Snow is not bad at all, as far as a garden is concerned, and while I was outraged, of course, at a snow so early as Nov. 11, it was only because this brought an end to the colored leaves of maples and oaks. Most leaves simply fell off. But then it was time, wasn't it.
Gardeners do not accept time as graciously as they should. Irises last three weeks, and the older you get the more easily you accept the truth that when their time is past they are gone till next year. Still, I never see the end of their season without a pang or two that their sweet-scented manuscript should close.
The worst thing about winter is not snow, however, but low temperatures, wind, melted ice sitting on frozen earth. That is the horror of winter.
This may be the place to say we have our most beautiful skies in winter. In summer the sky is rarely blue. Usually it is milky or overcast, as if the original blue had been steamed a few hours and turned murky. In December (when we may have glorious sunsets) and January the sky is often deep blue without clouds. The sun, although at a low angle, is wonderfully strong and brilliant, thus differing from many other countries where it is weak and pale, even if it shines occasionally.
Something inspired me to tie back three young hollies about eight feet high the day before the snow. I have been thinking about it for a couple of years. They are in a kind of hedgerow mixed with a couple of kinds of viburnum, a Japanese witch hazel, a Japanese maple, a mountain laurel, an osmanthus, an alba rose, box bush and maybe another oddment or two. Everything is rather jammed in, and I need to clip here and there to keep everybody happy.
A previous snowfall bent the hollies down toward the sidewalk, and as they get more sunlight there they saw no reason to straighten up. But at last I got tarred twine and pulled all three of them back, into a vertical posture. After a few months they will stop pulling on their ropes, which I shall then remove.
The osmanthus, one called 'Gulftide,' is not as good at flowering as some other members of the family and does not smell anything like as good, but its foliage is beautiful dark green, it is hardy to cold, and takes serious clipping without sulking. A friend of mine, a capricious gardener who once rooted up a quite glorious large white double camellia, and once simply chopped out two superb white climbing roses, 'Pax' and 'Silver Moon,' also uprooted this osmanthus. I saw it sitting on the brick pavement, roots bare, waiting to be hauled off to the dump.
If I had wanted this osmanthus I would have planted it myself, but I didn't want it at all; except when you see a beautiful plant just sitting there in front of your eyes, gasping for air so to speak, you have no choice but to do something. I took it home, planted it, and now after maybe 10 years it is handsome indeed. This year, for reasons best known to itself, it bloomed its head off starting in early November. The original owner called it Ozymandias (not having been classically educated, I suspect), and possibly you recall the romantic poem of the same name, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair," but I change the line to "Look on my bulk, ye puny, and stand back." It is at the edge of the front steps, which are slate, and as its leaves are sharp as a holly's, I have to prune it heavily every year. This may be the place to point out that you should not put a good plant in the wrong place.
But to get on, it is nice in the snow, especially as its stems are too strong to be weighed down. There are a few upright box bushes, growing up like little columns, and they bend almost to the ground and, moreover, break. This recent snow was the obliging kind that falls off when you give it a whack of the elbow. Other snows require a delicate touch, a firm enough blow to dislodge the snow, but not violent enough to break the frozen branches. Every time it snows I know I have to tend to the box -- even the rounded pudding-type box bushes spread apart in snow and need to be brushed off.
In heavier and icier snows, the kind we have in February, I know I may have to get the snow off the upright yews, and in really awful snows I even have to get it off the red cedars. In nature everything works fine (assuming you don't mind death and disfigurement along the way), and old yews and cedars and box, veterans of endless snows, are full of dignity and character, missing a branch here and there, but having grown out over the years since then into gnarled and stately specimens.
In my garden I do not need any gnarled and stately specimens, affording that feature myself, and I do not have 110 years for my box and yew and cedars to get all out of shape and then recover. So I get out there when it snows.
It is interesting to see flowers in the snow. On L Street you might have seen scarlet geraniums and white alyssum blooming unperturbed with eight inches of snow at their base. As long as the temperature is not too low, geraniums and roses and other hardy flowers keep blooming, snow or no snow. The China roses, especially, bloom even after hard frosts below 32 degrees, and it is agreeable to find them here and there up till the week of Christmas. Sometimes a bit wrinkled, yes.
The only real complaint I have thus far is that my red or swamp maple did not color as well as usual this fall. It was heavily pruned by an excellent tree firm in late summer, and I wonder if this caused it to color a bit late, and not reach its usual beauty before the snow. Also the wild pear trees of the National Geographic open courtyard (M Street NW off 17th) hardly colored at all this year. These trees, not the first choice, I think, of the designer, James Urban, have nevertheless been spectacular in most years in their orange, bronze, crimson, yellow tints. They, too, were late this year and were coloring a branch here, a branch there, when the snow got them. This garden, despite some minor snarling on my point at the rows of little yews along the balconies and the pink boulders that strike me as simply stupid (they are sculpture, it is said, and therefore not the fault of the garden designer), this open courtyard is possibly the most attractive thing of its kind in the capital. The original choice for the courtyard, I think, was the scholar tree, Sophora, a more beautiful tree than the pear, but great specimens could not be obtained. The pears do have the advantage of ethereal flowers in early spring and the magnificent coloring in fall, so they were not a bad choice, all things considered (and allowing for my own passion for sophoras).
Nothing is quite perfect, not for very long, and on the whole (we might have had earthquakes, typhoons, tidal waves or the town might have burned down) it has been a very good year.