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The Winter Garden, or Gardening in Winter

By Deirdre Heekin

From her blog, fuoricitta.

I will admit, I am a sucker for the romance conjured by words. Caleb, who I would categorize as a certain type of romantic, also likes the hard work of words. Hence the constant yet subtle debate that peppers our own language at home.

We have a green house. It is specifically designed to be our garden during those Persephone months when autumn turns into winter, and while the days are slowly becoming longer after the winter solstice in December, the hours trick us into thinking they are shorter and darker and that we are very far away from the advent of spring. Two years ago, we put up the green house which is technically called a hoop house or high tunnel in these Northeastern parts. They are modeled after the relatively low budget green houses found in France and Italy, and all over Europe. A series of galvanized pipes shaped like a half-cylinder that when placed, secured, and then covered with a thick, weather-resistant and very taught plastic looks a little like the covered ribs of a whale. It is within this 20 X 24 foot body that we attempt to garden in the winter.

I had been planning on waxing on in this little essay about how I read somewhere in an English gardening book the word “winter garden” to refer to the green house in winter, and how I liked the sound of it. How “the winter garden” sounds so much more inviting than the more hard working “hoop house”. How “the winter garden” really impresses with its sleight of hand: as a series of three words the phrase conjures turn of the century conservatories with sweaty glass panels that can barely contain the fecund tropics within, where everything is green and smells of humid dirt and peat. I had planned to make note of how Caleb always uses the word “hoop house,” and how I have detected a slight roll of his eyes when ever we entertain a guest to lunch, and offer a trek out to “the winter garden”, how I have noticed that Caleb will very quickly say “hoop house” within seconds of my reference to “the winter garden”. I had plans to explore the notion of how we use words to connect us, to the land we live on, how they delight, trick, and tell the truth.

My plans fell apart this morning as Caleb asked me what I was writing. When I explained to him the direction I was going, he ruined my neat supposition. It turns out he too prefers the romance of “the winter garden”. He is not rolling his eyes at my willful attempt at charm, at how I refer to our work-horse plot of land that somehow produces these beautiful and piquant greens throughout these cold, and snowy months; he is making sure that lunch guest understands that “the winter garden” is actually a “hoop house”, and he is expressing his frustration with how this string of days with no sun and constantly gently falling snow, or sub-zero temperatures do not make the garden feel like it is the definition of its own word. Because our green house is passively solar, on these gray, cold days, he does not want to linger in this space that we’ve created. There is a quick satisfaction at uncovering the raised beds and seeing all those green leaves, but it is short-lived. The cold has wicked away the scent of moist earth, and while we are amazed and admire the strangely organic and plant-like patterns of ice on the glass and plastic of cold frames, we are not encouraged to sit at the little café table in the corner next to the compost and take a late morning tea. He says, “Why don’t we just call it “the place where we go to be cold”.

I suggest a different angle. When we think of winter gardens we can think of snow-covered topiary. We can see those beautiful and inexplicable patterns that look like William Morris wallpaper in the glass. We can be reminded of an image from a Russian film we once saw together called Russian Arc, an image of Catherine the Great in her long butter yellow robes and furs running from one end of the gardens to the other at The Winter Palace. Hmmmmm, I think, that’s what we’ll call our little 20 X 24 cold-weather eden: The Winter Palace.

–Deirdre


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