January this year seemed to be having a bit of an identity crisis. We had the usual cold, snowy January days, then some extremely cold days, and then, bam! Spring! I was SO excited for spring to be here so soon! I’ve never been a big fan of winter and I usually view it as something I just need to get through. I hunker down and wait it out. I go into my own version of hibernation that involves a lot of hot tea, homemade soup, hoodies or sweaters, fires in the fireplace, and leaving the house as little as possible. I was overjoyed that my winter wait was over! The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and temperatures were in the fifties! I was ready to go hiking or go outside to work in my garden! I was all jump-up-and-down excited inside when I first thought of my garden, but then mild anxiety struck. My garden! I was so behind! I hadn’t started any of my seeds yet! I hadn’t ordered any new seeds! I had wanted to root cuttings from my elderberries and blackberries and hadn’t done it yet! I hadn’t made any of my garden plans for the coming year yet or decided what to grow or what was going to go where in the garden! Aside from my gardening to-do list, all sorts of other winter chores and projects that I hadn’t finished started rushing into my mind. All of a sudden, instead of being overjoyed at this unexpected early arrival of spring, I was feeling slightly panicked, overwhelmed, and very behind. I had to catch myself and remember that this spring-like weather was just a temporary reprieve from the cold and that I wasn’t really behind at all. If I hadn’t remembered this on my own, Old Man Winter was there to remind me a few days later when January decided to go back to her old, cold, winter ways again.
That unseasonably warm weather really threw me off, but it taught me a couple things. I learned how in-tune I actually am, even subconsciously, with the seasons and the changes in the natural world around me. One bright, warm, bird-chirping day transported me directly to spring so quickly and strongly that I really felt like it was April, no matter what the calendar said or what my brain knew. Imagine if I had actually been trying. Imagine if I had been paying attention and purposely taking note of all the little daily wonders and what was happening in the world around me. Instead of hiding inside from the cold weather and waiting it out, a bit of mindfulness and paying attention to what I do like about winter (like watching all the little birds dance around the feeder outside my window, all so bright and easy to see against a backdrop of fluffy snow,) can help me live more seasonally and embrace aspects of even my least favorite season. I also realized how lucky we are to live in a part of the world that experiences such different seasons. Really, I knew this before, but I only truly appreciated three of our seasons and I didn’t give winter much love. I should have appreciated the down-time in the garden, the time to come inside and get some indoor projects done. This is time I use for house projects like painting, or cleaning and organizing that don’t get done when I’m busy outside. This is time I use for learning. This is time I use for planning. This is time I use for reading and crafting; this is time I need! I never thought I’d say this, but I think I can admit it now. I was not ready for spring! I need more winter! I learned that I don’t really entirely loathe winter after all. I actually need it and now I will try to appreciate it more. Of course I finally realized this just before the groundhog predicted an early spring for this year. Even considering my newfound appreciation of winter, it would probably be going a bit too far to say I was disappointed in a prediction for an early spring. I just need to make the most of the rest of winter so I will be ready for spring this time!
Now that February has brought us back to ice storms and the occasional polar vortex, what can we be doing for our gardens during this time of year? To start, like I learned, we can pay attention. This is a great time to practice the Permaculture principle, “Observe and Interact.” We can start with observing our outdoor surroundings purely for appreciation, connecting, and centering ourselves, and we can also observe with the purpose of planning. You can even do this to some extent from the coziness inside your home, just by looking out your windows. If your home is elevated or has any upper levels, you can gain a whole new perspective by observing your outdoor space from above, then bundle up and go outside and compare what you see close up at ground-level. Explore a bit and familiarize yourself with your space as if you haven’t seen it before, or as if you’re giving someone else a tour. When everything is covered in snow, observe where wildlife may live and walk through your yard by noticing their tracks. This might help you to interact this spring by knowing that if you plan to plant something that is tasty to bunnies, you may want to take extra precautions to protect it, or consider not planting it right next to their home. They may think you were being neighborly and planting it just for them! I learned this the hard way when rabbits ate a blueberry bush of mine all the way to the ground during an especially cold winter a few years back, but I had planted it right along their main travel route through my yard. It was cold, they were hungry, and the blueberry bush was right there. Of course I planted it during warm weather when bunny tracks through the yard were not visible, but this would have been a good thing to observe when there was snow and note or later. When the sun peeks out, notice which areas of your yard warm up and melt first. If you notice you have a nice, warm microclimate protected from winter winds, it may be a good spot to consider planting that hardy fig tree you’ve been wanting that may need a bit of winter protection. Notice any areas that get soggy or puddle up when the snow melts. Maybe this spot would be good for collecting water for your garden, or for planting a rain garden, or maybe it needs a bit of help to spread that water out so it can sink into the ground and be stored. If the puddling area is around plants that might be damaged by too much water around their roots or if it’s near your foundation, it should be addressed. Observing your yard in winter can teach you a lot and prepare you for more effective interaction with it in the spring. When your observing and interacting lead to a more successful gardening season, you may even look back and appreciate winter a bit more too!