In praise of February

And curse you Microsoft Word.

Winter makes the persuasive argument for visual interest, illustrated here by large fuzzy magnolia buds. Photo by Susan Safford

A couple of friends and I recently went on an excursion to Logee’s Greenhouses ( in Danielson, Conn., just over the Rhode Island line from Providence. I was in search of camellia and citrus varieties, while they had pursuit of begonias and figs in mind.

The destination is worth the visit for plant people, since Logee’s has housed some of its plants since the early 20th century, including the venerable Ponderosa lemon, planted in-ground in 1900. An array of over 1,500 assorted varieties of plants is grown in the greenhouses; the atmosphere is incomparable.


How is it that the most deeply incriminating information can be dug out of miscreants’ computers, but I cannot retrieve my erroneously deleted column? Due to an unclearly worded Word drop-down, I am writing a completely different Garden Notes from the one I had previously labored over. Lynn Irons, there are times when you are ahead of the game when you submit your column in longhand!

The wind blew the Jan. 23 blizzard in, and then helped to evaporate it. The deep snow blanketed ground that was not really hard-frozen, but it has now disappeared, almost as rapidly as it accumulated. The bare ground is vulnerable to freezing every night and thawing every warm sunny day until the next snowfall.

Although we had seen the first flash of witch hazel blossoms by Jan. 11, the plants’ little threadlike flowers quickly closed up shop and retreated into their calyces once the delayed winter weather arrived. Now they are open daily once again, and they seem to signify the conundrum of Island winters.

Part of that Island winter conundrum is the dreaded freeze/thaw cycles. Humans are out on their bikes, running, or taking walks, enjoying the mild respites, but for plants they can be very harmful. Thawing soil heaves objects it contains to the surface, whether they are pebbles or stones, plant markers, fencing stakes, or plants. This action also commonly exposes or breaks plants’ roots.

Much as we anticipate spring, plants breaking dormancy prematurely is bad. Mulching acts as an insulating cover that moderates soil temperatures and keeps cold in, whether you disapprove of mulching on other counts. Use cut evergreen branches, straw, compost, leaves, leaf mold, purchased mulch, hay, or cardboard. For this purpose it does not need to be a horticultural product, only an insulating one that does not promote radiant heat gain (no black plastic tarps).

I love February

We are in February, an all-too-short month I love. When there is snow, it reveals aspects of landscape that are less apparent at other times of year, giving us clues and urging us to read them. Hushed snowy landscapes seem clean-cut and uncluttered. In Island woods, overgrown ancient roadbeds and cellar holes reveal themselves. It becomes easier to detect otherwise subtle contours and landforms. Seeps and boggy spots show up as dark eyes in a Pierrot whiteface. Boulders and stone walls, overgrown or tumbledown, are easily traced, and their tangents become more obvious.

Although stripped of greenery, deciduous trees show their archetypal selves: We focus on their bark and habits of growth, their major winter identity. My favorite oak species, post oak (Quercus stellata), might be lost among the greenery of summer, but is distinctive in the context of winter woods. It is such a standout that it merits its specific, stellata: starlike.

Sap is starting its rise and fall, and tree buds are swelling, normal behavior at this time of year. If planning any major pruning of trees that bleed sap copiously — for example, maples, beeches, dogwood, mulberry — do it promptly before cold weather ends.

The absence of foliage intensifies trees’ bark effects or prominent buds, such as the pictured magnolia. Winter makes the argument persuasively for planting more adventurously, more widely across the seasons and the plant spectrum. It urges satisfying landscapes that create more excitement than mere reliance upon tried and true “landscape solutions” and timid, same-old, same-old planting strategies.

All the foregoing is part of the experience, the privilege really, of going around checking for ice damage, sagging deer fencing, broken branch litter, or other untoward events in the wake of a storm such as the Jan. 23 blizzard.

Because land doesn’t come with a manual …

The above declaration appeared somewhere in the copy for the upcoming Ecological Landscape Alliance conference, March 9-10 at the UMass Campus Center ( Among the presenters is Claudia West, the co-author, with Thomas Rainer, of “Planting in a Post-Wild World” (Timber Press). Their book could be considered that missing manual.

This is no coffee table garden porn, although Timber Press must be complimented on the book’s handsome production. West and Rainer’s work is a serious compendium: manifesto, landscape-ethic challenge, and detailed how-to manual.

Its subtitle is “Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.” The post-wild world of the title is the ecological situation facing environments everywhere: ecological disturbance and elimination of natural landscapes that will not be brought back by a prescription of “planting natives.” West and Rainer detail how to understand and plant similar, but more resilient, environments.

The widespread human alteration of natural environments and ecological systems means that we must learn to create or re-create plant communities that are seemingly native ones, but which can survive and thrive in the conditions we are causing. West and Rainer have developed a new, functional vernacular, and in this work they are teaching us to speak in it. “Planting in a Post-Wild World” should be in the hands of all whose interest or work is the sustainability of future environments.


An error crept into the Jan. 21 “Garden Notes,” where instead of saying that Tim Boland had supplied the link, it appeared incorrectly that he had written the paper on beech blight fungus.