December is the year’s darkest month, when Wisconsin gardens and landscapes might receive their first substantial snow. Deep snow insulates the soil, delaying freezing. Lighter snow cover, along with colder temperatures, allows soils to freeze earlier and deeper. Snow cover reveals tracks and traces of winter wildlife in your garden—vole tunnels under the snow surface, songbird tracks under grasses and forbs still shedding seeds, the sweep of prairie grasses etching the surface—and more.
Garden tasks move indoors: reflecting on the season just past, planning for changes to gardens and plantings, learning from other gardeners, and sharing books. Recommendations include a heavy reference book, histories and sketches that inform land management, gardening philosophy and action, and nature-themed picture books.
The Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis by Gerould Wilhelm & Laura Rericha, published in 2017, is a comprehensive revision of Plants of the Chicago Region. The “Chicago region” includes Walworth, Racine, and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin. The flora covers many genera found throughout the southern part of our state, making this a valuable reference. Plants are listed alphabetically by genus, with keys to identify species as needed. For each plant described and illustrated, associated species are listed for habitat types where the plant grows. Gardeners interested in naturalistic plantings and closely matching plants and sites will find these lists informative. Animal associates are also listed, for example, pollinators and insects hosted by the genus. Maps show the geographic distribution from collections or literature records. Because this book is costly and mainly useful during your planning time, encourage your local library to add it to its reference section.
The Driftless Reader (edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley) compiles and weaves ecological and human histories and futures of the unglaciated parts of southwest Wisconsin and neighboring states. Read the sections (e.g., Native Voices, Early Economies) or select a few pieces from different sections and forge your own links between them. Connecting Leopold’s Coon Valley (1935) essay on land and community restoration, Wright’s piece on Taliesen’s design with implications about built environments (1943), and Koch’s writing (2010) about place, change, and stability (“a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long.”) resonated for me.
Garden designer and author Benjamin Vogt advocates for intentional, serious changes in gardening practices in A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. He draws from history, social science, psychology, ecology, and biology in an urgent call to foster diverse plants and animals within landscapes humans use. A number of gardening approaches flow from this: select local native plants, plant densely throughout the built environment, create habitat and compassion for all organisms, and learn, teach, and share these priorities.
Speaking of sharing, nature-related picture books reach across generations. For young readers, Laura Godwin’s Owl Sees Owl traces the first night flight of a young owl. Each spread includes four words “stars twinkle mice scamper” which appear in reverse order on Owl’s return home. How and where does Owl see Owl?
When Spring Comes, by Kevin Henkes, anticipates and illustrates the natural world as the season changes, encouraging prediction and observation while waiting. A winter read that highlights small details to watch for soon.
Miranda Paul makes use of rhythm and anticipation in Water Is Water. Watercolor sketches and phrasing illustrate the phases of water and the water cycle in outdoor settings familiar to children, for example, “ice is ice, unless . . . [next page: children playing in snow] . . . it forms flakes.”
What will grow? by Jennifer Ward is filled with fanciful drawings of seeds, seedlings, and plants that appear on fold-out pages—vertical above the page for a sunflower and a tall pine tree, and vertical below to depict carrots. Children will enjoy the story’s pattern about what happens to seeds, and be surprised by the images inside the folds.
This December, while the garden sleeps, let’s read!
—Susan Carpenter, Arboretum native plant gardener