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The garden in winter

By Helen Mourre


In this season where the landscape is white-washed into such silence one can almost hear it, where skeletons of apple trees bear witness to last summer’s bounty, where roses rest tucked under blankets of leaves, the garden waits.

It’s early January and we’ve just had a fresh snowfall of several centimetres. Before I begin shovelling the patio and sidewalk, and before Paul makes a pass with the blower, I stop in the intimate hush and survey the backyard. It’s minus 25 and the only sound is a branch cracking in the cold.

The ornamental cherry tree standing in the shadow of the garage still has plump red berries that defy gravity, stubbornly refusing to fall to earth. My antique garden bench nestles under it waiting for someone to come sit, or at least a chickadee or swallow to alight, revealing that even it has a purpose in winter.

Two tall planters that had hosted a carnival of petunias, potato ivy and super bells in the height of summer now feature twin crowns of snow. Nothing disturbs the geometric perfection. The magnificent Mayday tree, planted a little too close to the house, is as beautiful in winter as it is in summer, its huge symmetrical limbs creating a natural sculpture. I like how snow cradles in the spaces where the boughs come together. Today a congregation of bohemian waxwings fly in for a brief layover before they head off to another destination.

I push through the snow looking for some sign of life. My spreading juniper is at least a muted shade of green and exudes a sharp evergreen smell when I get down on my hands and knees and bury my face in it. I try to remember what is planted under the various mounds of snow that resemble clusters of small animals. Where is the grouping of fuchsia cone flowers? The tea rose that blooms into fall with soft cream and pale pink petals? The barberry bush that blushes a brilliant apricot as the nights turn cold in the fall? Is it possible they are still here beneath this cold earth? Snow wipes out our footprints, our history, making way for new beginnings.

At the back of the yard against the cedar fence freshly painted last summer stand two new trees — a Hot Wings Tartarium Maple and a Goldspur Amur Cherry. They still look like gangly children — tall and thin. Maybe this will be their breakout year, when they will turn into grownups. I plod through the knee-high snow to say hello and offer encouragement. Hang in there for a few more months!

The backyard has two apple trees, prolific beyond all reason, that I alternately love and hate. Love in the spring when the blooms make my yard look like a wedding; hate in fall when hundreds of apples have to be picked and given away or made into sauce, juice or pies. Before winter set in Paul and I administered a stern pruning to the apple tree that produces the best pie apples, and now I worry. Always an odd-shaped tree, it is really a freak now. I’m afraid of what will happen to it in the spring (or not happen). I feel better when my gaze falls on the mountain ash at the edge of the lawn: it is lean and lovely.

Now I remember why I came outside in the first place, grab my blue plastic snow shovel, put my head down and connect with the snow, heaping it onto the mounds of white stuff already there. I enjoy shovelling, the physicality of it, the crisp air, the burning muscles.

Back in the house, I throw off my old toque, parka and boots. Paul has just returned with the mail. I sort through it and let out a cry of joy: the seed catalogue from Stokes has arrived. I am like a prisoner in solitary confinement who has just been given some books to read. I grab the catalogue and hold on for dear life. To prolong the delicious anticipation, I put a load of laundry in, tidy up the kitchen. Then I sit in my favourite chair in front of the fireplace and turn the glossy pages. The names and descriptions are tantalizing: Illuminative Salmon Pink Tuberous Begonia . . . Divine Hot Cha Cha Mix Impatiens . . . Cool Wave Blueberry Swirl Pansy . . . and oh those petunias that try so hard to be exotic: African Sunset, Ramblin’ Amethyst, Easy Wave Burgundy Velour.

Ahh. I am content to peruse the seed catalogue and, from time to time, gaze out my front window at the silent landscape so patient and forgiving. It will not rush toward this new season, but will take its own time, erasing the last year from its memory. Be patient, I tell myself. Enjoy this respite.

We wait, the garden and I.

Mourre is a freelance writer from Rosetown, Sask.