Guest Rants, What's Happening

Polar or Bi-Polar? An Honest Assessment of the Winter Garden


Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, in Cincinnati's Ault Park.

Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, in Cincinnati’s Ault Park.


 Guest Rant by Scott Beuerlein

I am a charlatan and a fraud. Maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t even know. But whatever that thing is, I don’t like it. And “it” is me. And I couldn’t be more disgusted with myself.

For years, in talks, articles, in person, wherever and whenever, there I was spouting off, acting smart, and being a fool. Yes, that was me, the “expert,” smooth talking innocent people—good people, all of them—into planting for winter interest. I was loathsome.

It’s not that I hadn’t been putting my money where my mouth was. I’ve got witchhazels. And hellebores. Snowdrops. Some red twiggy things and more. They’re out there doing their thing. In the past, on those good winter days, I’ve gone out and photographed each of them. Carefully composed, lighting just right, some of these images came out looking like the garden was delightful. I’ve used these photos in PowerPoints to bolster my arguments. Ego-driven. I know that now. I only wanted to sound right. Not be right. I feel dirty.

Decidious holly, Ilex decidua 'Warren's Red'.

Decidious holly, Ilex decidua ‘Warren’s Red’.

But the fact is my garden looks just like a no-man’s land right now, and no amount of hellebores can possibly save it. We’ve had eleven days of rain, for God’s sake. And, like, a hundred with no sun. It’s dark when I go to work. It’s dusk when I come home. Every evening, I burst into my house like a bank robber being chased. Literally can’t get to the kitchen fast enough to stir together the first of several White Russians. The clichéd attraction of self-medication. The double-edged quick fix of alcohol, and the hope that a little Vitamin D milk will stave off the blues. I’ve become a poor excuse for a joke. A laughing stock.

White Russians help. I won’t lie. But they are no cure. There is no cure. Winter is winter. Its reputation is well-earned. And I’m an idiot for living in the meteorological hellstrip that is sandwiched between Interstate 20 in the South and Interstate 70 in the North. Too warm to go play in the snow amongst the birches. Too cold for Spring Training or any kind of cheery color. Okay. Alright. Sure, we have evergreens, which are, in fact, “green.” About the same “green”, I tell you, as that guy next to you on the bus who is about to blow chunks.

Seeds of American yellowwood, Cladrastis kentuckea.

Seeds of American yellowwood, Cladrastis kentuckea.

So every day I drive away and come back. And from the inside I occasionally peer out. I linger at the window long enough to get depressed by flopped grasses and morose, raisined crabapples. Then I go and make another drink, and pray for God to have mercy on my soul.

The Next Day

So the sun was out this morning. Five whole minutes. But it was out. And I happened to be in the right place at the right time and actually experienced it. I did some garden cleanup, and it felt good. Actually, it felt great. What a difference a day makes! I hate my garden far less than yesterday. I can actually find a few things in myself that are almost bearable.

Winter blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold's Promise'.

Winter blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’.

Perspective. Son of bitch. It broke through. My bad attitude? Fractured. Fact is my garden is a refuge. I really, really need it. Is it frustrating when it lays dormant and muddy and inaccessible? You bet. Do I handle it well? Sure don’t. Will the winter garden ever challenge the summer garden? Not a chance. But the winter garden is about the little things. Little big things. Little miracles really. It’s about the sweet, fleeting scent of a witchhazel flower on a cold January afternoon. It’s about buds getting a little fatter every day. It’s about the solitary bee that shows up, moss greening, and a pair of hawks in the trees making it loud and clear that they really want to get laid. Should we plant things for winter interest? Damn straight. It might just save your soul.


Scott is a Horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, working primarily on educational symposiums, trialing, and outreach. He is Chair of the Taking Root tree planting initiative and President of the Cincinnati Flower Growers Association. His home garden, after four years of editing, is only now recovering from years of crazed collecting and over-planting.



Posted by Scott Beuerlein on January 25, 2017 at 7:39 am, in the category Guest Rants, What's Happening.

8 responses to “Polar or Bi-Polar? An Honest Assessment of the Winter Garden”

  1. April Collier says:

    Thank you so much for a great chuckle (in total agreement) on yet another dreary winter day in the PNW. The itch to get out and poke around for signs that spring is breaking through is strong, as is the longing for that heavenly smell of freshly turned loamy soil. Gotta go put my wellies on now!

  2. Riva says:

    Ha. I gave up on winter interest years ago. Now my goal is to have my yard cleaned up enough by the end of the season to make it easy to pick up the trash that blows in. This year .I didn’t even achieve that.

  3. Margaret Wilkie says:

    Oh those swelling buds. Long about this time of year they tell a person that they are alive. Muck and mud from unseasonable showers, snow- if any, the buds do oblige. Those sticks are alive.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Bingo! I bet those hellebores really tied the garden together though 😉

  5. Susan Harris says:

    Exactly how I feel! And just today here in Maryland I got to garden and it took my mind completely off Russians, liquid or otherwise. Grateful for that wonder drug we share that’s not even bad for us. So thanks for the reminder.

  6. Chris - PEC says:

    So glad your bad attitude was fractured! I’ve also learned to look for and appreciate the small things in winter; makes it a lot easier to get through!

  7. Mary Gray says:

    Great piece! I’ve tried developing various indoor hobbies just for winter in order to ease the garden withdrawal symptoms — cooking, houseplants, sewing, etc. It helps, but the truth is I wind up spending a lot of winter looking longingly at garden books’ and websites’ pictures of summer gardens. I just do with a red wine instead of a White Russian.

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