I grew up in Queensland. Things grow in Queensland. All year round. Not just the sweet potatoes we dug almost every dinner time, or the rockmelons hanging off the fence, but the kikuyu grass, clambering up the gum trees. The lantana. Fruit not just ripening but over-ripening entrancing fruit flies all year round.
And then I moved south. The first winter I felt bereft every time I took my hands out of the nice, hot, washing-up water – it was impossible to stay warm.
I learned all about 'layering'. I learned to actually shut the doors and windows, and pulled the curtains at night. And I learned the many things for a gardener to treasure in winter.
Things stop growing in cold winters.
Yes, there are plenty of fruit or veg to pick if you have planned well, with warm courtyard walls or big rocks to radiate heat and sunlight into your lemons or oranges, not to mention late-maturing apples like Democrat of Sturmer Pippin, Beurre Bosc pears and quinces and medlars to store all winter, wrapped in newspaper in the larder, lovely crisp cabbages and tight-headed broccoli, winter-sweet carrots and beetroot, rabbit ear winter lettuce, Wandin Winter rhubarb and much, much more.
But they do it slowly. Ripen slowly and just sit there, waiting for you to pick them, or the birds to eat them, which is the subject for another week.
Winter gives you time to gather up rubbish to compost, to cut down and woodchip unwanted or aging trees; to pave the courtyard or the garden path or put in a pond. And to take a breath, and sit in the (few) daily hours of sunlight.
Sunlight is the enemy in summer, too hot, too skin searing. Just too much. Winter sunlight is to be cherished, as the leaves vanish from the deciduous trees.
Summer light leaches colours. Shadows are black. Winter shadows are blue or green or purple; colour seeps back into the world. Light gleams on the leaves and every flower glows. There is less daylight in winter, but each minute is more beautiful.
Elegant tree shapes
See a few columns ago. Many bare trees have stunning sculptural shapes. Others, like snow gums, display green, grey or orange dapples in their bark. Stop looking for the leaves or flowers, and look at shapes and shadows instead.
Want to plant onions? Dig, remove weeds, plant seedlings. And there will be no weeds until the weather warms. Of course then they will spring up like kangaroos. But you will have had a lovely winter break. And, of course, you can mulch the weeds and just cover them up.
Winter is the time to plan the bare-rooted fruit trees to plant, the potted shrubs you'll hunt out in the garden centres in spring, the vegie seeds you'll actually get round to planting this year.
And maybe you won't. And maybe you won't pave the courtyard either, or cut down the aging wattle trees. Not this winter, anyway. But it is so much fun to dream.
This week I am:
- hoping someone else is making medlar jelly from our finally softened medlars as I won't be – medlars need a frost or six to soften them, and their jelly is like bottled sunlight;
- realising there is just a little space to plant more fruit trees – a crab apple, because crab bloom is always a shock and a glory each spring, a couple of plums, because they will (almost) never let you down, a fig, because the ones we have are getting too shaded by others trees I love too much to cut down … just a few more trees;
- admiring the olive grove I planted last time I promised myself I wouldn't plant any more trees – they are bushes now, instead of finger-sized sticks and in one or two more years they will be trees, and in a hundred years, or even two hundred, perhaps they will still be fruiting;
- sending Bryan out in the chill to pick giant bunches of parsley for parsley, (home grown) walnut and feta salad for which you need to chop the parsley very, very finely;
- rubbing woolly aphids off the apple trees the wallaby 'pruned' a few years ago – woolly aphids are attracted to over-enthusiastic pruning and, no, rubbing them off won't get rid of them all but it will eradicate enough for the tree to be able to cope and grow; and
- wondering why I ever thought cherries were the best fruit when one can have cold, winter-crisp apples (I will only feel this way till mid-spring).