Winter gardening can be fulfilling

Published 9:25 am Saturday, December 3, 2011

By Carol Hegel Lang, special to the Tribune

Sometimes I think the winter garden far exceeds the summer gardens with beauty and wildlife, maybe it’s because things slow down in winter and you can really take the time to enjoy the moments, from inside the warm house or outdoors in the cold air.

Carol Hegel Lang took this photo of her garden in the winter.

When Jack Frost paints the trees, flowers or grasses that are left standing in the gardens with glittering white shimmering in the sunlight, the unexpected beauty takes my breath away. You breathe out a vapor of white and your lungs fill with the cold air almost choking you, such an exhilarating feeling those cold days can bring.

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As you plan your gardens you’ll want to take into consideration what trees and shrubs will add to the winter landscape. Include trees and shrubs with berries on them like highbush cranberry, American mountain ash, crabapple, dogwood and bittersweet. Not only will they provide food, but also shelter, for birds from fall through the winter months. Evergreens are always high on my list as the snow draping their branches is at times magical, almost like a snowcastle.

What could be more beautiful on a snowy winter day than a bright red cardinal perched on the limb of a Black Hills spruce right outside your window?

Feeding birds and other wildlife in the winter brings so much excitement to those cold and dreary days. Have you ever watched the antics of a squirrel as he tries to figure out how he can steal a peanut or sunflower out of a feeder? It will definitely bring a smile, or sometimes a scowl, to your face.

If you don’t have any trees close to the house put up a couple of shepherds hooks that you can hang finch feeders or suet cakes from. There are even small feeders that attach right to the window with suction cups or you can hang them from the overhang of the house. Just make sure there is cover close by for the birds if they need it.

Birds are easy to attract — the three things they require are food, shelter and water. Even in the winter you can provide water with heated birdbaths. What excitement they provide for children as the birds fly from tree branch to the feeder and then back to the trees again. If you have an indoor cat why not provide a chair by the window so he can enjoy countless hours of bird watching too.

By leaving seedheads on flowers like rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) and grasses you will attract finches. You may even have some robins that over winter, if so, treat them to raisins or other dried fruits. Suet cakes will attract woodpeckers and chickadees while black oiled sunflower will attract the most birds. Old bread is always a welcome treat for birds and squirrels alike.

My granddaughter and I keep a daily journal of the birds at the feeders. She is only 10 years old but can identify most of the birds already. This is an excellent teaching experience as she learns spelling while she lists the birds. We also record the time, temperature and weather conditions, and she will check the thermometer and listen to KATE radio for the weather conditions for the day.

Quite often she’ll say, “Grandma did you add the cardinal to the list, he’s on the feeder in the front yard,” making sure I didn’t miss him. It’s also teaching her about what goes on in and around our yard all day with the different weather conditions.

You just can’t beat evergreens for winter beauty when the branches are heavily laden with snow. One winter when she was about six the neighbor’s spruce had branches hanging down over our split-rail fence providing the perfect spot for my granddaughter to have a winter fort. The snow was still gently falling when we both bundled up in our snow gear to head outside.

She headed for the garden shed to get her small plastic chair and the large garden kneeling pad for me to sit on. Over to the fence we trudged, through the deep snow, with grandma toting the plastic chair and Carissa the kneeling pad. Her excitement was contagious and soon we were settled under the snow covered branches, sitting there looking up at the sky as the snow fell quietly over us, Mother Nature painting an “aha moment” to be cherished forever by a grandmother and granddaughter.

So if you think you can’t garden in winter you are mistaken. Maybe the flowers aren’t blooming but the colors of nature are there in all their splendor with frosty white snow and colorful birds and those crazy squirrels, yes, it is truly an “aha moment” out there.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Henry David Thoreau, “always maintain a kind of summer even in the middle of winter.”