The Spiritual Gardener: Floral Gorgeousness in Winter

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We had a bright and sunny Groundhog Day this year, meaning six more weeks of winter, in theory, but I doubt it. Last weekend I cut a bucket of forsythia that is now soaking in the laundry room and its tiny acid-green-yellow buds are swelling.  Many people despise this color, but I love it – not normally and not always, but when it is one of the first harbingers of spring, it is most cheerily welcome. When it has fully bloomed, it will occupy center stage in the middle of our round dining room table.

For floral gorgeousness in winter, when you can’t wait for spring any longer, you can force bulbs and flowering branches to bloom indoors. (Above: tulips, daffodils, forsythia and magnolia.)
Indoors we also have lots of amaryllis blooming like mad: three feet tall reds and several stupendous “jaguars”, cream and pink stripes, and pots of daffodils coming along briskly.

While the garden rests in its wintry state, I can tackle other pressing projects. Last weekend I scraped, cleaned, painted and re-hung four of nine basement windows, and this weekend I am going to tackle the rest. Six beautiful rugosa roses are on order from Heirloom Roses and I have great hopes for them; they are to arrive in early May. Also, in the house, are the two sole botanical summer refugees that a regrettably tyrannical member of this household has permitted indoors – the two patio pots with dracaena, gerbera daisies, geraniums and ivy – and they are doing fairly well, although they are crammed into an awkward spot in the mudroom.

I put up three new bird-nesting boxes, and we now have them in many of our trees; almost all of them seem to get used at least once a year no matter how many we put up. I also cleaned out all the old ones, though probably for the last time, as it seems a dirty job that the birds should do for themselves, as I am sure they will do when the gardener is not so obliging as to do it for them. It’s the same with doing chores for kids, I find; it is quite amazing how willing they are to have things done for them and how effortlessly they accept these small devotions, the dears.

I hauled away a huge limb that crashed out of one of the maples on our street, and the city is removing altogether another large maple that is nearly dead, so good riddance to that.  Nothing against maples; in fact, I admire them, but it is nice to see dead trees removed at someone else’s expense for once. I also pruned down some more grape vines and spread more manure. The winter-tattered yard is actually starting to look like the mind of an active gardener is at work here, rather than just being a ratty wilderness, so that is satisfying. I took time to stake two small roses in the crescent bed to tall black tripods, giving the garden some much-needed vertical structure and support; how well that will look when the roses are all leafed out and covered with blooms.

I bought two dozen tulip blooms for inside, and they are jolly and spring-like, very cheering. Note to self: when pining for spring but you still have weeks to wait, do by all means cheat by buying tulips for the house at the grocery store.  We went to a lovely dinner at a neighbor’s house and they had two huge vases with two dozen roses each – one all red and one red and pink – and a sensational, low floral centerpiece all in pale pinks: huge roses, tulips, and elegantly curling snapdragons. How lovely to see such floral gorgeousness in February, a month that is mainly meant for flu and tax preparation, both of which make me rather ill, on the whole.

Right about now in the winter season is when the gardener starts getting a bit itchy to get out in the garden, but weather and garden conditions rarely permit. However, on the other hand we must resist the fate of becoming weather victims and shut-ins. Instead, let us bundle up warmly, put on some stout walking boots and grab the nearest canine companion if you are lucky enough to have one, and go for a long winter walk (if it is not positively bitter out). My wife and I and Cosimo did this very thing this past weekend: we walked the seven or so miles up the Delaware Canal towpath from Washington’s Crossing in Pennsylvania (yes, the famous one) to the popular arts and antiques enclave of New Hope, and it was glorious. Sunny and cold, but not miserable, and the fresh air and beautiful scenery were great tonics to the eye and to the spirit.

For starters, we saw a lovely great blue heron fishing in the icy pools of water that were still left in the canal; he couldn’t have been more than 15 feet from us but just went on about his business with heron-like intensity. There were duck and fat Canada geese by their hundreds, and we saw lots of deer in the forest on either side of the towpath.

On one great and denuded beech tree we saw an enormous bald eagle sitting on the topmost branch and regally surveying the scene below, with a particularly keen interest in one couple’s small, frisking terrier who had no idea of his great peril. We stood at the bottom of the tree, perhaps 30 feet from where he was perched.  Few people realize bald eagles live and fish on the Delaware, and that many of them stay here all winter, though some of them migrate to warmer locales. People were walking by oblivious, so we had to stop them and point out this wonder, until finally a small group was gathered, staring up at the majestic creature in awe.

The forest was stripped of leaves by the winter, but this opened the forest up and you could see deeper into the woods than usual, with here and there some holly trees and other evergreens providing winter greenery and everywhere there were great festoons of wild and rampant wisteria vines, many as big around as my forearm.  Nearby, we would catch glimpses of the rushing Delaware River, flowing fast, turbid and cold, swollen with winter rains and sending its large ice floes hurrying out into the great Delaware Bay far below. A fantastic landscape.

In reading about the garden, I have a most delightful recommendation to impart. You know, one of the really great things about gardeners is how wonderfully generous they are with advice, most of it rubbish, of course, and advice they themselves do not follow in anything like a systematic way, as I have noticed. But every so often you pick up a nugget of great value, so here is something along the line of a pearl of rare price.  If you have never read Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell, go out and buy this fine book immediately! It was written in 1950, near the end of the author’s long life, and it is a novel about a crusty old English gardener near the end of his own life, looking back on what made him the gardener – and the man – he is now.  What a lovely and humane book this is, a gentle comedy enriched with sober observation on the practice and philosophy of gardening. It is truly a gem and, though far too brief, it is something you will take to heart and cherish.

Finally, we had a lovely mild day this week and, although I was recovering from a bout of flu and have been feeling rather weak, it sounded good to me to go out and take stock of the garden in the warm, humid air of a mellow day in midwinter.  I got right down to the level of the soil in the herbaceous border and found that, when you get your face right in the dirt, you can see all the red knobs of the fresh peony shoots that are already pushing up, all the green and white asparagus tips of the hosta shoots, the knuckles of the venerable sedum, and the dark, purple-green shoots of the helianthus.

Ah yes, the garden knows spring is coming and it is getting ready!


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.