thing to notice is that a great many creatures continue to call the place home. The Dark-eyed junco is a winter visitor to the feeders and bird baths, so much so that some here in the Midwest call them our "snowbirds." 

Like the bird feeders, our bird baths operate year-round, with plenty of takers as soon as the ice and snow melt. Mourning doves in particular like to chip away at the ice as it's melting. One morning the sleet froze in painterly drips all over everything.

Ice on birdhouse.
Gourd birdhouse.

A fresh snow dusting offers the perfect opportunity to see who's frequenting the garden, judging by the tracks they leave behind. One thing I learned from this is that the rabbits use the paths I've created in the garden. Or maybe we just agree on where the paths should be. Here's a set of fresh rabbit prints, crisply outlined in the snow.

Rabbit tracks in snow.
Wabbit tracks!

You might recall my 'dances with rabbits' moment, as described in "When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside." Rather than cursing their existence, especially when they eat my food plants, I've opted to learn as much about them as I can by observing them. We have a brush pile a family uses as a warren. They help me out by pooping in the garden, and since I don't have any domesticated animals, it's the only manure my garden gets. One day this winter, I saw a nice pile of rabbit pellets right at the base of the apple tree. Free fertilizer.

After taking note of them for a year, I know exactly what they like to eat and when, and it's all part of that aforementioned nerdy planting chart. Early in the spring, when we plant tender peas and lettuce, which rabbits love, at a time when their other food choices are slim, I will cordon the food plants off with fencing. 

The rabbits aren't the only ones making tracks.

Critter tracks in snow.
Lots of critters, leaving their mark.

Squirrels are abundant, of course, and this time of year our grey squirrels get white tufts on their ears, as if they've grown winter earmuffs. Where are the raccoons, chipmunks, opossums, moles, groundhogs? Maybe their tracks are in the mess above, or maybe they're dormant this time of year. I guess I'll have to research that. I look forward to seeing them again in spring if so.

But for now, I'm pretty content to keep the feeders stocked with seed and the bird baths clean, to look out the window at the scene, or to bundle up for a wander outside, just to see what there is to notice. Like the garlic, I can wait till spring for the real work to begin again.

Garlic in snow.
The garlic bed, snug under a covering of snow. They're fine, though. Garlic can handle a good snow covering. They'll resume growing in the spring and be ready to harvest in June.

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