The garden before first snow

Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 7:50 p.m.

The vegetable garden is asleep now, all but the beds sown to winter rye. They look out of place, out of season, bright green swaths of grassy leaves dripping rainwater into the soil, their roots mining minerals leached beyond the reach of tomato or squash roots. In early May we will turn over the rye and return those minerals to the roots of summer vegetables.

Leaves have all fallen, except for the dry brown leaves of garden oaks and the still-green leaves of a peach tree that has no inkling of how to behave in a Maine garden. Persistent winter fruits, berries and seed capsules of the garden’s trees and shrubs, are all that remain to give reason to pause as I stroll around the garden.

I realize that another garden year has passed without planting a crabapple in Marjorie’s garden, one with persistent winter fruit. For the several years that I worked at the university in Orono, I took ownership of a Donald Wyman crabapple in the Littlefield Garden. In October I would take my students to visit this tree, to see the clusters of bright red half-inch apples nested among green and yellow leaves. The leaves eventually dropped, but the apples persisted into December on naked branches, glazed in ice and capped with a dusting of snow, cardinal red in a white landscape.

In January or February the apples thawed. Pine grosbeaks congregated in the branches of the old tree, taking bites of the soft fermented apples, dropping the skins to form a red-brown shadow of the tree on the snow. My students and I would watch the feast, sad to see the apples gone but happy for the birds. We learned the value of persistent winter fruits.

For years I have wanted to plant a Donald Wyman in Marjorie’s garden, but could not find the room. Maybe next year.

From now until the mid-winter thaw, the red berries of winterberry holly, ‘Ilex verticillata,’ a deciduous native shrub, will brighten both woods and garden, as will the larger red fruits of the American cranberry viburnum ‘Viburnum opulus var. trilobum.’ Both of these provide late winter food for songbirds.

Some gardeners compete with the birds for the viburnum fruits, preserving them in jams or jellies with, I suspect, a lot of added sugar. After tasting these berries straight from the shrub, I understand why the birds eat them only as a last resort. I read that the winterberry fruits are also highly astringent and, as I think about it, I can recall winters in which the fruits of both plants were left to wither on the branches.

Not all persistent fruits are red and showy. The waxy gray berries of northern bayberry, ‘Myrica pensylvanica,’ hug its twigs through the winter, eventually eaten by songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. These are the same berries that we harvest for scenting of bayberry candles.

Not all persistent fruits are berries. The pale brown to red brown seed heads of meadowsweet, ‘Spiraea latifolia,’ persist through winter, extending the usefulness of this native shrub in the garden. And I love to watch the snow build up around the summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) in Marjorie’s garden until only the uppermost dried seed heads remain exposed. I imagine a field mouse beneath the snow, snuggled close to the ground with a cache of seed, waiting for the thaw.

Later in winter, from a window close to the wood stove, we will look out over the winter garden, at a blanket of white punctuated with dried goldenrod stalks and the rigid upright seed stalks of summersweet clethra growing around the old pine. Warmed by the fire and by sunlight on the honey-colored bark of yellow birches, I will search the snow-covered landscape, try to find a spot for that crabapple.

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