I love watching birds, and so do my (indoor) cats. Every sunny window has a bird feeder of some sort nearby, which attract a wide range of cheerful birds all through the colder months. Yesterday I heard a huge thump and looked out to see an equally huge pileated woodpecker scrounging for suet and threatening to bring down the little feeder. These gorgeous birds look so improbable, with their enormous beaks and flashing red crests that always remind me a bit of roadrunners.
I keep my feeders full because even in a mild winter, the garden offers pretty slim pickings for birds by January. Actually, tidy gardens are the least encouraging, but gardens left to compost on their own may offer pretty decent fare. In my garden, there are always lots of birds digging around in the rich leaf mold under the old fruit trees. As leaves fall and decay, they make a lovely environment for worms. In warmer years, the worms remain busy straight through until spring. Worms, bugs, and a few juicy berries keep the birds coming to investigate and feast.
Self Composting Gardens
I love the idea of self composting gardens, and so do the birds. When we allow a majority of garden plants to remain in place through the winter, there can be multiple benefits for humans, plants, and wildlife. Naturally, we need to remove plants that will sag soggily over their neighbors or rot in an obtrusively unattractive manner. These are chopped in small pieces with your trusty shears, letting the bits fall to the ground to make mulch. A quick tidy in early winter takes care of these offenders, but any plant with enough natural architecture to stand up on its own can stay.
Over the years, I’ve learned to eliminate plants with truly uncongenial winter behavior. Certain daylilies, for instance, can smother everything within three feet of their base by dumping heavy, sodden foliage over the neighbors. I no longer plant the worst offenders in the garden, relegating them to outlying positions by the garbage cans or the compost area. Instead, I focus on finding border plants that either retain their good looks in winter or die back with dignity. Especially valuable are plants that provide fodder for birds to gather through the winter. Sedums and bushy little strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) are great examples, as are roses with good hips.
Mild years are also full of flowers, especially if we are not too scrupulous about tidying away last year’s plants. Reliable lingerers in my garden include shaggy headed calendulas in sunny yellows and oranges, ardent annuals that bloom and resow themselves all year long. My favorite China rose, Old Blush, hasn’t been without a bud or blossom all year long. At our library garden, I noticed clusters of pink ‘Bonica’ roses still in bloom at New Year’s, as well as the cheerful spray-flowered pink ‘Carefree’ roses.
At the turn of the year, I picked over a dozen flowers from my young borders, including fuchsias, pansies, rosemary, and roses. Rosy wands of South African winter lily (Schizostylis coccinea) in rose and pink were perhaps the most noticeable flowers in the garden.The slim, upright stems look a bit like gladiolas, with open, starry flowers in shades of red and pink. South African winter lilies always attract a lot of attention during the quieter months. Come spring, however, the sloppy foliage becomes a liability instead of an asset, so these pretty flowers are best given a secondary position, rather than being set right up front in the border.
Winter Trumpets And Winter Tidies
The winter jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorum) opened its golden trumpets several weeks ago. This trustworthy early blooming shrub is so airy and lax in habit that it makes a kind of shapeless bundle in the border. Winter jasmine is at its best when grown up a trellis or set to tumble over a wall. The leafless green stems and glowing yellow flowers look lovely against black or grey stone. They have very little fragrance and it is only detectable when the air is warm and still, but the brilliance of the blossom in winter makes this heavy bloomer very welcome.
When the garden is largely self composting, we can take our time about the winter clean up. Each week, I spend a few hours wandering through the beds and borders, taking care of whatever fading beauty requires attention. The sunny afternoons are ideal for doing some quiet snipping of spent stems and removal of browning foliage. Even the toughest weeds are easy to pull in winter, when the ground is soft and damp. Those nasty buttercups are delightfully easy to remove after a light frost–the whole plant zips out of the ground, trailing runners galore.
Sweet Scents of Spring
The smell of the earth changes slowly through the winter, from the sweet, composting scent of fall to the rich, green scent of spring. Already, bulb shoots are everywhere and new leaf buds are swelling daily. With so much ongoing activity to keep us cheerfully occupied and so many clear signs of progress to keep us hopeful, the garden rewards any small attention a hundredfold.