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He Loves Those Chilly Scenes of Winter

I know this must be a minority opinion (and I also know some have heard it before), but I like winter. Indeed, I look forward to it and savor every minute. It must be a minority opinion, because many people who have moved here let you know they came “to leave winter behind.” And television weather forecasters always seem to moan about the cold or the wet, in sympathy for their viewers, I presume. Even those who were born here seem none too fond of winter.

A good friend, born and reared in Beverly Hills, complains that anything under about 80 degrees is “Nanook weather” and says he would like it to rain only between 3 and 5 a.m. That, I suspect, is only as a concession to his garden, because he is an avid gardener.

Of course, the cold is just as necessary as the wet because he grows apricots, apples and even pears, and they all need a good deal of cold weather to set fruit (though I haven’t figured out how he grows those pears, which need a lot of cold weather--certainly not to be found in Beverly Hills).

But gardeners should love winter for every drop of rain, for every degree of cold and for the peace and quiet that descends on a garden like a blanket of snow.

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The crisp, clear mornings are precious times. The sounds of distant freeways and airplanes seem to be muted by the cold, and the garden is so still you wonder if it is asleep. But in California, it is never really asleep because while the cold may slow growth and stop flowering, the rain keeps plants growing and incredibly green.

I have heard that small amounts of nitrogen are present in every raindrop and that this explains why gardens are so green during the rainy season. But it must also be that the rain is so pure and so gently deposited.

Those who wisely sowed what we call winter rye on top of their lawns (an annual rye grass that grows in the cool weather and then dies at the onset of summer) watched the early rains bring it up and now are enjoying what must be the greenest carpet possible. But the green of other plants is equally luminous at this time of the year, especially that of perennials and annuals that were planted in the fall and are slowly growing through winter in preparation for spring.

They look even greener than they are because the soil is moist and dark, not bleached and hardened by the summer sun. When the soil dries just a little after a rain, it is perfect for digging, and the weather is not too hot for this strenuous work. But remember the rule for working a soil: Squeeze a fistful; if it crumbles when you loosen your grip it is just right, but if it stays in a tight ball it is still too wet.

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There’s not a lot you can plant at this time of the year that wouldn’t have been better planted back before the rains came. You can plant the flowers found at nurseries, but you are off to a late start. The exceptions are the bare-root roses and fruit trees, grapes and berries, strawberries and rhubarb--best planted now. And camellias of course, which are coming into blossom so you can see what color and shape of flower you are adding to your garden before you plant it.

I especially like planting roses at this time of the year, because it is not quite like planting anything else. You get to play in the dirt more because not only must you dig a hole but then you get to pile up a cone of soil in the bottom. This cone of soil is a wonderful old garden technique that allows you to spread out the bare roots in a natural fashion while providing a firm base for the rose to sit on. Of course, this part must be done by hand, and you should crush any clods while you’re at it, relishing every moment you can be in contact with the soil.

I even like weeding more in winter. The weeds are not the persistent perennial kinds one battles all summer but annuals for the most part, with shallow roots that are easy to pull out of the soft, moist soil. Weeding allows you to sit quietly and look at the garden without seeming too odd for doing so; you discover things like mushrooms that are popping up from under the litter of leaves or a plant you had forgotten about, or hummingbirds or carefully hidden walnuts.

I also like winter simply because it is a change. The low light is dramatic and the sun’s warmth is more welcome on your back. I am more likely to say “What a wonderful day!” on those sunny days between storms than I am in summer after months of sunny days.

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The gardener’s craft is more apparent in winter when more of the soil and the structure of plants can be seen. The roses are just sticks, neatly pruned and waiting. The perennials are trim clumps of new leaves that are just beginning to hide the short, brown stubs of the previous year’s stems. Bulbs are pushing up, and the annuals planted in the fall are yet tidy tufts of leaves, evenly spaced. The fallen leaves of autumn are in the compost pile and the ground is raked flat and made orderly. And everything is so green.

It is a different look, and a peaceful and pleasant one, far better--in my opinion--than stepping out the back door and seeing always impatiens, blooming in any season, as inanimate as furniture, detached from time. Too much of winter would not be a good thing either, but the sun will soon climb higher and these short days will not last long. It will soon be spring, which is another nice season, full of change but part of continuity.


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