Winterizing a garden in 1877

November 14, 2014

Fortunately, the weather around here hasn’t completely mirrored the weather in New York in 1877. Yes, it was bright and warm November 11 and 12 (and weren’t the crickets happy!); and, yes, the prediction is for a coating of snow the night of November 13, but at least the snow waited a few days longer than it did in 1877. We take our comfort where we can.

Besides recording the weather, William Hoyt Coleman describes how to winterize a nineteenth-century garden, tells a funny story on himself, and evokes a cozy fireside with a gardener dreaming of spring.

“The Breath of Winter.” Christian Union 16 (14 November 1877), page 434.

Please to remember
The sixth of November
Snapping cold weather and frost.

Guy Fawkes’s little corner in gunpowder under the Parliament buildings was not half so worthy of an embalming ditty as the remarkable weather of this remarkable season. Hardly had we ceased to chant the praise of the frostless fall when quick and sharp from his hiding place old Winter blew an icy breath, and the astonished world awoke this morning to see his white mantle flung over the earth and every tender thing grown rigid in death. No gentle preliminary droppings of the thermometer, with crispy white frosts on the low meadows, but out of the balmy air and brilliant fires of a splendid autumn we are tossed into the ice and snow of winter!

Happy they who can flee unto stoves and radiators! Even pigs and chickens can do what majestic trees cannot—run from the frost. There they stand, bravely lifting their boughs to heaven, but their beautiful garmenture of leaves has dropped suddenly to their feet at the touch of the frost-king, and like fair captives before a conqueror they seem to shiver and shrink from his gaze.

What a litter of leaves under every horse-chestnut tree! Be they brown or green all have dropped at once to the earth and the walks are carpeted with them. Now shall the nut-burrs fly wide open and the long deferred nut harvest begin, save where impatient boys have already thrashed the trees. Sometimes other things fly open besides burrs. We once went up a tall walnut to thrash it. It was “pay-day” for the nursery hands and we had the money drawn and in a pocket-book. It was quite bulky and interfered with a free clambering about the limbs. Calling to some one below to catch it we tossed the wallet down, without thinking that it was unfastened. The flaps flew open, the greenbacks flew out and fives tens and twenties [sic] went sailing off on the breeze. Nut gathering was at once suspended and all hands did their best to contract this suddenly expanded currency. We remained at our post to watch the flying notes and mark their final places of deposit. Under the tree and over the fence, and under bushes and along the hedge they dropped, but eager seekers went after them till all that were visible were caught and counted. One five was missing and then a long search ensued and at last it was found in the next yard nestled snug in the grass. But we shall never throw anything but specie from the top of a hickory tree again, and not even that if we are wise enough to leave it below.

But this wintry air is a sharp reminder to hurry up what work remains to do in yard and garden. The geraniums and tomato vines can be pulled up and hung in the cellar; the first to keep for spring planting (if you like big plants to set out) and the last in hope of some more ripe fruit before Christmas. It is a good time to transplant any hardy shrubs that you would like to have in new places and combinations. They will have masses of fibrous roots and will start off and grow finely next spring. Herbaceous perennials, both roots and bulbs, that have been long blooming in the same place, can be taken up and divided to good advantage, either to reset, or, what is better, to give away to your neighbors who have none. Large trees can also be moved if carefully done, but it were better a month ago. As soon as the leaves are all off the trees, and the wind has blown them into the fence corners, go to work and mulch everything. Even the hardiest things will thank you for it if we have light snow this winter, and tender, half hardy plants will live through rejoicing. Bed the roots of the vines about the porch, and the plot of fancy evergreens. Even tender roses can be carried safely through in this way; the tops will be killed but the leaves will save an inch or two of wood that will throne the blooming shoots of next year. Put them over the grapevines and around the raspberries. On the strawberry beds too, but very, very lightly, or the green leaves will be blackened by spring. Indeed we are not sure but that a sedging of earth is better, leaving the leaves exposed. Give the asparagus beds and the rhubarb plants a generous dressing.

Do up the pruning now, also. It is cold work in winter and nasty sloppy work in spring. Then, too, if great snow banks bury your garden as it did ours last winter, you won’t be able to do it at all until late in the season. So prune out the grapevines, only leaving a little more wood than usual to allow for possible winter killing; cut out all the old wood and thin this year’s shoots of the raspberries and blackberries; thin the currant-wood (and by the way we should have said that currants and gooseberries ought to be planted in the fall as they start so early in the spring); thin out the fruit tree branches where they crowd or interlace each other, and prune back the dwarf trees to a few inches of this year’s wood.

No neat gardener requires a hint to clean up and burn or cart away all rubbish of weeds, dead vines, stalks, etc., and to put away all loose stakes and trellises. Then if he has been wise enough to have accumulated a good supply of fertilizing earth, as described in one of these papers, he cannot better conclude his season’s labors than by throwing a generous shovelful about the roots of every plant that he possesses. It will keep them warm through the winter, and they will jump next spring. Then may he retire with a good conscience to his fireside, and while the hickory snaps and the snow flakes sift on the window pane, he may drop into his easy chair and dream of the Garden of the Future.

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