December brings short days, low sun angles, early winter ice, and snow—and few gardening tasks. We are preparing for snow removal, trimming along paths, harvesting seeds that have not dispersed yet in late fall winds, and overseeding garden beds where appropriate. This is a good time of year to put seed down on bare soil. Seeds that need a cold moist treatment to break dormancy will experience that during the winter months. Other seeds without that requirement will not have warm enough conditions to germinate until spring weather patterns arrive. We also planted some flats of seeds that are overwintering outdoors, protected from digging squirrels.
Winter allows time for reflection and learning. I usually come away from the gardening season with questions or topics to explore. Here are some suggestions for reading about hidden garden and nature connections during the indoor season.
Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter by Chris Helzer (University of Iowa Press, 2020). Helzer is a prairie ecologist and land manager with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His blog, The Prairie Ecologist, features examples, questions, experiments, and findings in prairie management. Through landscape and macro photography, he shares prairie plants, animals, weather, and seasonal phenomena. This book documents the prairie life in one square meter through an entire year. Following 15 plant species and discovering 113 total species within this small area, Helzer documents a range of size in predators and prey, camouflage, details of color and texture, invertebrate behavior, and more. He came away with questions and even more insight about—and appreciation for—prairie organisms. This is an idea that many could try in their own gardens or nearby landscapes, generating images and inquiries in equal measure.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (Random House, 2020). Mushroom caps, lichens, and mycelia in composting wood chips are familiar to most gardeners. This book uncovers and traces connections in literal fungal networks and relationships (the “Wood Wide Web”) as well as in research directions and findings. Among the many interesting topics Sheldrake presents, I was fascinated by the section on mycelial growth and electrical activity, and descriptions of fungi mediating carbon flow between tree species seasonally and supporting such species as non-photosynthetic Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora). I wonder why a clump of Monotropa has emerged the last few years in my lawn—perhaps related to cutting down a large river birch nearby several years before, with fungal changes within its root zone where the clump emerges?? This fascinating book will widen your perspective on fungi.
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith (Scribner, 2020). Gardeners know personal benefits of gardening: time spent outdoors, creating beauty by way of physical work and dirty fingernails, a sense of agency, and, often, participating in a community. Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the UK; this book weaves history, culture, and literature with health and science. She illuminates a therapeutic role for gardening and even living near greenspaces. In her many examples, gardening activities provide benefits for all ages, including those affected by trauma, stress, depression, addiction, and incarceration. Her writing about gardening during grief as well as the educational and transformative role of gardening and nature resonated with me personally.
Next up on my reading stack is Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). What can tree rings (dendrochronology) tell us about climate and human history, in particular places and globally?
While winter takes hold in our gardens and gives us time to uncover and explore interesting questions, let’s read!
—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener