The way it works is this, summer is hot and winter is cold and the other seasons fall in between.
The gardeners who every year go off the deep end at the first slight variation in mean temperature should try to get that first sentence fixed in their heads.
Today, the last week of November, finds the usual tag-end flowers blooming in Washington. Still a few roses, still begonias and early pansies and late larkspurs and snapdragons, and as always a few lilacs are trying to bloom and a few azaleas, along with pear trees, are testing the waters by opening an occasional floret..
I guess if one never noticed such a thing before it would cause comment. Just as this winter you can be sure some excited gardeners will notice some daffodils coming through the ground in January, some crocuses in bloom in that month (though March is their great month), and somebody will certainly discover the ice in his fish pool is "10 inches thick, I measured it, and it's never been more than four inches before." Which means, of course, he never noticed such a thing before, and he expects the climate (and everything else) to fit his perhaps limited experience of it.
It's safe to say we won't have a glacier this winter nor will we have a 10-day spell of hundred-degree afternoons. We also will not have 20 below zero temperatures. I expect the low in my garden to be 8 above zero, though it may be 17 above or 4 above or even hit 5 below, in which case the gardener is entitled to snarl for a week.
We know pretty much what to expect and we are reasonably sure crape myrtles will not freeze and that pittosporums and gardenias will.
Something else we know and the beginning gardener should know -- there are going to be disasters aplenty in the garden during a year whatever the weather is. Things long cherished or long hoped for will fail, just as things we never dreamed of, wonderful things, will happen.
It is far more true of the garden than of the stock market, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't pin all your hopes on camellias when sooner or later a winter is certain to cut them to the ground or kill them outright.
Don't set your hearton daffodils or peonies, when a blast of spring heat will collapse them both just as they come into bloom. Not every year, thank God, but one horrible year in five or 10 or 15.
Concentrate if you please on some favorite flower but avoid monoculture. I can say that, who had 560 varieties of irises in my old towngarden and not much else. Still, I had cyclamen and roses and chrysanthemums and tithonias and daffodils and azaleas and hollies and osmanthus and viburnums and pink locusts and a grand oak from Burma, zub, zub, zub. There was no year in which everything was a disappointment and no year in which something wasn't.
Would you say that is why we gardeners as a group are so wise and even-tempered and generally delightful? We have taken our lumps. We have passed to the other side of misery and have discovered (not simply read somewhere) that where there's a warp there's a woof, and taken all together the game is worth the candle. Ten of them.
I should say a word for the agave or century plant as it is sometimes called. It is native to our West and to Mexico and Central America, and while one or two varieties are doubtfully hardy here, the great one is far too tender even to try outdoors in the winter. That is Agave americana, and I have the kind with yellowish stripes on the great sword leaves, which are spiny down the sides.
The first one I had (it was pitched out in the trash by somebody years ago) flourished mightily and soon had pups, which I grew along in separate pots. They too have had pups, so I have three big ones, three or four feet wide, and a number of smaller ones. They come indoors the end of October and go out again in April.
With scissors I cut off the spine at the end of each leaf, as it is as firm and sharp as a hypodermic needle. My house is small and if you sit in certain chairs in the living and dining rooms, you slide in cautiously to avoid bloodshed from the side spines which are sharp enough to do damage but not sharp enough to put your eye out.
In Madagascar I got seed of another agave that is more squat -- only the size of a bushel basket -- with silvery white stripes. It is an American plant, and one is pleased to collect seeds of our own native flora off the coast of Africa.
Eventually, agaves get as large as a Volkswagen, but only after breaking a good many pots. Many plants sicken and die when they get too big for the pot, but not agaves. They are can-do plants and their roots simply crack and split open even a heavy 12-inch clay pot.
They are called century plants because people said they bloomed once per century. Wrong. They bloom when they reach a certain size and vigor, maybe 20 years, maybe less. Then like many desert sword-leaf plants (furcraeas, dasylirions and yuccas among them) the plant dies after flowering but leaves offsets, which in turn grow to blooming size.
In moving these large plants indoors and out it is prudent to place a blanket between oneself and the plant in one's arms. I have never done it and always regret it. It is also wise to have the earth dry as dust, to reduce the weight. It is also wise to remove all pots hanging on kitchen walls or any other movables along the route.
Somebody once offered to take the agaves off my hands, thinking I considered them a nuisance. Well of course they are. So are dogs, but people don't come up offering to rid you of your dogs. Agaves unfortunately become dumb, fiercely armed pets after a few years. I give each large agave perhaps a pint of water every two months in the house, and let the rains of heaven fall on them as they may during warm months outdoors.