A good snow reveals the beauty of the garden in early winter

Posted Dec. 26, 2008, at 4:31 p.m.

By sunrise on Monday, Marjorie’s garden lay beneath 15 inches of new snow, a blanket of white yet to be disturbed by dogs or their keepers. Only the bones of the fruit and vegetable garden are now visible. Blueberry shrubs and raspberry canes rise from the whiteness to remind us of the garden’s lines, of where the strawberry plants sleep and where empty beds wait for spring.

It was a good snow. Without a midwinter thaw, this deep snow will insulate plant roots from lethal temperatures. Snow this deep will provide mice and other subnivean creatures with the warmth they need to survive the months ahead. Come spring, as the snow melts to its final inch, we may catch a glimpse of the sinuous tunnels created by these small rodents in their struggle to stay alive.

At dawn I cleared a path from the back steps to the edge of the woods and scattered seeds on compacted snow. Juncos, white-throated sparrows, chickadees, mourning doves, two crows and a small red squirrel wasted no time finding this morning feast. Later in the day, I would see the cardinals scratching for seed in this same place, a pair that had nested in the nearby firs and decided to stay the winter.

Next I shoveled snow off the porch and filled the sunflower seed feeders, scattering extra seed on pot shelves nailed to the railing. Back in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, I watched a nuthatch fly in from a pine branch, skid across the snow-covered railing, pick up a single seed and fly off again, all in one fluid motion repeated at regular intervals. Other less acrobatic nuthatches and several chickadees flew back and forth from tree limbs to feeders while a red squirrel scurried around the deck after the windfall.

Our dog Reilly has been limping of late (she has knees like mine as she enters middle age) and so I shoveled out a cul-de-sac off the pathway, exposing the cold-withered grass in her morning place to pee. I was inventing reasons to be out in the snow.

Finally I faced the serious work of digging out a path to the parking area and liberating the cars, yet even this task had its compensations. I could hear a pileated woodpecker chiseling into the trunk of a spruce snag while chickadees flitted among the branches of a yellow birch. Small three-lobed birch seeds, a winter staple of songbirds and small mammals, littered the snow, but the chickadees seemed to be searching for insects hibernating beneath the bark.

Wind stirred the shaggy peeling bark of the yellow birch as the low morning sunlight turned its inner bark to honey gold. Of all Maine’s native birches, I am fondest of the yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis, for the warm color of its winter bark and its rich golden yellow fall foliage. I smiled at the memory of introducing this tree to students in past Woody Plants classes, of watching them experience the taste and smell of wintergreen in spring twigs.

I shoveled snow while the winter sunlight shifted to expose the red shredding bark of a nearby white cedar and the dark ridged-and-furrowed bark of an old white pine, the furrows packed with wind-driven snow.

It was a good snow. It came in the night and closed the schools. This old teacher stayed home with family and spent the morning digging out, surrounded by the beauty of the garden in winter.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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