Emerging into the newly born year

The Island’s winter palate is spare and exquisitely subtle.

Photo by Susan Safford

Celebrate winter

As I emerge into winter and the newly born year (from the holiday haze, cleverly designed to coincide with the solstice stupor), I find the sun stronger, the cold deeper, and improved mental clarity.

Appropriate to the Vineyard winter, the Guardian’s Alys Fowler wrote about her love of winter, and expresses it wellhere: theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/29/some-like-it-cold

“If you embrace our winter in all its dripping wetness, its desolate cold, its bleak grey, then it’s possible to find happiness in the places you least expect. … There is a loneliness to the winter landscape; the whole story is no longer on show, entire chapters are now stored underground.”

Winter’s palette

Dwellers in the temperate zone enjoy four seasons, and many play the game of “favorite one.” I used to feel my favorite was whichever we were currently in, because they are all good. No, wonderful!

In actuality, I always had an affinity for Island winter. I love its stillness, and the Island’s winter palette is spare and exquisitely subtle. Take away the contented opulence of summer, and what do you have? It’s green all over. Take away spring’s fragility and rich promise, and one may be weighed down with the sense of Time’s onward rush.

Autumn comes a close second to winter’s appeal, with its golden light and deeper blue skies and the unstated tension of the coming changes. However, I delight in the spaciousness of winter skies. The contrast of their vast cloudscapes with the Island’s intimate landscapes wins my senses, over and over.

However, our requirements for the winter scenery of our domestic spaces often dictate greater coziness; we employ evergreens to contradict the hardness of winter and mitigate its bleak aspects. Evergreens break Venturi effects’ icy blasts around buildings, and provide wildlife with someplace to take shelter.

I enjoy the beautiful shadings of browns and grays of the native woods around my house, but even more so in contrast to the white pines, hollies, yews, rhododendrons, firs, spruces, and skimmias planted nearby that soften them.

Deer will browse some of the above over the course of winter, but not the charming muffin mounds of the skimmias. They will be left intact. I fail to understand why skimmias are not more widely planted here on the Island, where they associate well with rhododendron, azalea, and holly, and do a good job of fronting them in shrubberies. The ideal planting site is in moist, well-drained soil, in shady spots.

The usually suggested forms of these dioecious broadleaf evergreens, in the Rutaceae family, are a heavily fruiting female cultivar such as S. japonica “Nymans,” and a good male pollinator such as “Rubella.” My male skimmia is covered with flower panicles of a deep dusty red, and is very decorative. The female, however, surpasses it in sheer red and green power, and takes the eye from several feet away with its clusters of large, shiny red fruits, surrounded by glossy mid-green leaves.

As seen in the image, planting in partial sunshine may have led to yellowing of the foliage.

Skimmias may seem pricey at the nursery, but a little secret is that they take well to propagation, either by layering or rooted cutting, or by sowing fresh seed, which germinates well once cleaned of the fleshy drupe.

In the garden

Winter days on the Vineyard can be exhilarating and beautiful, and having some outside work to do is a great antidote to stale, dry indoor air. There is always more to do, small jobs and details, as an excuse to be outside.

Alys Fowler’s column continues, “But I most love getting to know my local trees. It is now that they show off their secrets, the hidden nests and hollows, the comic twists of their limbs, how they tap on their neighbour’s [sic] shoulder, how they let the ivy wrap them up — or not. …

While you’re looking up, take in the winter clouds — snow-laden waves of cotton fluff perhaps, but more often ominous sheets of ash and lead. … For once you start to celebrate winter for what it is, there’s not nearly enough of it.”

The lack of cold temps has brought tips of narcissus and snowdrops, among other bulbs, to the soil’s surface early. Mulching these with something — old straw, leaves and leaf litter, or evergreen branches of cut-up Christmas trees — may help avoid winter damage to them during the Island’s notorious freeze/thaw cycles.

Many small branches and twigs with clusters of leaves attached, I find, have also rained down from the oak trees, a result of various twig-pruner insects such as cynipid gall wasps and carpenter ants. Clear them away and add to compost piles; their addition is valuable due to a high ratio of bark to wood.

It is gratifying to observe how one’s plants have grown, but many will have added growth that may be headed in the wrong direction. Improve it with human intervention. Winter pruning may take place at any time now; observe basic pruning rules.

1) Usesharptools: pruning saws, loppers, and clippers. 2) Locate the branch collar, the slight fold where a branch diverts from its parent limb. Correct pruning cuts are made just outside this fold, leaving a small bump or nub that will callus over. 3) For any pruning requiring a saw, make an undercut to prevent injurious stripping of bark.

Clear “leaf muddles” from evergreen shrubs such as yews, box, skimmia, and shrub hollies. These leaf muddles catch snow and ice. When frozen, these weigh plants down and split them open.

A small branch of hybrid witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia “Jelena,” has chosen to burst into bloom, early but welcome. Many flowering shrubs such as witch hazel, or the familiar forsythia, force well. Try some!