Skater My view of humanity is not terribly lofty, maybe because I’ve spent so much of the last fifteen years staring downwards at the juncture of shovel and soil.  But I’m convinced we’re mostly animal and driven by instinct to do a few essential things, like eat well, have sex, chatter, and garden. 

Unable to do any one of these, my theory of human nature continues, we get slightly tweaked and seek out alternatives that are generally unsatisfying and sometimes full-blown self-destructive.

The problem is, if you’re like me and believe gardening is entirely necessary to the proper functioning of both mind and body, how do you replace it in a climate where from December through most of April gardening is impossible?

1. Bitterness and craziness is one alternative.  I do enjoy some of this in winter.  I spend a certain amount of time walking around and fuming about the unfairness of life and the futility of all effort, before recalling that nobody in my immediate family is sick, my children are sweet, my husband’s still good for a few laughs, and there’s always shopping for antique light fixtures on eBay.

2.  Hibernation.  A really appealing alternative that doesn’t work for me, since there is always somebody in my house yelling for a sandwich or wanting to know where their socks are.  Life has not allowed me a nap since I was four.  I think I’m okay with that.

3.  Chickens. I loved having them in the backyard because shoveling out their coop was the only January activity that felt actually gardening-like.  I got rid of them because of a problematic neighbor, who then divorced, sold his house, and disappeared into the sands of history.  Must get that chicken operation going again.

4.  Winter sports.  The New York Times recently ran the ultimate "just do it" piece that argued there is simply no reason not to get out and move, even in the coldest weather.  I’m not a skier, though I can see that that’s coming, since my older kids are avid downhillers.  But in middle age I have become a wildly enthusiastic ice skater.  I have no idea what I’m doing–hated skating as a kid and never learned–so I can’t stop, can’t skate backwards, can’t always avoid crashing when there’s a child down in front of me.  But I can go happily forwards and around a rink for hours at a time, and since I apparently have the depth of mind of a goldfish, that’s exhilarating.

5.  Dreaming about moving to Portland, Oregon.  I’ve never been there, but it looms large in my imagination, as a kind of year-round gardening Valhalla.  The problem is, I love my part of upstate New York, which manages to combine tons of culture with tremendous natural beauty, wonderful people, and cheap but charming real estate. 

6.  Getting out of the house.  The New York Times also ran a piece last week about a winter-blues-fighting program at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  The psychotherapist who leads it does NOT instantly bring the legions of Northeastern depressives into the greenhouses–which seems like the obvious choice to me–but instead forces them to stay outside and notice things in the open air, on the theory that lack of sun contributes to foul winter moods.

Still, all this stuff is plastic spoons and naugahyde, barely enough to keep a person on the straight and narrow.  It really is a wonder more of us cold-climate gardeners don’t commit crimes or bundle subprime mortgages or get large tattoos. 

I hate being a gardener in winter.  But it’s better than not being a gardener at all, because most of those poor souls suffer from the winter blues all year long.


  1. I hear ya reb the chickens! I find myself spending way too long filling the bird feeders, so long that the birds that fled at the sight of me stomping thru the snow start approaching, nagging me to hurry up ( at least it sounds like that!). i fuss with the thistle feeder, wipe the bird bath, and even talk back! I know pretty soon Mother will call from England to inform me with fiendish delight that her crocus are out, and daffodils are nearly blooming. I respond by buying all the gardening mags at the supermarket, chocolate, and spend the weekend miserable on the couch!

  2. Kathy, that too–but they were only attacking each other because they were confined in a chicken yard that bored them. Free chickens, in my experience, are happy chickens. Unfortunately, they would tear up my garden when I let them just range.

    However, these problems would be solvable with some rearrangement and new fencing. It was the crazy neighbor threatening us that really did it.

  3. I’m an unskilled ice skater, too, especially when circling the rink at the National Sculpture Garden on the Mall. Really magical place, and they play great music, too.

    But here’s something to explore on this subject: the new book “The Geography of Bliss” declares that the happiest people in the world are in Iceland and Denmark and similarly dark and frozen places. Why? One reason the author offered in an interview is that they binge drink on the weekends. (Huh?) Another reason, esp in Iceland, is the strong sense of community that comes from all being related to each other.
    So now we have the answers: binge-drinking and incest.

