Can Winter Feed a Gardener’s Soul?


Not to beat Elizabeth’s dead horse, but I am still pondering winter interest — and not just in dazzling snow-covered landscapes that most of us couldn’t reproduce in our own yards, though I am truly delighted for those of you who live near one or have made one (see Linda’s garden for some real inspiration).

The thing is, though it can be very satisfying to explore parks, well-designed gardens, and natural areas, there is something special and important about that personal connection between a gardener and his/her own garden. I still remember how much I missed my garden on those Minnesota winter days when I couldn’t go outdoors.

With only this much “winter interest,” my first garden in Saint Paul enticed me outdoors.

I once visited a B&B someplace in Wisconsin during the winter. There was no snow as I recall, just a general grayness from thick cloud cover, and drab brown ground. But when I stepped into the breakfast room and took a seat by the window, I felt my spirits lifting. A giant old magnolia spread its leafless branches across the glass, and the swelling furry buds were a constant and powerful reminder that spring was coming. Throughout my meal, I gazed at them and drank in their message of hope and anticipation. It filled me, more than the actual food. It fed my soul.

That is how I want to live. All year long, not just when flowers are blooming. And because of such experiences, because other people (probably long gone, in the case of the person who planted that magnolia) had the vision to orchestrate such experiences and create the magical places in which others can continue to have them, I know it is possible.

I wish I’d taken a photo of that magical breakfast room. Here is a much younger magnolia starting to bloom.

I’m not suggesting that we all strive to have a colorful and lively landscape during winter, even if we live in a colder climate. But I am strongly suggesting that it might be possible to feed your soul every day, in your own yard, even in winter (or whatever season people tend to spend indoors in your locale).

It might not be a magnolia for you. It might be a cardinal on a cranberrybush viburnum, or the scent of a conifer wafting indoors on the cold air, or the moonshadow cast by a bare-branched maple tree, or seedheads frosted into silvery sculptures.

In every season, gardeners need hope and life and little tastes of nature — and, I would argue, time spent in a garden, preferably our own — to endure gracefully.


  1. Evelyn, this is certainly a popular topic these wintry days! 🙂 Winter can definitely be a blah time for gardeners when all we want is to be outside. That’s not too much to ask for is it? (I just posted a similar commentary just yesterday! haha!) I vowed to rethink my position on winter and saved up all kinds of indoor projects to keep my spirits up. If I can’t make outside more beautiful, then I am going to give it my best shot indoors! Now I’m panicking that I’m not going to finish before spring arrives and I’ll have to wait another year! Argh! ~Julie

  2. I love the sentiment. After years of work, we have gotten our garden to the point where, during the warm weather, we start our day with coffee in the garden, spend meaningful relax and work time there and end the day with a garden cocktail.

    I miss that time in the winter, so I am now on a wild low voltage lighting journey which started with the usual Christmas lights and has now grown to meaningful permanent lighting, even though the garden is rarely seen or visited by anyone outside our family. It gives us the incentive to pay daily visits to our garden during the dark days of winter. It is food for the soul to gap the wait for spring.

  3. Even the smallest thing of nature can mean so much. Winter is about resting and dreaming. And surprise. A cardinal on a branch or the first weed flower can fill me with joy. That sense of wonder and happiness is why I garden.

  4. I’ve got Cyclamen coum, snowdrops, tommie crocus, Jasmine nudiflorum, and Erica in bloom. Branches of red, orange, yellow, and gold add color to gray days. Sarcococca scents the garden. I’m thinking I need to hang something in the branches of the contorted hazel to draw attention to it’s curling structure. I’m not above using inanimate objects for interest. Milk glass mushrooms that disappear in the growing season brighten a dark corner in the off season. They make me smile when I see them from the kitchen window.
    Yes, living in zone 8 Seattle makes January flowers possible when they’re not possible elsewhere. But anyone could have colorful branches, evergreens, and objets to view through windows from the comfort of their warm, cozy home.

  5. My mid-Hudson valley garden has been transformed by a couple of fairly modest (12″ – 24″) stone retaining walls, each about 30 feet long. Remarkable how much winter structure they add, especially in snow. And several Salix britzensis, with its flame-red young branches, really brighten one corner of the yard, in addition to the great privacy they create in summer. Only buy one! They root easily and grow fast.

  6. I Love winter in the garden, because I love the bones. I can see all the stone work but what really gives me a thrill is the bones of the trees I have helped along the way to be a little different. Art is another reason, after glorious Spring has passed and the summer jump happens I can’t see bones or art just lovely foliage and flowers. Winter is when I make a thousand changes, when I tweak and add for spring . When you can really see what is missing, so for me winter is wonderful plus I take a lot of photo I can look at while I dream of warmer days.

  7. In the absence of flowers, leaves, and fragrance, a little motion in the garden can be thrilling. Grasses and branches moving in the wind, birds, and even squirrels, lift my spirits. Even with a layer of snow, a lawn does little for me.

  8. All the four seasons round, I spend some time daily in our garden. Even if it’s just my evening Wine Walk accompanied by my little calico cat, the garden grounds me. Winter season allows a look at the bones of the garden & helps me to locate areas that could use another plant or possibly a plant relocation.

  9. Love all your ideas, everyone! Plant recommendations, lighting a winter path, Wine Walks, indoor projects (while looking out the window, I imagine), squirrels and birds. Yes, yes. I can see that your gardens are feeding your souls by the poetic language you used to describe your winter garden experiences. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I do not spend daily time in the garden in the winter; not even a short walk-around. I have a long commute, and it is dark when I leave in the morning, and dark when I get back. And many weekends are dreary and too wet and cold to manage. But I retire in two years! I expect to feel much perkier come retirement. Plenty to do physically, and even on the darkest day I can sit by the window and bask in the, er, light reflected off the freezing rain.

    But now the sun is beginning to noticeably dally in its descent, and I will soon be able to do my evening walk-around with my cat, clearing the garden of riff-raff and stuffing the stray tumbleweed into our dumpster (no dignified death for *them* in our compost pile).

    Structure I have; our garden is replete with garden bones – trees, woody bushes, and many low terraced areas. Bamboo and metals chimes, and almost always a wind. The birds fly over the suburban houses in our neighborhood to come to our garden to feed and twitter at each other. Perhaps about politics; they seem animated enough. Just as well I don’t understand them.

  11. I have resisted great temptation to weigh in on this conversation, but Tara Dillard inspired me to remind everyone about another book: Gardens in Winter by Elizabeth Lawrence.

    Of course I’m not biased in the LEAST here, but in my opinion, it’s the best book she ever wrote, and chock full of reasons to enjoy this season… indoors and out. For those of you in areas where you don’t need to be outside in the winter, you can get a whole lot out of “armchair gardening” too.

    Andrea Sprott
    Elizabeth Lawrence Garden Curator

  12. I love what the change of season offers…a brand new perspective and a change in harvest to play around with in the kitchen. Viva la seasonal changes in the garden.

  13. This is such an enlightening insight. Even if the season isn’t the time for blooming and colourful flowers, a gardener must still be able to appreciate his or her own garden. Like, gardening should also go beyond what is physical.

  14. I garden all winter long, but I live in Southern California. I wish I had known about cold boxes and similar when I lived in the northeast, as gardening really IS good for the soul.

  15. I live in Connecticut and garden all winter. Made possible by forcing spring bulbs. Watching the growth progress each time I open the refrigerator–What Joy! My office and home has fragrance, color and interest.

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