Beating the big chill



Looks like it might be a long, cold winter for many, with the family finances making a tropical getaway improbable (or more improbable than usual). A bunch of us gardeners on the Plurk network have been talking about darker days and subsequent light deprivation; even our Texan mentioned it. In Western New York, this is a common thing. Many people I know start to get depressed as the weather cools. This year, with not too much to be cheered by on the international news front, it might be even harder than it usually is to dismiss the thought that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and life just sucks in general.

Personally, I deal with indoor light deprivation all year around; we live in a tall, narrow house, with tall, narrow windows, closely flanked by two similar structures. So it could be that I don’t notice the difference when winter comes. Nonetheless, it can get dull and gray sometimes, starting in late November and continuing through much of March. I have two strategies for dealing with it, as follows:

Drinking really works for me. Once I’m home from my office (which has nice big windows), often my husband and I will switch on the gas fireplace and sit for a while with cocktails in hand. We get out as much as we can too, to art openings, parties, or just dinner—with wine. Like many women, I also have my group of friends who meet over drinks regularly—and we do not even use the excuse of a book club (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It could just be that I’m a naturally happy person, but I’ve been able to fight off SAD without much of a problem.

Of course, not everyone can drink, or wants to drink. I accept that. Then may I suggest my other strategy? Yes, you knew this was coming: gardening. Indoor gardening need have nothing to do with houseplants, if they truly disgust you (I run into a lot of that on this blog). It can be forcing bulbs, which occupies me starting two weeks from now well into March, what with fancy paperwhites, hippeastrum, hyacinths, and tulips. There’s also seed-starting; the season for that around here is February through May. Oh there are all kinds of wacky growing projects you can get into, and I say go for it.

But for those of us who do love keeping plants going inside on a regular basis, what we all truly dream of is a greenhouse, connected to the house, preferably something like we’ve seen in a Jane Austen movie or on some Masterpiece Theatre production or other. Big enough to have fruit trees in it. Right now, all I have is a “plant room” and I am struggling with the technical aspects of lighting it properly. It’s OK. But it’s that dream of the greenhouse that really keep me going during the dark days—maybe even more than martinis and Chateauneuf du Pape. Actually, I’d even settle for the attached sunroom shown at top.

What’s your secret?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. This winter, I’m actually thinking about getting some part-time work, like 10 hours a week, doing something random like valet parking or selling tickets at the movie theater. Not because I need the money, but just to stay out of the house, and NOT be drinking. I usually have a night class or two going on at any given time at the community college, but I’m kind of tired of that.

  2. Eliz, I just signed up for a bulb-forcing workshop, so your influence is being felt. I STILL loathe my own houseplants because they’re nothing but “plant material” but your bulb-forcing posts do inspire.
    Now about winter drinking, esp in parts of the world with LONG winters? Yes, it’s the traditional solution, despite some unhappy consequences.

  3. Well, I tried to describe what I consider a healthier form of drinking, i.e., with other people, conversing, etc. I was not exactly referring to holing up with a bottle of xxx …

    I understand they can go overboard in, say Finland. I had a Finnish artist to stay once. My god, could that guy drink. He nearly killed us.

  4. Feeling “disgust” for houseplants is at least as silly as feeling horny for copier toner, or surprise for toothpaste. I’m not saying you have to like ’em, but jeez. Is mere disinterest not dramatic enough?

  5. Hmmm, “drinking,” or “indoor gardening,” I choose the latter. But like you, wish for the ultimate indoor gardening room with four walled windows. It’s light deprivation, plain and simple, zone 5 winters are notorious for it. Once leafdrop is over, it’s goodbye Mr. Sun. For me, nothing can replace the feeling of natural sunlight on my face. I hear Sara Palin has a tanning bed in the Governor’s mansion and she uses it for SAD. Nice. *Winks*

  6. I get through the five months of Minneapolis winter by looking at plant catalogs, dreaming, and beginning seeds in mid-March. I also go to the gym A LOT. Luckily, I’m not prone to depression or SAD, so it’s just trudging through the season.

    At present, my partner and I are seriously considering relocating to Portland, OR or Seattle to avoid the cold. Trade zone 4 for 7 or 8? In a heartbeat! (And, yes, I know it’s very grey, but at least your lungs don’t freeze solid. It shouldn’t hurt to breathe.) This could be my last real winter, *gasp*!

  7. Well… I don’t drink, so walking through our (admittedly limited) prairies and woods will continue. Winter provides a different kind of beauty, but a type of beauty nonetheless…

    I’ll also get more into reading, and try re-start my sketching and painting hobbies…and hopefully there will be plenty of winter birds at our feeders!

    Oh yeah… try to finish that garden shed!

