Mild days in February are among the best of the year, and all the more perfect for the certainty that ice will still afflict us.
A few early flowers -- wild crocuses, snowdrops, witch hazels -- make no great show in the garden but give the gardener courage and reassurance that the world is all right, sort of. On a mild day with the sun gaining strength is when I prune grapes and roses -- on the theory I may as well be comfortable doing it, and not wait till the skies are gray and cold again.
Through oversight I have no pansies this year, but have been greatly cheered by seeing them here and there at other points around the city, blooming in December, January and February. When it snows and turns bad, the flowers freeze, but in a few days new ones come out again. I have learned that some gardeners never think of pansies for the house, maybe because they have such short stems in cold weather. But if carefully pinched, even the shortest stems will do for display in a wine glass.
Some years, when I have thought of it and not been too lazy, I put sand in a wine glass and saturate it, sticking in crocuses, the earliest anemones, tiny daffodils (before they go their usual short-lived way), chionodoxas, snowdrops -- whatever oddments are in bloom. The sand keeps them standing up, and you don't need many flowers as they do not all flop over to the rim.
About the first of March I shall plant seeds of hardy annuals (bachelor's buttons are typical) in those white thick plastic cups we drink coffee out of in many places, even though I know they would be stronger plants if I had sowed them outdoors in September. The trouble with fall sowing is twofold for me. First, birds and seed-collecting beasts in general are surprisingly clever at finding and eating my fall seeds. Second, we can have ice and frozen ground, then a warm sun that melts the ice and lets the water just sit there atop the frozen earth, and few plants will survive this. I do not mention a third thing for fear it will be held against dogs, but dogs can do in small seedlings over the winter. Our bassets, with feet like pancakes, have always done a degree of damage but I now believe the Welsh terrier, with relatively wee paws, does as much. Plants have a better chance if fairly good-sized ones are set out in April. Hence my spring sowings indoors.
I am glad to see the pool fish swimming about with no casualties except two very small ones (hatched out last fall) that got frozen in the ice. We have a rather large white goldfish that drags about and every year I think will be his last, but here he is again looking bored with the world. Earthworms are admirable food for them and I shall start feeding them worms and oatmeal (uncooked) in March.
Toads live virtually all their life on land, but of course have to have a pond or puddle to lay their eggs in, in April. With a raised pool, I have not mastered the trick of getting the toads in and out of the pool. Sometimes in early spring I hear them singing and I go out and try to find them to put them in the water but they elude me. In theory a kind of ramp from the pool rim down to the earth would serve, but I do not like to make things any easier for coons.
I learned recently that toads thrive on a diet of honeybees. One toad can eat 100 bees in a night, I am told, if they can get in the hive, and sometimes they sit on the landing board of a box hive waiting for transients. I like toads better than bees, but mention this in case somebody new to beekeeping has a hive and a toad problem. The suggested remedy is to raise the hive two feet off the ground.
For the first time in several years I find no egg cases of the praying mantis in the garden, but am not worried. In May these elegant and alarming-looking insects will show up from somewhere and by Labor Day I will find one or two that have reached a good five inches. They are quite good at sitting on upright box bushes by the front walk where I can view them conveniently in early fall.
We do not want to wander from plants too much, but perhaps it is legal to say the garden has been much brightened this winter by woodpeckers at the suet feeders -- rude contraptions of wire mesh stuffed with hunks of suet. I knew we were not taking care of woodpeckers at the regular seed feeders, but had no idea so many woodpeckers, tufted titmice and chickadees would arrive. It made me uneasy wondering how they got through the winter in past years.
Although we live in a cloud of birds and squirrels, and although the viburnum berries disappeared early in the winter, the berries of nandina have been hardly touched, and hardly any fruit on the hollies is missing. I imagine migrants will soon descend to polish them off.