January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

Book Review: The Garden in Winter

A Gardener’s Reading, 15 of 30

By Suzy Bales (Rodale Press, 2007)

Gardeners in the North are often told to console themselves through the long winter by planting a garden with “winter interest.” Give yourself something to look at during that fourth or fifth gray, cold month.

Suzy Bales shows how to do this with structures, ornaments, conifers, shrubs and trees with colorful, textural or structural interest. Bales is an accomplished writer and a joy to read. She describes the winter landscape as “a chiaroscuro of black, white and gray—a glorious pen and ink drawing” and views garden design as a battle among three strong-willed individuals—Mother Nature, plants and the gardener. Even if you did not implement any of Bales’ suggestions, passing a few winter evenings in her literate company would be time well-spent.

garden in winter coverBut do consider her advice, because it is solid. She begins by recommending that gardeners build structure into their landscapes. The structure may be crafted by the gardener or other people (pergolas, gates, seating, art objects) or it may be plant-based (hedges, shapely trees and shrubs). I received a review copy of this book when it first came out – and in part due to her advice, added a pergola to our backyard. That structural element changed the yard dramatically, in all seasons, but especially in the winter. It’s the one, strong place my eye goes to after each snowstorm.

Bales suggests a myriad of plants that provide exciting colors and shapes in all seasons, and that is where my one quibble with this book arises. While her suggestions are gorgeous, many of them are not hardy in truly northern climates. (When’s the last time you saw a crape myrtle in Minnesota?) I don’t mind that she suggests plants only hardy to zones 5, 6 or 7, but I do think it would have been sporting of her to list USDA Hardiness Zones with the plant recommendations – or in an index in the back of the book.

Despite that, there is so much to like about this book. For example, Bales devotes considerable space to two topics northern gardeners should embrace as part of their winter-survival strategy: early-blooming spring bulbs and plant-based holiday décor. We are stuck with winter a long time, so we should make the best of it on the two ends of the season. Bulb bloom times are compressed in the North, compared to the East Coast where Bales lives, but the sight of the first crocuses, scillas or dwarf irises are just as meaningful. Bales’ holiday decorating tips are steal-worthy, too. I especially like her holiday tree made of hydrangeas and allium and have made something similar in the past based on her design.

For winter inspiration, The Garden in Winter is a cozy fireplace on a snowy day.