Meeting Winter Halfway

b early snowDoug put the snowstakes in early this year, a condition we always aspire to but seldom achieve. Viewing the result, however, he decided a few more were needed to keep the plow on track and off the lavender that edges the driveway. Or maybe he just likes the workout, hammering snowstakes into frozen ground. I see him smiling out there while he does it. He really is part polar bear, happy to be moving around in the cold. I was happy to stay inside and look out at him, and wave. Cheerfully, with my mug of hot cocoa in hand. And then we did get some snow, soft and wet and soon gone, which fooled no one.

b stagSigns of winter are all around. The deer that were traveling in small groups, maybe a pair of does with two or three fawns, or a couple of siblings past their spotted fawn stage but not yet into antlers or motherhood, began to consolidate. I’d see seven, then eight, then nine of them browsing for leftover black cherries and crabapples, a six point stag standing guard. The stag will stand behind the herd, and at the sound of danger he stays put while the rest of them run away. People sometimes think him a coward for not taking the lead, but though human hunters may lie in wait for deer, their natural predators give chase. The wolf, the coyote, come at the herd from behind, where they will meet the sharp, defending hooves of the stag.

b amaryllis bulbsThere’s very little to do outside now, but a few garden tasks have moved indoors. I get better repeat performance from my amaryllis if, after I bring them in, I lift them, clean them, and let them rest with a lot of air but not much light. I’ll pot them back up after Christmas, to have flowers of joy and enthusiasm when most needed. In February.

b poinsettiaThe poinsettias enjoyed their summer on the deck and came in full, green, and leafy, but the idea with poinsettias is to get them red for Christmas. For this, they need bright light for a short number of hours every day. The low Michigan sun in winter shines more directly into my south-facing windows than the high-flying summer sun does. Very bright light. I put the poinsettias in windows of rooms I don’t go into much – guest bedroom, formal dining room – so I don’t interfere with the natural hours of available autumn light by flipping switches.

b tomatoesMeanwhile I am extending tomato season with some success. Not only are the hothouse tomatoes continuing to flourish, but the nice, bright window light has been ripening the green ones I brought in from the garden before the frost. To everything there is a season. To flowers and tomatoes, may the season never end.

Further Adventures of Jack Frost

b weeping cherryWe finally had a frost, but having it so late made a few things clear. Autumn colors are definitely the result of a dance between falling light levels, frost, and overall weather. Jack Frost’s paintbrush does not operate all on its own. But the details are tricky.

b burning bushFor instance, the dogwoods turn reliably red early in the season, even if nothing else does, and even if it’s still warm. Also, the dogwoods are an understory tree, growing under the broad arms of the taller trees which, if there were a frost, would protect them from it. So it can’t be frost turning them red. On the other hand, as the tall trees lose leaves, the dogwoods get more light, not less. Hmmm. Well, by then they’ve already started getting red, so maybe there’s no turning back.

b pear treeThe wild black cherry over the deck is reliable for turning early, but the one at the edge of the lawn always turn a couple of weeks later. Despite this difference, neither requires a frost, and they share an opinion on how colorful to be in a given year. So I’m guessing it’s a combination of daylight and position in the yard for when they turn, but things like rain, drought, and summer temperatures for color intensity.

b maple tooThe sugar maples had wisps of color here and there as the hours of daylight fell, but they only burst into their full glory with the frost. Every year they’re different as to when they change, as well as to how bright their colors are. So the maples are taking all factors into account.

b leavesLooking around the yard, I can mostly sort all the other deciduous trees, shrubs, and groundcovers into one of those three categories: the self-motivated, the socially aware, and the introverted but ultimately exuberant. Different manners, but the happy result is to paint the glory of Michigan’s autumn over a bigger canvas than Jack Frost could manage on his own. It takes all kinds.