THE FROZEN GROUND grounds and crunches beneath the gardencer's feet. A hose lies limp and lifeless.
But there is life left. And with a little creative gardening, you could keep your green thumb thawed out all winter long.
A does of physical horticulture could go a long way toward chasing off the winter woes, too. It's good for you and your garden and it's a whole lot more fulfilling than watering a potted plant.
Of course, it will take some planning. And there's really no reason to rush: It's gonna be a long winter. So don't race out to the yard without thinking things through. Start slowly and pace yourself.
READING UP. The bookshelf is a good place to begin. But if your home library doesn't include a few decent books on the basics of gardening, bundle up and get down to the bookstore first.
One volume I wouldn't be without is Wyman's Gardening Encyclopeida (Macmillan Publishing Co.), a general reference text tht's useful all year round. Then there are plenty of good books on individual topics -- choosing fruit trees, planting a rock garden, buying bulbs, caring for conifers, border planting made easy, to name only a few. Pick one or two volumes and start reading. What you don't know can hurt you in the garden.
MAIL-ORDER FEVER. "Fresh From Your Garden! Enjoy a bumper crop of luscious strawberries the very first year!" The winter crop of seed and specialty catalogues all beckon invitingly; their larger-than-life offerings are tempting and exciting, not to mention optimistic.
Without reservation, the best of these publications is The Garden Book, published annually by White Flower Farm. The book is actually two fine mail-order catalogues (one for spring, one for winter) plus three issues of mid-season notes mailed at intervals throughout the year. The catalogues are impeccable -- crisp, informative writing laced with humor and advice neatly packaged with photos and drawings.
I lend mine only to trusted friends; others should send $5 to White Flower, Farm, Litchfield, Conn. 06759. If you order $20 worth of merchandise this season, next year's catalogues are free.
A CONIFER IS A CONIFER. Because they are often referred to as "evergreens," conifers are under-used in the garden and generally misunderstood. It began when pines, junipers, firs, hemlocks, cypress, spruce and cedars were lumped together with magnolias and boxwood and ilex and holly and all those other good trees and shrubs that don't drop their leaves in the fall.
Conifers take many forms and can be the backbone of your garden in season and out. Their numerous shapes, sizes and colors add texture and variety. But while it's obviously true that conifers are not deciduous (i.e., they usually do not shed their foliage), calling a skyrocket juniper "green" is downright misleading: bluish gray is much closer to the truth. Conifers come in a dozen shades of blue and yeloow in addition to standard green. And they change color, from dark to light and back again, like a summer tan that fades in the fall.
Plan a fact-finding expedition to the National Arboretum, at 24th and R Streets NW, a 444-acre park with an extensive and glorious conifer collection. A beautiful sight in any season, iths especially so in the winter when the cold-weather colors are in vivid contrast to the chilled-gray sky. Look for colors and shapes that would look good in yor garden. (Remember: The hues will change in the spring.) Almost all the specimens are identified with tags, so bring a notebook and record the names of the ones you like.Later, look them up in the books at home.
MAKE A LITTLE LIST. Taking notes and making lists, even brief scribbles only you can read, can be a big help. So after reading up on some of the Arboretum's conifers and making a list of the ones you'd like to see in your garden, you're ready for another excursion, this time to your Favorite Nursery.
I like Behnke's Nursery in Beltsville, the Potomac (Maryland) Garden Center and the Wolf Trap Nursery in Vienna. All three have large selections and encourage browsers throughout the winter. During the cold months you'll find a lot of nurserymen with extra time to spare with prosepective customers. Ask questions: "Can I grow hemlock trees in the shade?" (Answer: Yes.) And keep taking notes.
Add to the list of conifers other trees and shrubs you'd like to buy. An evergreen hedge of spring heath (erica carnea ) with its pink-and-white bell-shaped flowers would make a handsome display. Imagine twins of "Monrovia," a pyracantha with orange-red berries, trained upright and growing side by side. Or maybe a trident maple for a little shade at the end of the yard?
Be extravagant. Write down everything. You're just looking around, now. There's plenty of time before spring to pare down the list. By then, the size of your budget and the dimensions of your garden will influence the final selection.
BACK ON THE HOME FRONT. It's time to get out in the garden. If you dress for the occasion, you won't get cold: Wear a couple of nice, absorbent layers; heavy-duty shoes; gloves and a cap.
Poke around the yard and decide where any new flower beds might be needed, or where a pond or walk might be built in midsummer. If you can make up your mind, it's certainly easier and cleaner now than after the thaw to hindr spring growth in those areas. A covering of plywood or plastic means a little work for you new, fewer weeds for you later.
While you're wandering about, gather up twigs and stricks that lie about the winter garden like lint. Cleaned of mud and dried out on the porch, the wood makes excellent kindling for stove or fireplace and won't be in the way of lawn-mower blades when the grass starts to grow.
TIMELY TRIMMING. The mower, of course, needs its yearly servicing; you might as well get it done now while the repair shop has the time. (I don't know how it happens, but every year gardeners are surprised in May to find themselves on two-and three-week waiting lists for repair service.)
Like the mower mechanic, the local tree-trimmer probably isn't very busy now, either. Any dead or drying o r ugly trees should be removed as soon as possible. Early action is very important if you have an ugly (but living) tree in the yard. When the dreaded mess-making mimosa gets its foliage back in early spring, for example, you might be tempted to let it stay "just one more season"; but don't be fooled. Act now.
Also: Don't forget to clean and oil and sharpen your tools.
SHARING YOUR GARDEN? If you don't have a fence, you probably should, so get some estimates from a couple of fencers. Brick and stone are very expensive; wood stockade is less costly and highly serviceable; avoid the institutional look of chainlink at all costs.
If you already have a fence, check for breaks and weak spots. (The less animal traffic through your garden the better, so look for under-the-fence tunnels, too.) You can fix a picket or stockade fence easily yourself; get to it before the weather breaks and finds you cleaning up last season's leftovers.
Oblivious to fences, resident and transient birds alike share your garden all year long, but especially when it's cold. Feeders filled with sunflower and thistle seed will attract scores of cardinals and jays, finches and chickadees. Even on the coldest day in March, they'll sing and cavort outside your window.
After the yard work and the planning are completed, time spent watching the birds is highly recommended. And when, one morning, the winter flock is joined by the spring robin, you'll know the wait is over.