  8. I can relate to your SAD from my past experiences. When we designed our current house, we took winter sun into account. Our house is passive solar, so the inside is shady in the summer, but bright in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky. Of course, there’s the energy savings, but there’s the emotional benefit of being able to sit on our front porch on a sunny winter morning in short sleeves and drink coffee when the temp is around 30 degrees! I’m sure our neighbors think us crazy! We also have a garden room, not a conservatory, but east and south windows facing the waterfall and gardens with views…and a fireplace. We eat breakfast there in the winter and sip wine by the fire in the evenings. Yes, wine helps! 🙂 Cameron

  9. Yoga helps keep my attitude a bit light in the dark Seattle winter, and it helps me keep in shape for the gardening work ahead in spring.

    And, recently I read that diets high in Omega-3s help fight the SADs, so I’m pumping up the flax seed meal in my diet and eating zero cornfed beef. If nothing else I’m supporting local farmers and getting some added fiber, which can’t hurt.

    And come what may with the weather my dog insists on a daily walk, so I get out in the wet, grey regardless. I’m fortunate to make my own schedule, so I try to do it mid-day when shades of grey are at their wintertime lightest. Some kind of sunlight must be making its way through.

    Oh and a drink now and again doesn’t seem to hurt either. I plan to make and freeze some lemon verbena simple syrup so I can get a breath of summer in my winter lemon drop. Taken as needed.

  10. I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from SAD nor do I live in a harsh winter environment. I can pretty much garden outside all year and the winter season is even better because there are fewer blood sucking insects and no chance of heat exhaustion.

    I’ve worked in greenhouses and some day plan on building one onto the house like an old time conservatory – but, they are very hard to keep going for years and years without massive amounts of chemical use. Build a perfect place for plants and you’ve also built a perfect place for plant disease and pests. I prefer the temporary hoophouse or a garden room that is enclosed only during the winter and opened up during the summer.

    Dreaming is good.

  11. Besides smothering my houseplants with too much attention (some gardeners don’t like houseplants? That is so sad), I like to mess about with my compost piles. They are usually only frozen solid for about 6 weeks. I save any garden books I want to read for the winter. Sometimes I just delight in being inside, wrapped in an afghan reading in a comfy chair in an interior room with only one window where I can’t hear the wind. I farm with my husband and son. As glorious as harvest is in October, it can be very unpleasant when it goes into November with the dark, cold, and wind. Once it is over, it is such a relief not to be outside in the weather if I don’t want to be.
    And, there is always gardening on the internet; checking out new sites and blogs.

  12. Fires in the woodstove, a beverage (wine, sometimes tea or cocoa), a good book or movie and garden books and catalogs. We walk the dog when we get the inclination – she really doesn’t need it – so we get out some other than back and forth to work. While I miss being in the garden, I do enjoy the added leisure time winter brings – especially in January once the holidays are over. In February, the longing for spring begins in earnest.


    I dread the day that not only when gardening comes to an end but the kayak season on the Hudson River as well. 32* here near Albany this morning and a frosty fog that took me 10 minutes to navigate through my neighborhood at 6AM that usually takes 5.

    Working in the garden biz full plus thyme translates into only enjoying my garden for a few weeks
    in April then again in late Sept/Oct.

    I laughed when I saw the posts about Lemon Verbena……I brought mine in last night to try and save it for the winter. I want to actually see if I can get it to grow six feet tall like it does in it’s native climate. Mine stated out in a four inch square pot from Gilberties and is now two feet tall!

    But I like the drinking by the fire………….

    The (baby it’s cold outside) TROLL

  14. I have a winter garden: several cold frames and some really hardy veggies under floating row covers, tufbell and hoop houses. On really cold nights I throw blankets on the cold frames. This means I have to run outside at least twice a day to put on and remove the covers. And on the few sunny days we have I make it a priority to get out in the sun, even if for just a few minutes. Just getting outside, even briefly seems to help me with SAD.

  15. Keeping my house as the focal point from the landscape view includes no screens on the windows, lamps on inside and pretty views into my home. You won’t see the backside of a couch, picture frame or tv.

    Without screens there is greater light. Portable screens allow open windows, keeping the cats inside & bugs outside.

    Lamps are everywhere. And they are on. Pink bulbs, white bulbs, 15 watt, 40 watt, 60 watt. Drama.

    Yes. Old fashioned light bulbs. Their light makes me happy. Florescent bulbs depress me. Tried florescent in my bathroom, burned out in less than a year. Hmm.

    Once the lamps became a daily addition the electric bill did not go up. The bulbs did not burn out quicker. Leading to the discovery bulbs burn out according to how often they are turned on/off.

