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Winter Midwest Garden

Finding beauty in a Midwestern winter garden.

When we have a snowy winter (and I always wish for one), my husband and I shovel a path to the compost pile, so we can go on feeding it broccoli stems and onion peels, and keep an eye on the winter garden. When the snow is fresh and deep, the planter boxes look like baked Alaskas. The stumps that we use as flowerpot pedestals in summer seem jaunty, shipshape, in new white stocking caps. Blue jays never look so blue, nor cardinals so red, as they do in a snowy garden.

Along the front walk, I dump shovelfuls of snow on beds where, before too long, I'll be looking for the shoots of daffodils. I count the furry, silvery gray buds on the spring-blooming magnolias and inspect the witch hazels for any encouraging glint of the cheerful yellow flowers yet to come. The boxwoods glow the darkest imaginable green in little grottoes of snow. I take the measure of the season by the shadows. When the light is right, the snow crystals themselves cast tiny shadows across the earth's frosty surface. In late afternoon, the dark shadow of my neighbor's oak tree ascends the glittering slope of his front yard and slices his house neatly in two.

Inside my own house, the new crop of seed and plant catalogs is piled beside a chair near the fireplace, with highlighting markers and a pad of sticky notes in colors worthy of the tropics. Gardening books are stacked all around my desk. An oddball collection of South African succulents on top of a file cabinet sprouts fresh growth, ignorant of seasons. In the basement, where it is cool and dim, I have started enough paperwhite narcissus to keep fresh flowers in bloom on the kitchen counter from the holidays until March. March! I miss the garden.

One bright day, on my way to the compost heap in the snow, I'll pick up a whiff of laundry detergent—the strange, unmistakable fragrance of the gorgeous yellow Chinese witch hazel in full and unflinching bloom. Before February is out, snowdrops and a crocus or two will mark a few more small triumphs of the season. During a thaw, I'll poke in the mulch and find columbine foliage, fresh as lettuce, and the first hellebore buds.

I'll be patient, marking every hopeful sign, familiar or surprising. One day last year, after a frigid, dry month—and it is the dryness of the cold that takes its toll on the garden—the weather finally turned, and giant snowflakes fell like confetti all day. The kids down the street made a magnificent snowman at the top of their slope, and, for want of a hat, their mother stuck an entire grocery-store bouquet on top of his round head. It was early yet, but there he was, the harbinger of spring himself, all dressed up and big as life.