    Seriously, I’m dying to read the book and make SOME sense of it because it’s so counter-intuitive.

  4. Wow, Rosengeranium, just checked out your site! Cool! Crazy! Growing vegetables indoors! That might make me feel better.

    Susan, I will skate with you anytime, anywhere.

  5. I confess I never cleaned out the hen house in January! Our theory is they need the heat from their manure to keep warm. As for skiing, it never appealed, and with my new hip I’m afraid of falling while on ice skates, but with the new high tech snowshoes that are available I’m starting to think about snowshoeing through my woods. However, I have to say that my favorite way of getting through the winter is by sitting in front of my big south windows (I uderstand the sun keeps away the blues) AND the woodstove with a good book. Preferably one with big color pictures of gardens, or mysteries with a garden in them, or by a writer who once tended an aloe plant.

  6. I pace, press my nose to the window, order too many plants with instructions to hold delivery until May. I usually forget that I have done so and start coming home at night to find them on my front porch like foundlings.

    I don’t garden indoors because I have six cats who either dig in the pots and make a huge mess or eat the plants and throw them up.

  7. It sounds like you have the January blahs. You need to get into those skates and go round and round some more. 🙂 Oh yes, and chocolate was a good idea.

  8. Ha! Another skater! I’ve taken that up this winter, too, though less as a replacement for gardening and more because I’m sick of the Houston heat. Where’s the coldest place in town to get a workout? Yeah, the rink.

  9. Thanks for giving me a taste of your world! I’m in California so I can’t quite relate..but it may make you feel good to know that it has been raining for 5 straight days!

  10. You could totally become a boss ice skater. Did you know all the actors in Blades of Glory had to learn to ice skate just for the movie? –except Will Arnett who, being Canadian, was actually birthed from his mother while she was ice skating. It’s all there in DVD special features.

    Portland is a lovely town with many fine drinking establishments, but I do believe it freezes from Nov-Feb..? Not a mid-Atlantic, upper-midwest, down east kind of freeze, but freezing nonetheless. And you’d have to re-think your summer vegetables for less heat.

  11. I live in California,
    Guess I don’t have to say anymore.
    It’s a tough place to garden, but somebody has to do it.
    We had a break in the cold rain yesterday and it was the perfect time to get out there and cut back the Salvia leucantha and Ornamental grasses.

    Sometimes I think it would be nice not to be able to do winter time chores.
    Then I think of living back in New England and the thought melts away – quickly.

  12. By the way, I’m still drinking my first cup of coffee and I’m rather dull in general–but should we know what this painting is?

    No, I got it…it’s an ice skater. And it’s clickable.

    Got it. Got it.

  13. The winter work and endless grey skies nearly finished me and I was crying with the need to get my hands in earth, I went back to pottery. So I spend the winter making containers for gallon pot plants, hanging containers, vases with flowers on them, and even a wateringcan shaped teapot with cream jug decorated with worms (on the outside), and mugs sprigged with flowers. It sure beats the winter blahs and as I have to walk to the studio I get exercise too.

  14. I started taking a karate class. They are free at our local rec center. At least it gives me something to look forward to a few days a week.

  15. I do not have time to get the blahs in winter. I work in winter so I can take the summer off for gardening and fishing. But tomorrow morning I am going to the US figure skating championship! And I can skate backwards also; there wasn’t much to do growing up in the winter on the great plains. We did a lot of skating.

  16. Like other Californians, I confess to being ready for a break come winter. It’s 40-something outside and not quite raining, so I could go whack away at something or even put some plants in the ground, but I don’t. Maybe I should, just for you.

  17. As someone who lives in Portland, Oregon (or more correctly, the ‘burbs), I can tell you that it is gardening Valhalla – with caveats.

    As Chuck B wrote, growing heat-loving veggies is a challenge because of our cool summer evenings. They are some gardeners so dedicated (obsessed?) and competitive about it, that at times tomato growing becomes akin to an Olympic sport. Did I mention that summer doesn’t really start until July 5th?

