Archived Opinion

In winter, the joy of gardening is the beauty of a blank slate

By Marsha Crites • Guest Columnist

Whether I am working on a watercolor design, organizing a community group, decorating a room, or getting to know a new person, I always enjoy beginning with a blank slate. No old baggage, muddled colors, or overgrown shrubs to deal with; just a nice open space with no clutter. Remember as a child the joy of a blank piece of paper and a new 64 Crayola set? Ah, the possibilities.

Winter is a challenge for those of us who are serious gardeners. It’s cold and the wind can seem downright unfriendly. The frost keeps heaving plants out that we carefully planted earlier. And it is tempting to think that nothing is going on in the greyscape.

Au Contraire, my friends. Today, while the weather was pleasant, I took a walk around my property. I checked out the increasing water level in the pond, observed the Dr. Seuss-like shapes of the pruned Japanese maples (from the Easter Freeze of ‘07), and looked for new growth beneath the withered tops of perennials. I tagged underbrush and trees that would need to be removed soon to prevent blocking my stunning view of the Plott Balsams from various vantage points on the land. The compost pile was still too frozen to turn, of course, though I had to poke it a bit to make sure.

I had words of praise for the Lenten rose looking glossy and ready to bloom right on time for Lent, and encouragement for the narrow leaves of the crocus, also timely in appearance. The red-twig dogwood was a stunning red. And tufts of that fluffy orange grass I’ve always called broom sage, lined the planting fields. Who says there is no color in the winter landscape?

Continuing my inspection, I shook my finger and urged the leaves and buds of daffodils — already five inches long — to slow down a bit. “After all, it is only Ground Hog’s day, and you ladies know better than to make an appearance before your time, I warned.” Then I laughed to myself knowing how little of the “Big Picture” we really have when it comes to nature.

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I cut stalks of pussy willow to force indoors and noticed that my experiment with hardy Camellias was so far proving successful. The buds were still green and tight. That’s the plight of gardeners who move to the mountains having grown up in South Carolina; we’re always tempted to paint the blush of camellias and sasanquas into the mountain landscape palette.

It’s been nearly 30 years now since I first began gardening on this land. Clearly I do not have a clean slate. But in a way winter offers all of us, gardeners or not, a chance to clear the slate once again. As the ashes of Lent give us a chance to repent (turn away) from habits and situations not healthy for our spiritual and physical selves, so the quiet of the winter garden gives us a chance to make new plans.

Is it time in your garden to prune away dead growth, to clear a lovely view, to protect the most vulnerable plants with extra mulch, to sketch a rock retaining wall to stop erosion, to search the seed catalogs for new cultivars or new colors, to find each?

This is a leap year. Indeed, we’ll have an extra day in February to discover new ways to work in harmony with Mother Nature. And one day in late June when the new daylily we ordered from the catalog in February opens in the warm sun .... the cold winds of February and will seem far away and we’ll forget that winter is the perfect time to garden.

(Marsha Crites owns Harvest Moon Gardens in Jackson County and teaches leadership and management skills to adults in Haywood County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. )

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