After two weeks in a deep freeze, the garden is awakening this week to a modest thaw with temperatures forecast to reach the low 60s on Friday. Most people will rejoice after that brutal and prolonged taste of Arctic cold, but the gardener won't be among them.
The aptly named and excellent poet Robert Frost, extolling his apple trees in cryogenic slumber, wrote that "No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm; But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm."
So no warmth, please, because the worst thing that can happen to your plants is to be coaxed out of hibernation only to be zapped by a returning freeze. This was the case early last spring, when Washington's cherry blossoms ran the gantlet of a late frost and nearly came a cropper. The problem wasn't with the freeze, but the weather that preceded it. Last February in Washington was the warmest on record, with temperatures in the 70s, and while March moderated, the damage was already done. Those little blossom buds, upon which a whole great city counts, had begun to stir.
The recent polar vortex combined with the "bomb cyclone" fulfilled the contemporary idea that weather is relentlessly menacing and a cause for anxiety if not hysteria. By giving weather phenomena names we can turn them into threatening personas.
For longtime residents of this town, the recent deep freeze seemed more like an echo of a time when the winters were just long and cold. Maybe we should have called the polar vortex the "Blast From the Past." I'm thinking of a time when the ground froze down half a foot or more, water pipes were expected to burst, the garden went from green to brown and folks wrapped their camellias, figs and even rosebushes in the tan sacking we call burlap.
Where once the burlapped shrub spoke of a thrifty and careful gardener, the practice curiously has reemerged in some tony districts as a conspicuous display of disposable income.
In the Hamptons, where high clipped hedges convey a symbolic and physical expression of exclusivity, the winter landscape is defined by privet, yews and boxwood securely wrapped in woven sheets of jute. A landscape contractor, Antonio Sanches, told the New York Times that his clients spend an average of $1,000 to winterize their precious evergreens. One suspects the deep-pocketed owners of the largest properties reach even deeper.
The practice is widespread. How much of it is horticulturally necessary, how much is work ginned up in the off season by landscapers and how much is the client signaling his or her wealth is open to question. It's probably a confluence of all three. Like others, I can see how geometric enclosures of sacking, their seams carefully stitched with the care of a costumier, can have an artistic quality about it.
The doyenne of burlapping is — who else? — Martha Stewart. Followers of her blog will know that her boxwood allee at her country place in Bedford, N.Y., is covered meticulously for the winter. English box is hardy to minus-5 degrees but can suffer a lot of discoloration and damage at higher temperatures in exposed sites. Martha's allee is hundreds of feet long. Just building the frame takes days, and is a work of carpentry unto itself.
The covered boxwood is no doubt protected against winter sunscald and windburn as well as damage from wet snow. But is the burlapping of winter and the uncovering of spring rather, like the burlap itself, over-the-top? Of course it's over-the-top. This is Martha Stewart. Anyway, the desire to coddle plants and to grow plants that are on the margin of your garden's climate are both legitimate ambitions of any green-fingered gardener.
The most pressing desire of this gardener, at least, is that the rest of January and February stay evenly cool, to allow winter bloomers such as snowdrops, witch hazels and the misnamed autumn flowering cherry trees to blossom in their own tentative ways while avoiding a meteorological sucker punch.
Time will tell if the deep freeze killed off my rosemary and the half hardy salvias, or if my Aristolochia fimbriata seedlings made it through. With things such as figs or edgeworthias, we might see some damage to top growth, but they should grow back from the roots. In my locale, the lowest temperature hit 8 degrees (on Sunday).
In the vegetable garden, the row covers were no match for the depth of the freeze. They will be removed in the next week or two, and their beds of frozen greens cleared and turned over in preparation for March.
The deep freeze had its silver lining. With the air too cold and the ground frozen, the obsessive gardener is forced to pause, to accept that there are some things you can't control, and to gain some perspective on the whole enterprise. Come to think of it, these truths carry through to other parts of your life.