    We don’t freeze from Nov to February, as Chuck B wrote. Average winter temps are in the 40’s. We do get a spell of clear, cold – at or below freezing – weather, usually in February that lasts for a week or two. This year the cold spell came early. My waterfall is dripping with icicles (lovely!) and my containerized water garden has close to 2″ of ice on top. But this is coming to an end; the gray, rainy days are about to return.

    The rain is both a boon and a bane. Our winter rains are why Oregon is such a green heaven but it also poses challenges to winter gardening. If your soil is like mine – heavy clay soil that doesn’t drain well – the last thing you should do is get out there and work in it. I’ve learned the hard way that working sopping-wet clay undoes all my efforts to improve it, making it behave like concrete when I was going for lovely, friable soil.

    But it’s not all doom and gloom. Our temperate USDA Zone 8 climate means that we can grow many, many plants that you Northerners can only drool over in catalogs. For this, I will gladly put up with all the gray, rainy days we get. And when it gets too depressing, I can head to our many wonderful drinking establishments (Chuck B, are you speaking from experience?). Or even better, I will head downtown to spend hours in Powell’s, our city-block-sized bookstore. No trip to Portland is complete without a trip to Powell’s!

  18. This year I took up cross-country skiing, and it’s making a world of difference. I’ve found local groomed trails through golf courses, hilly parkland, along the river, and best of all, at the Arboretum. Does much more for my nature yen than circling round the skating rink. I don’t know what I’ll do in the low-snow years though.

  19. I also dream about moving to Portland, actually–that’s part two of our long-term plan and happening (we hope) in a year and a half.

    Otherwise, I’ve been drawing up very detailed plans for planting and drawings of my garden. And playing World of Warcraft. I really like the chickens idea, though…too bad the mayor won’t allow it.

  20. It has been raining in Los Angeles for a whole week! How will I ever survive this?

    When I can’t garden, I knit using colors I want to try in a garden. I must confess to never finishing these… things – but maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe one day I’ll stitch the unfinished …things… together and make a blanket. But realistically speaking, I probably won’t – the sun will come out and I’ll wander outside to play in the garden.

  21. Wish I could add to list of clever gardening substitutes. But nothing beats the real thing. I’m counting days til spring (57), reading and writing garden blogs, ordering seeds, drawing garden plans and imaging shovels and dirt. It’s a tough season… I definitely commiserate with you.

  22. I grew up in Minnesota and HATED ice skating, now I can’t convince my wife to go with me, not even on free skate days. I too am a goldfish at times, and it is refreshing.

    But really, it’s nice to have a gardenign break, and to enjoy the diversity of seasons. I’d get sick of gardening if I lived in Portland, much rather live in the northeast if I had a choice. Besides, is anything as gorgeous as snow on evergreen or weeping shrubs? Does anything make you more energized and eager and balanced and spiritually whole then such a rest?

  23. I should be having the winter blahs I suppose, particularly since I am under-employed, but I am new at this so I am just learning.

    A crashed computer has been keeping me busy and I actually have to go outside to get away from it. I would go outside anyway because I am new at this.

    What does winter look like? I must know.

    I remember what a relief it was when it rained in the tropical desert in the winter time and you got to stay inside for a change.

  24. Yeah, winter is rough but it gives the gardening elbow and the feet time to recuperate and at least you get to write about gardening. It also gives me a break from all those chores that I haven’t yet gotten to in the garden. No garden guilt at this time of year, just planning! LOL at this post and I’m with Chuck, who is that it that painting? He has a nice gardening outfit on doesn’t he!

  25. Indeed I do speak from personal experience, Lisa Albert! 🙂

    As far as growing vegetables goes, I lolled away the morning in a Portland farmer’s market a few years ago. It’s an experience I wish for everyone.

  26. I’ll take a few (or several) feet of snow each winter over the possibility of wildfires and earthquakes, no problem.

    Especially with houseplants, forced bulbs, 30 winter-sown perennials on the deck, and the seed table starting up in March. Winter break? What’s that?

    I’d also rather walk the 45 minutes home from work in winter cold than summer heat. Athletes die every year from heat stroke, not hypothermia.

