We are still in the fall, not the winter, and here in the second week of December the roses are still blooming, the fish ponds are not iced, the sun is (sometimes) glorious in a blue sky.
It is wrong, or at least dumb, to project on the late fall and winter those horrors we have in our heads.
In January we have the most beautiful turquoise skies, and by mid-February (a month that for some reason people say is the worst of the winter, though it certainly is not) spring is here, with snowdrops and swelling buds and the early crocuses.
Really it is December that we need to work on. I have already mentioned the roses. I saw a front garden on 19th Street jammed full of pink ones. A bit shopworn, but then who is not?
I am leaving a couple of tropical water lilies outdoors in the pool (the precious ones have come in and are sitting in a bathroom in their tubs) because I suspect they might pull through the winter, cold as it is, and sprout again next spring.
Outdoors, in the tangled and neglected dump I call a garden (worse this year than ever) I nevertheless find things of pleasure. The great rambling rose Polyantha gandiflora has set a massive crop of fruit, little red berries, that show up on gray days with a happy luster at the end of the garden. Books say the fruit of this rose is pretty, but this is the first time in five years there have been enough hips to make a difference.
Out front on the sidewalk my perverse little Japanese maple, which always colors later than other Japanese maples, was caught by the cold last month and all the outer leaves turned gray-brown and crisp. But the leaves inside are a fine purple and red. Of course you have to ignore the general corruption of the outside and peer in; then you can see how pretty the maple would have been if we had had a mild fall.
There are three young hollies, 'Foster No. 2,' about six feet high or so, heavily laden with gobs of beautiful berries. Jammed in, amid a row of other things parallel with the walk, they have leaned out toward the southern sun, but I mean them to grow straight up. I therefore tied them with stout twine to a support a few feet away to make them stand straight. A squirrel, possibly, has cut several of these ties. I cannot imagine a human interested enough to do it. Neat clean cuts. Squirrels do no damage worth speaking of at my place, even though one January day we had 19 of them at the kitchen door to be fed.
It's true, for two years they made surgical slanting cuts on some Ilam and Exbury azaleas as the buds began to swell, just before blooming season. I had heard squirrels sometimes like to eat the resinous buds, so I covered them with nylon stockings. It was then that the squirrels cut the stems and carried off the buds in their stockings. Odd.
They do not bother tulips or crocuses, and of course nothing bothers daffodils. One year in Tennessee the squirrels ate all the scarlet anemones from Greece, but as I told my wife, the anemones probably would not have done well anyway.
The common notion that squirrels do a lot of damage in the garden is, in a word, a flat lie.
My lone nandina bush is laden with scarlet berries in panicles. It appreciated the manure I gave the box bushes (in front of it) last year. Do not ask me why the berries did not color until late November. A month late. And don't ask me why the birds paid no attention to them. I know that in January the cardinals eat them heartily -- I do not see other birds interested in them. It is a pretty thing to see cardinals wobbling about on the flexible waving stems of the nandina, the leaves deep green and bronze, eating the red fruit.
A few days ago a great flock of starlings arrived to eat the berries of the Boston ivy. We pay less attention to starlings than to, say, goldfinches, but it seems to me the starlings stay most of the year. They always chase the flickers out of the scientifically constructed flicker box I built. In spring the flickers move in, and a few days later the starlings simply enter and chase them out. It is outrageous, and one of the reasons I do not worship Nature as many idiots do.
But I have seen starlings eat Japanese beetles, as most birds do not. We never have the beetles as so many gardens do, and this is surprising considering the number of grapes and roses we have, and considering how the beetles specialize in both. One year we had painters and the starlings left because of the fumes (as I supposed) and for several days we were alive with beetles. Then the painters left, the starlings promptly returned and we had no more beetles. So I temper my anger at those birds, especially since right now they are beautiful, their feathers sleek and glossy with metallic green glow, dusted all over with silver stars.
The last of my treasured horde of pigeon manure has been spread about. The rambler rose 'Aglaia' got an extra ration, mainly because she is bad-mouthed by the few writers who even bother to mention her. The great authority Graham Stuart Thomas says she is pale and ineffectual and is not worth growing.
Naturally, when someone says a plant is not worth growing, that is a signal to me to acquire and grow it. After years of looking for references to this rose, I finally found one author who said she is glorious, and that you can cut five-foot branches of bloom. He apologized, however, for putting this rose in his list. So maybe 'Aglaia' and her pale yellow flowers are not worth growing. But I well remember 'Thalia,' a white rambler still made much of in the great rose gardens of Paris. Like 'Aglaia,' she is one of the three Graces. No rose books and articles say anything very enthusiastic about 'Thalia,' but that is one of the most wonderful roses I ever saw. So I have hopes for 'Aglaia.'
Why am I telling you all this? Only because I gave her extra pigeon manure, and because the entire operation is the sort of thing gardeners get into. First you acquire a worthless variety of rose, then you give it extra rations. Why? Because it hurts to see any variety neglected and put down. And because gardeners are naturally perverse.