My Stiff Upper Lip Has Frozen In Place

Well, that’s December over with.  I say this with a great deal of regret, as December is my resting month in the garden and it is always too short. Last night I happened across a differing opinion in an early essay* by British celebrity gardener and writer Monty Don. He sharpened his tongue against the ‘clumsy life’ of December – a state of neither here nor there – and was glad, on his garden’s behalf, to see the back of it.



I attribute such enthusiasm for the end of the calendar year to the hallucinogenic effects of the Gulf Stream – the ocean current that, along with other despicably unfair meteorological phenomena, protects the UK and its inhabitants from the harsher realities of winter in latitudes above 50°N.

Culturally, such weather also makes gardening compulsory for adults over 30 and allows words such as ‘celebrity’ and ‘gardener’ to be used together in a sentence without confusion. This doesn’t tend to happen in Irkutsk.



Back in the Mid-Atlantic United States (where this doesn’t happen either), this garden writer would prefer to sharpen her tongue upon a more deserving month.  January doesn’t hand you a mug of holiday glühwein while you peruse contemptuously clever essays in your favorite yellow chair, nor does it permit ‘do-overs’ when the thermostat fails your barn-housed collection of succulents.

It is a physically and mentally punishing month – particularly for those of us raised on milder winters in far-off places. The excitement of what Don termed the “jollity-blip of Christmas” is firmly in the rear-view mirror, and gifted chocolate boxes have been emptied of all but their papery husks and rejected bits of fruity fondant.   Exit Jolly Elf. Enter Screaming Banshee.



The situation is grim, certainly, but it’s not Minnesota-grim and there is work to be done.  Tackling this work is what gets me through the long days of January (that paradoxically end in the late afternoon). Once one has girded one’s loins and various other extremities against the bite of northeast winds, it is a month of brush clearing, bonfire building, structure repairing, garden planning and constant monitoring.

Exit Jolly Elf. Enter Screaming Banshee.

Of these, my greatest satisfaction is found in editing and clearing large areas of opportunistic ailanthus, barberry, wine berry, honeysuckle and multiflora rose that proliferate along the edges of the woodland and in areas that I would see cultivated.  Though I chafe against the cold weather, it is the tool by which these wildly impenetrable giants are reduced to naked or semi-naked states.

Clearing brush right now allows me to showcase trees like this redbud (and many other saplings) for the spring show.

What might have taken hours during the growing season is now the work of a moment. It is easy to see the stems to be cut – the long vines that snake through other, wanted shrubs – the individual canes to be pulled roughly out of frozen ground.  Once again, the bonfire pile builds and we make headway against the encroaching green (not to mention against an extra ten pounds gifted by the holiday season).

This very physical work makes January bearable and I cannot recommend it enough.  Call it an endorphin high or self-delusion, but I feel capable and strengthened after such battles. As a bonus, I end each day feeling as if I am running out of winter months.  An enviable – if bizarre – state of mind.

Meanwhile, on the “please-don’t-make-me” end of things, there is monitoring – my greatest weakness. To observe, one must move slowly, and the difficulty here should be obvious to most readers who poked their heads outside this morning only to have them coated in a thin layer of ice.  Where is my gin & tonic?  Where is that warm scent of vegetation and growth?  Where indeed my will to live?

Nowhere, it seems.  I must instead clench my teeth and pick a day for my rounds when the wind is relatively low and the temperatures have soared into the mid- 30’s.

Tree cages must be checked against over-familiar bucks. Camellias that stand against a sheltered north wall must be examined for adequate moisture. The leftover pots in summer’s pot ghetto must be kept upright and drainage holes cleared of leaves occasionally.  The chickens must be watched carefully – particularly those who inconveniently put off molting for colder months.  It’s a whole month full of monitoring ‘musts’ with a deadly ‘or else’ hanging above our heads.

But again, this isn’t Minnesota, and I find such comparisons comforting when I can’t feel my toes any longer.  Whatever outrageous numbers are flashing on my weather station each morning, they are flashing far more outrageously there. Even a few stolen Gulf Stream moments with Monty Don in a yellow chair can’t make that any better for them. – MW

* ‘Aconites and Snowdrops’ from his column in the Observer, January 12, 1997


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Frederick News Post.

By | 2018-02-20T20:40:43+00:00 January 5th, 2018|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. rusty duck January 6, 2018 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    Yeah, I know. We’re wimps. I admit it. The weather is actually colder in January here too. Albeit not Minnesota or even Virginia. No weather ‘bombs’. Yet. But it does tend to bring crisper days with more blue skies and thus (occasional) relief from the never ending wet greyness of November and December. Plus the snowdrops and witch hazels are out. The hellebores are budding. And there is hope and promise for a new season. Which is most certainly lacking in December..

    • Marianne Willburn January 8, 2018 at 12:03 pm - Reply

      I do hope you take a bit of a rest in December Jessica! Our witchhazels will not be out for a couple weeks, but my hellebores are budding. Things a bit stuck at the moment tho. A friend of mine in Cornwall saw our weather forecast a couple weeks ago and his reaction? ‘Thank God for the Gulf Stream’ A clear, bright day here right now means we’ll be hitting highs of 15F/-9C.

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