The day before Christmas, I was gathering colorful ‘Arctic Fire’ cornus twigs in the garden, and was feeling content about the fact that the surrounding scene wasn’t the winter wasteland it once had been. Creating a garden that can stand proudly – or at least unashamedly – when leaves are gone and soils are grey is rewarding; but it is a process requiring patience and perspective. I’m not there yet, but I’ve planted and planned enough that I can see a destination point on the far-off horizon.
The winter garden was top of mind not only for the scene that stretched before me, but from a conversation I’d just had with Leslie Harris on her podcast about the need to keep moving, working and planning during the winter months. And I’d had a teensy bit of convincing to do.
I get it. I’m in the minority. There’s plenty of gardeners in warmer and colder climates who have no desire to garden during the winter months when the default indoor position is widely accepted and roundly defended.
Not to mention a damn sight warmer.
And I see those gardeners all the time – virtually. Instagram, my social media platform-of-choice, constantly suggests posts throughout the winter months that reflect and dream about the spring and summer months.
When it’s not suggesting lifting techniques for my aging face.
But that’s not why I started using Instagram. I’ve got books and magazines for dreaming. And I’m really good with my current choice of face cream.
Instagram originally offered this curious gardener the gateway drug of gardens in real time – which the books could not. I curated my feed to understand and measure seasons from gardeners and gardens I knew and respected throughout the US and the world for that reason.
I can’t do that if you’re showing me your ‘Profusion’ Zinnia in February and you live in Ohio. Now, if you’ve got them in a greenhouse or on a dining room table, that’s another story altogether. In that case I want to know how you pulled off that particular piece of black magic in case I want to dabble in a little witchcraft myself next year.
I get it. I’m in the minority.
Words Spoken In Haste
So back to that Christmas Eve. Standing there, grinning like an idiot at the shapes and colors and textures before my eyes, I felt great thankfulness that my life in the garden isn’t end-capped by garden center pansies and kale displays. I felt real, palpable joy.
It is in these happy, idealistic moments (and others involving alcohol), that we must never – under any circumstances – grab our phones and shoot off our mouths using our thumbs.
I did. In that moment I wanted to champion the act of stepping outside in winter and enjoying the opportunities of this special season – and why you don’t need psychiatric help if you say things like that.
Two minutes later I had locked myself into a daily Instagram #whywintergarden challenge for the next three months that will either kill me or make me stronger. Much like winter.
Ever since, I’ve been sharing the plant stars in my Northern Virginia Zone 6b winter garden, techniques I use, gear that’s crucial, views I adore, creatures that visit, weirdness that happens, and basically, why the hell I’m out there on a daily basis. Besides forcing me to put my money where my mouth is, it’s also forcing me to learn skills in the digital world on the fly.
Unlike horticultural skills, this is knowledge that will most likely be eclipsed in six months’ time – but what the hell.
How Does the #WhyWinterGarden Challenge Work?
First, it’s not a countdown. It’s a count-up – a celebration – ending with the last day of winter, NOT the first day of spring. We spend so much time putting our heads down and getting through winter that we end up putting our heads down and getting through winter. It’s hard to appreciate anything in that position, and it’s equally hard to enjoy any part of one full quarter of a precious year if you’re ticking off days until spring.
I had this wild hair 85 days before the first day of spring on Christmas Eve. Therefore it wasn’t the Solstice, but Christmas day that became Day 1. That morning I took a minute [with wet hair and a roast in the oven] to grab a few greens of many textures and shapes outside for indoor decorations. And shared it. Having that winter bounty is one of the reasons I make the choices I do when planting.
Each day consists of a short video (in my feed), and an associated highlight pic in stories. I may ask a question in stories if it is applicable, and the results might be interesting to others — such as the results from the poll below. But more about that at the end of this post (plus a slightly sardonic IG tutorial for those who don’t dabble), because I’d love it if you helped share this message. Cast aside the dahlias and zinnias Influencers! Show us your REAL gardens in REAL time!
There’s winter and then there’s winter.
I’m not naïve. For the record, I separate winter into three distinct stages –
Early winter usually keeps you distracted with holiday fun and resolutions you can’t seem to keep, plus the last of the bulbs you’re crazy late about getting in.
By this point we may well have had snow and some very cold weather in my 6B Virginia garden. Last year, we experienced the three-day sudden freeze shared by so many. But for the most part, things are not too awful, and you optimistically feel like you’ve got this winter garden thing locked up.
That’s when you pledge yourself to onerous challenges.
Mid-winter, aka “[In The Bleak] Midwinter, aka The Grey Times, is pretty grim. It’s as cold as it will probably be and we experience snow and ice storms.
But then again, there are snow and ice storms. If you’ve planted twisted trees like Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, or Citrus poncirus in your front garden, you’ll be the subject of many neighborhood photo shoots. Here’s where you can plant for candy-colored barks and cool shapes. Here’s where the topography of your garden comes into [literal sharp relief] and fascinates you, or bores the living hell out of you because it’s so flat and dull.
Perhaps that’s what missing in your summer garden and the plants stopped you from seeing it. You can’t beat the structural and design perspective that mid-winter gives you.
Late winter used to be the toughest on me. Mostly because I would visit my family in California at the end of February and beginning of March and see rosemary flowering, and maples in leaf, and then come home with excitement only to realize I was still six long weeks away from the green rapture. And my rosemary was dead.