  27. Okay, the painting: Gilbert Stuart’s “The Skater.” Same guy who did the famous George Washingtons.

    I find those early American painters interesting. I went to the Met a few years ago and they had a bunch of John Singleton Copley pastel portraits hanging–knocked my socks off.

  28. I live in Alaska. And to me, the long winters just make the gardening in the summer that much more fun, amazing and intense. I use the volley of seed catalogs in the spring to help pull me out of the cabin fever of late winter. I plan and dream and start seeds in Jan through April. Used the Winter sowing method last year and it worked great! Anyway – I just wanted to say I love your blog. And persevere!! The winter just makes the wonder of our gardens that much more amazing!!

  29. I’m a horrible skater, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying myself when I go. I wear knee pads, because I invariably catch the toe pick and land knees-first. But I don’t skate all that often.

    I refill the feeders at least every other day–two thistle feeders, two mesh balls for black oil sunflower seed, a cheap plastic lantern feeder full of sunflower hearts–I think I am beset by feathered pigs rather than birds. I also have a suet feeder, a peanut feeder and a seed cake feeder, but those don’t get emptied quite so quickly, plus a tray feeder where I toss all kinds of odds and ends.

    In a “regular” year I’d be winter-sowing perennial and bulb seeds, too, just because it keeps me busy and interested. No seed orders this year, or next, but I’m happily placing plant and bulb orders. That helps to chase away my winter blahs.

    But the best blah-chaser? When we get enough snow to shovel. It takes me 45 minutes to an hour to clear the walkway, the driveway, the sidewalk and the street in front of the driveway. I love shoveling and tossing shovelfuls of snow.


  30. Thanks for the ideas. Living in Duluth, MN with the very long winter that we are having there were some great ideas.

    I am currently putting in software for my one acre garden. Never have been organized with a plan or maintenance schedule. At least it is allowing me to think about my future purchases at the nursey instead of all the impulse buying I do.

    Happy Spring to all!!!!

  31. It must be my midwestern upbringing, but I love the down time that winter brings to Zone 4. It’s a time to think about the garden, make plans for spring, start some seed, and concentrate on the houseplants (orchids in my case). I’m not sure I’d have the stamina for year-long gardening. I agree that in a climate with a true winter you need to find a winter sport to enjoy, and in my case it’s cross country skiing and sledding with my kids.

  32. Ditto to Laura-MPLS – starts some seeds, force some bulbs, buy a few blooming orchids – go visit your local garden conservatory – here in WDC-area Brookside has a whole Spring theme going. I get the winter blues BAD – but visiting the tropical forest at the USBG on the Mall cures it every time.

  33. I only have gardening experience in SF and Portland. I have to say I prefer the seasonality of the North West. It seems like a really nice compromise. There is much LESS to do in the garden in the winter, but certain plants perform really well.

    Maybe its because in SF I was limited to mostly containers, but the constant feeding and watering really wore on me. I would “put down” lots of plants over the winter because I got sick of the feeding schedules…

    In the North West you get a bit of a break, but can still have year round green and flowers. With Mahonias, Witch Hazels, Viburnums, and so on, I haven’t had a moment in the garden where something hasn’t been flowering. But at the same time, most everything else is dormant and gets along quite nicely without me.

  34. In the winter, after work or on weekends, I tuck in with my puppies and cook “cold weather foods” like soups, stews, or root vegetables with roasts. Of course, they like to sample it, too! Twice, I’ve made them their very own steak & lamb kidney shepherd’s pie (which I wouldn’t eat myself, though).

  35. Mountain biking is great in the winter – it helps me keep away the blues. I also like to start seeds, peruse catalogs and blogs, force bulbs and branches, look out the windows umpteen times a day, occasionally catching sight of a new bird on the feeder (last week – bluebirds and something black with a golden yellow breast-beautiful), stare at the hairy vetch, wishing it would grow faster. Also bake bread and cakes, but even my husband has said I need to knock that off so much, ’cause he’s concerned about eating too much butter in the cakes. Yesterday, I went rock climbing at an indoor center – that was really fun and a great workout.

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