April may be the cruelest month, at least according to T.S. Eliot, but March is surely the most deceiving. As I write this, red wing blackbirds are singing in my yard (a little earlier than last year) and this afternoon I saw robins and even an eastern bluebird. Last week brought elusive snow buntings under my binoculars for the first time. They are infrequent visitors to the area and flee north at the first sign of warmer weather.
Despite these hopeful signs, however, none of it convinces me that spring is very near. Winter is not done with us yet.
I have a favourite window that frames the view of a newish garden where I’ve placed my bird feeders. There are a couple of young trees, a few evergreen shrubs still too small to have much impact, and a mix of native grasses and wildflowers. This little patch was planted specifically to add texture, colour, and structure to a snowy landscape — or what garden designers call “winter interest.”
These are the scenes I imagined when planning the garden: tree limbs would look beautiful laden with new snow; evergreen shrubs would give a semblance of life in the dead of winter; and the grasses, after hoarding their energy back into the root, would remain upright and tawny, moving with the wind, their narrow leaves and delicate seed heads waiting to receive traces of frost or perfectly crystalline snow.
But winter had other ideas. For the last two years we have had a heavy, wet snow in November that hasn’t just momentarily bent and arched the branches and leaves, oh no. It has crushed and broken them. My winter interest remains in my imagination, and my actual winter garden is a mess of flattened stems and crushed foliage. What to do?
It was initially a depressing sight, but as March arrives I have become increasingly aware of the beauty of this mess and the life it brings. Almost every morning I see birds at the feeders, and they arrange themselves civilly along the branches of the two trees as they wait their turn. At times, there are so many finches it looks like my two little trees have leafed out in birds.
When a storm comes and there’s a frenzy of activity at the feeders, the birds are less choosy and will forage among the broken stems and branches. The heavy snow even provides handy crevices to shelter the juncos, finches, and sparrows as they hop from mound to mound and eat seeds from the little bluestem, switch grass, and asters just above their heads. They are welcome to it all.
These visitors are the life of the garden over a long winter, and I’m grateful that all those flattened and crushed plants half-buried under snow continue to entice the birds to linger and bring life to my otherwise dead and dormant patch. Maybe that’s true winter interest.
GET OUT By Lisa Stefaniak