But now I have planted so many late winter/early spring blooming plants and trees, that I feel saddened if I miss their blooms because I’m in California. Go figure.
Skill Building & Perspective
I’m not a winter garden expert. Far from it. I’ve simply come to the very personal conclusion that its worth my time, effort, health and happiness to extend my outdoor life by extending my garden season.
It’s a conclusion easily dismissible by those who don’t. I know, I was one of them for a long time. It’s far less painful to say “I don’t do a winter garden,” than to look outside and see twenty pathetic Tête-à-tête daffodils poking their heads above an arctic tundra and making the entire scene more pitiable than it already is.
If you’re going to attempt it, it’s crucial to begin with the understanding that the winter garden is a completely different animal to the spring or summer garden, and should be designed to exemplify the moments of exquisite beauty present in the colder months, not to re-create something that cannot be re-created. Textures and shapes are key, but so is subtlety.
With thought and effort, those twenty doleful and disembodied Tête-à-têtes can become two hundred little flames interspersed with the fresh blossoms of hellebores under a canopy of red winterberries. And one year, standing with flushed, rosy cheeks and a broad smile across your face, you have a rapturous moment where you realize you’ve broken the back of it.
And then it’s game on.
Join Me on the Dark Side?
If you’re a winter garden enthusiast in a cold climate with a dormant season, I’d love it if you shared your winter garden ideas and plants with me on Instagram by hashtagging #whywintergarden and making sure I know where you garden, and in what USDA zone – so I can share them in my Stories @marianne.willburn . You can also DM (Direct Message) me. If you’re not in the US, your lowest average temperature would be helpful.
If you want to see what I’ve done so far, you can either see the reels/videos in my feed chronologically (by looking at my profile), or you can find snaps of each day in my story highlights under #WWG . (A super-quick tutorial for the IG neophytes who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about is at the end of this post).
For those of you who don’t garden in a cold climate with a dormant season, I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re missing out, but I have.
And for those of you who want to sit this one out and observe (or perhaps ridicule me in the comments below) – again, I get it. I’m not sure where this crazy challenge will take me. As of this post I’m on Day 11. Perhaps I’ll get to Day 45 and start crying on camera.
But it’s more than likely my tears will have more to do with Instagram nonsense than the beauty that’s out there for the curious gardener to discover. – MW
Quick, but slightly sardonic, IG tutorial
If you’re not currently on Instagram and wish to dabble, it’s not hard to join at all.
Millennials, please look away as a Gen Xer tries to explain Instagram. This may be cringe-worthy.
Download the free app, choose a handle/name, and no doubt IG will suggest people for you to follow. Don’t be too quick to hit that button though — be discerning. Just because someone has an IG account doesn’t mean you need to follow it – including mine. Just because someone chooses to follow you doesn’t mean you have to follow them. Including me.
You can’t possibly see the feeds of 2,934 people when you open that app, so why the hell follow them? At least I hope you’re not spending that much time on social media. You can always unfollow someone you follow – happens to me all the time when influencers realize I’m not going to follow them simply for the sake of it. I also tend to unfollow the moment I sniff a political post. I’m not on IG for politics.
Use the search button (magnifying glass at bottom) to search for the gardeners you love. And remember to search for the gardener’s garden if it’s a named one. For instance, I’ve been following @keithwiley for years, hoping he’d post something other than the one shot of his face. Last week, the garden designer @guilfoyleannie mentioned that @wildsidegarden is an account managed and posted to by Dianne Giles – a gardener there. And it’s a glorious feed – a fantastic find. I follow some food writers I love too. Gardens and food go hand in hand.
You can also choose to follow a hashtag such as #wintergarden, or #whywintergarden. A hashtag is in essence, an index entry, collating all the posts over IG that have been tagged by their creators under that hashtag. When you search for that hashtag and select it, you’ll see the most popular posts from that category, more or less chronologically.
The accounts you follow will show up in a scrolling feed – along with ads for face cream and gray hair if you are over 50, cute children’s gear, pet gear, and painfully neutral home decor if you’re 25-40, and work out apps and expensive shampoos if you’re under 25. Though most in the latter category are on TikTok.
When you are in your feed, there are additional rabbit holes you can go down up by touching the profile pics that come up (or touching one and then just swiping through), and seeing either what people have posted that will only last 24 hours, or what they wish to share from others (that will also only last 24 hours). This is one of the evil ways IG tries to keep you glued to your phone, just in case you miss someone’s story. So. Evil.
My #whywintergarden video reels/posts will remain on my feed until Instagram goes bankrupt or turns into X2, but an associated snap will be on stories for 24 hours and then dumped into the #WWG highlight category on my profile for a quick scanning of all the ideas/plants by those who want to see them. Quickly.
And don’t forget to post snaps yourself! Remember, we’ve got thousands of still lifes happening in our lives everyday — we just need to look for them. In the caption you can say something about the snap, or simply write a hashtag. From #whywintergarden (which says what it is) to #dammitjimimagardenernotaninfluencer (which says how you feel), anything goes.
Whew. That’s enough to get you started – and possibly piss you off. And I haven’t even started to explain reels. Bottom line, they’re videos with extra distracting bits like music, and animations. You might want to hold off on creating one of those – the Instagram Gods find it amusing to change the creation tools regularly just in case we’re all getting too comfortable in these newly acquired skills.