Some gardeners even find winter fertile

Prune fruit trees to develop a framework of strong scaffold branches. — Photo by Susan Safford

Whether under limpid or lowering (rhymes with glowering) skies, winter landscapes are often black and white, with snow-covered ground and evergreens blackened by cold. This is the beauty of winter. An albino robin in Christiantown reinforces the color scheme.

Weather has actually been up and down and all over — thawing, freezing, raining, snowing, some wonderful sunny, blue-sky days. A calm friend waives complaints about the weather: “there’s no problem with the weather, only with the forecasting.”

Native Earth Teaching Farm is holding a winter gardening workshop Sunday, Feb. 6, from 2 to 3:30, and Wednesday, Feb. 9, from 11 to 12:30, weather permitting.

Slow Food MV is hosting a Bee Brunch on Sunday, Feb. 13, from 10 am to 1 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.

In the garden

Should the housebound crave a breath of fresh air, there are tasks that may be carried out in the garden. Raking gets the blood moving. Additional leaves will have blown about and into many nooks and crannies in the garden and around the house. Although it is a finger-freezing chore, their being sodden makes them easier to handle. It is better not to let them remain against any wood construction or areas of lawn.

The reactions that underlie a tree’s growth processes are begun weeks or months before anything is noticed by the human observer, and so it is with the tree’s gradual springtime reawakening from dormancy.

I am surveying the trees in our minuscule orchard for necessary pruning and shaping opportunities. Manure fruit trees before the end of February and, before we are ambushed by any earlier-than-ever spring, make pruning and shaping them a priority too. An informative web site for home orchardists is the Home Orchard Society,

Look for a chance to form a good set of three scaffolding branches if the tree is young. Look to remove branches from the tree’s center; prune to an outward facing bud; and prune for developing strong scaffold branches with wide (not acute) branch angles coming off the trunk. Prune out black knot on Prunus. Examine branches and twigs for mummified fruit, and insect egg masses, such as tent caterpillars.

With older or overgrown orchard trees, please do not attempt to prune to a state of perfection all at once, but space it out over about three years. Otherwise the tree will become a mass of sprouts and suckers, trying to replace the too-abrupt loss of leaf canopy.

Some sort of protection for the trunks, either tubes of hardware cloth or plastic tree guards, is necessary to protect trunks from deer-rub and the girdling of rabbits and voles, possibly subnivean.

While the pruners are in hand, check over all the trees and shrubs in the garden for crossing or rubbing branches. There may be some ice or snow breakage to clean up too. Having done it last winter is no good for this winter. Everything grows and changes; nothing stays the same. Look around in the beds — there is bound to be dead foliage or tops of something that was still going strong the week after Thanksgiving and which can now be safely cut down before spring returns.

Under the snow

On a recent trip to New Hampshire I became reacquainted with the concept of the subnivean zone. Our host was lamenting the scarcity of snow cover at the time of the visit and the consequences for wildlife. The subnivean zone is a constituent of winter conditions and takes in whatever happens beneath the snow cover. It is a whole winter world down there. According to Wikipedia, “‘subnivean’ refers to a zone that is in or under the snow layer. This space can form when latent heat from the ground melts a thin layer of snow above it, leaving, in places, a layer of air between the ground and the additional snow cover. The space is typically 1–4 cm in height.

“Subnivean animals include small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, and lemmings that must rely on winter snow cover for survival. These mammals move under the snow for protection from heat loss and some predators. In winter regions that do not have permafrost, the subnivean zone maintains a temperature of close to 32 °F (0 °C) regardless of the temperature above the snow cover, once the snow cover has reached a depth of six inches (15 cm) or more.”

Winter reading

I received a review copy of “The Call of the Land,” by Steven McFadden (NorLightsPress, Nashville, Ind., 2009, 119 ppg.). This slim volume has turned out to be an enjoyable endorsement of agricultural and community sustainability.

Starting by developing the idea of listening to the call of the land, McFadden has enlisted the voices of those he calls careful listeners, and then develops the rest of the work as a series of responses — of the citizen, of the community, of systems, of education.

Two books for plant geeks, Colin Tudge’s “The Tree,” (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2005, 459 ppg.) and Andrea Wulf’s “The Brother Gardeners” (Vintage Books, New York, 2010, 354 ppg.) are good winter reading. “The Tree,” whose subtitle, “a Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter,” says it all, has been in my possession since 2006; I slowly work my way back and forth through its taxa, genera, and species.

“The Brother Gardeners” tells the story of the six men who created the modern garden and changed the horticultural world in the process. While it might seem that this is the driest of subjects, Andrea Wulf makes the history interesting and very readable.

William Robinson, the great and influential Irish-born gardener of the early 20th century, championed respecting nature’s ways in “The Wild Garden,” which has gone through numerous editions and is an essential volume in the literate gardener’s library. Rick Darke has now reissued “The Wild Garden” in an expanded edition (Timber Press, Portland, 2009, 355 ppg.) retaining all the original’s beautiful engraved illustrations while augmenting them with his own rich color photographs.