    I sleep with blinds open, wanting every bit of light earth provides each morning.

    Daily outdoor exercise. Ridiculously serious about all of the above. Wanting to stay active & creative, knowing to feed my muse.

  16. For myself, I’m happy by the woodstove with a mystery novel, or in the kitchen baking – in order to have something to nibble while sitting in front of the woodstove with my mystery. There are big south windows near the woodstove, I admit. A conservatory is a wonderful fantasy. I once interviewed a woman with a fantastic, truly fantasy old fashioned wooden conservatory that held (among other things) four old meyer lemon trees. Her very young son walked in, inhaled and said. Ahhh. It smells like Provence! Of course, knowing what Provence smells like is another fantasy.

  17. Wow Troll,

    You get sexier and sexier. First you are a male gardener with opinions, and now you are a kayaker too!

  18. I grew up in Buffalo and now live in Wisconsin. I will trade grey Buffalo winters for sunny Wis. winters anytime. I am lucky to live in a ranch house with a fireplace on one wall and floor to ceiling southern exposure windows on the other. My husband has SAD issues, however, and we’ve discovered that having indoor interests helps.

    We don’t do houseplants or start things from seed. Winter is for reading, making art, plans for the garden — things that will take us into another world mentally and emotionally. We visit the conservatory at our local botanic garden too. Just getting out helps (unless we have a winter like last one!) We’ve got concert tickets already lined up etc.

    But we specifically designed our garden for winter views — beautiful fences, rocks, hardscaping, variety of evergreens, pond. It looks fabulous in winter so at least we are not staring at blank space.

    And, yes, cocktails by the fireplace are a ritual.

  19. I have had the delightful experience of visiting Finland in March. Of course, by March the light is more similar to our own. But I can tell you that they have huge, brightly lighted sports complexes. There are places to go and be active with other people in bright light, even when it is dark outside.

  20. My dog, Argo, gets me out each day. Love to drink wine when I’m not too tired. And one of the most favorite years of my life I spent taking a plants class, walking in the DC Arboretum every saturday morning. I highly recommend it. We walked around for 3 hours each time trying to learn and identify all the members of a beautiful evergreen collection. You needed REALLY warm boots, but most days were so bright that we all got good doses of sun. I took so many pictures and started building an online library of plant info – had to record it all for the class anyway. It’s not an exhautive catalogue but I’m proud of it. Anyway, go to your local Arboretum. It will improve your health for sure.

  21. We don’t seem to have real winters any more in Brooklyn (until we do have one, maybe this year, maybe next?), and it’s not like there isn’t plenty to do in our neighborhood, but that doesn’t stop me from getting a little doldrum-ish, especially around now, right before daylight savings kicks in. Things I am thankful for during the winter:

    1. A ridiculous amount of tropicals and orchids that get stuffed in the house after staying out on the balcony all summer, so that, in the words of my daughters, “the house looks like a rain forest.”

    2. Winter-blooming hardy plants: there’s nothing like the scent of a witch hazel or winter honeysuckle on a bright, late winter morning. Absolutely nothing. Of course, a miniature orange in bloom in February with snow drifts outside rocks, too.

    3. The balcony mentioned above; even without the tender plants, has enough going on in winter to make it supremely satisfying to sit outside a bit even when the temps are below freezing. Plus, there’s nothing to weed.

    4. Tea. Really good, expensive, loose-leaf tea that demands attention to make it right.

    A drink or two for those who like to is great, but that’s a whole ‘nuther topic. As are my plans to glass over the balcony and build a deck on the flat roof above our bedroom. Donations are being accepted now.

    We just got our dog this summer, so I’ll be finding out just how much fun those walks in cold are!

    Happy Fall!


    P.S. For those lemon verbena novices, it’s a great plant, but beware: it tends to drop leaves indoors unless it’s very bright, very cool, and has constant air movement, and you’ll likely be battling whiteflies all winter. Whether that fabulous scent makes it worthwhile is up for you to decide.

  22. We always find plenty of activities to keep us busy in the gray days here in Seattle. It doesn’t get as cold as other places so it doesn’t snow often but it does rain. First, we love the rain and the way it sounds on our windows and skylight. We can often be found outside under our huge patio umbrella drinking wine and listening to NPR or reading in our chairs all bundled up in blankets. It’s kind of like camping out without having to go to the bathroom behind a tree. LOL

    Also, we sew, knit, crochet, cook and, new this year, garden. I say new this year because we did no gardening last winter but this year we’re doing plenty of it under cloches.

    Keeping busy and just coming to terms with the fact that there isn’t as much sun so find something else to do rather than pine away for summer… that’s our key to avoiding winter blahs.

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