Yesterday, while leafing through one of those meaty gardening volumes that one reads at this time of year with a large glass of red wine in one hand and a box of tissues in the other, I happened upon the following thought by Dr. Stefan Buczacki, a noted English garden writer, broadcaster and horticulturalist:
“I am often rather saddened when I visit people and their gardens at winter. But not for the most obvious reasons: it is not the overcast sky, the rain, sleet or snow, the biting cold or any of the other features of winter’s well-known charm that I find depressing. It is because all too often the garden itself has been forgotten; put away from thought, heart and deed with the last setting of the summer’s sun”. 1
If the good doctor was trying to evoke a guilt-response from me, he did not succeed. With all due respect (and admittedly, much is due) I flatly refuse to be shamed for feeling disenchanted by frozen earth and blackened foliage. Yet they are out there in the hundreds, these purveyors of poppy-juice fantasies – all telling us how we should change our attitudes towards the winter garden. Evidently they would have us throwing parties on ice caked patios…exclaiming gleefully over the way that frozen soil smells of nothing at all…and joyfully rhapsodizing over expensive winter casualties and the occasional burst water main. Isn’t it fun to look out over your freeze-dried evergreens and glimpse the squirrels nibbling on a store of daffodil bulbs they dug up in November?
I’m very sorry to bring this to everyone’s attention, but I’m afraid that the Emperor is naked.
Let’s examine Dr. Buczacki’s assertion that the garden has been ‘forgotten.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Last season’s garden could not be better seared upon my memory than if ‘twere branded there with a hot iron. If anything, I am trying to forget it ever happened.
And ‘put away from thought, heart and deed?’ The promise of next season’s garden drifts seductively in and out of my heart and dreams like a steamy love affair – I would like nothing better than to consummate this relationship, however there is the little matter of earth so frozen it will not accept a pick-axe much less my tender caresses. Believe me, the minute the first robin sounds the all-clear I’ll be out there faster than Romeo on Juliet.
And just for the record, I was standing in the garden up to my neck in compost long after the last setting of the summer’s sun. I’ve got the chillblains to prove it.
Against Dr. Buczacki and all of the other hard-core winter enthusiasts out there, I stand bravely upon my opinion and confidently offer the following credentials: I am not a fair weather gardener. I do not wait for the mercury to sail blithely into the high sixties before venturing a tentative toe over the threshold. I do not use my garden simply as an elaborate backdrop for a show-stopping Spring Fling with devastatingly intelligent guests and three kinds of pasta salad. I love my garden. I relish my garden. I have evergreens and I know how to use them. But during the long and somewhat gloomy progression of an East Coast winter, I cannot pretend that all is sweetness, joy and light in a barren wasteland where angels currently fear to tread.
It takes a greater man than I to do so, Dr. Buczacki, a greater man than I.
1 Conran’s Basic Book of Home Gardening, 1990