As I look out the south window during my morning coffee in mid-November, things look far different from six weeks prior. Through bare branches of my neighbor’s huge willow tree (how did it get so big in 20 years?), I can see the snow level on The Crown as well as the pod of deer moving through his yard. The Roaring Fork River flows beyond his property and now that the cottonwoods have shed, I can catch glimpses of the resident bald eagles and osprey cruising for fish.
I have often said that observation is the most valuable tool a gardener can possess. This time of year, there is much to observe in our quieting gardens if we choose to do so. Without the spring riot of buds and leaves, the summer circus of blossoms, bees and butterflies, and the splendor of autumn’s letting go, we can see the subtler aspects of our natural surroundings. How thick is the frost on the fence wire (or windshield)? How cold is it and does this affect how sound travels (it does.) Are the morning sunrises or evening sunsets different with the lower sun angle? Please walk through your yard or community open spaces and parks to take it all in.
I use this time of naked trees, shrubs, and beds to observe opportunities and issues my garden presents. Landscapes are ever-evolving entities. Every year is different. Plants grow (too slowly sometimes) and plants die (too quickly sometimes). I can see problems more clearly without leaves in the way. Twisted or rubbing branches should be pruned to reduce future structural problems. Small branches growing towards the house need to be cut now or damage to the siding or gutters will eventually happen. Dead or diseased branches need to go now, or at least by March.
Ill effects of crowded plantings are far more visible during dormancy, too. Have you ever noticed a tree or shrub leaning away from its neighbors to seek more sunlight? Overcrowding a new landscape is common in our age of instant gratification. However, as trees and shrubs mature, be aware of crowding and be brave enough to remove plants as needed. Thinning crowded trees is critical to a healthy landscape.
Birds in the landscape are often more visible too. While many birds migrate to and from our area, others are typical year-rounders or are becoming so. Thirty years ago, I never saw red wing blackbirds in winter. Now I hear their chatter whenever I put seed on the platform feeders, even in January. This is my first-hand observation that our valley is a tad warmer than 1989. Friends who live in Basalt marvel at the different birds I get at my El Jebel property. I wish I could have visits by some of their “city birds.”
Speaking of birds, when trees are dormant, we can see nests that are all but obscured by foliage otherwise. There is a teeny hummingbird nest in a maple tree at Crown Park. If you find it, let me know and I’ll figure out a fantastic prize for you!
Most folks have a hard time identifying deciduous trees when the leaves fall. Look closely and you can see different bark textures, twig structures, and even the shapes of bud tips. It is said that most 21st-century humans cannot identify many, if any, trees anymore. Our forebears depended on this knowledge for food, building materials and general sense of connection with nature. When I was a teenager and lived out east, my best friend’s father was an old Connecticut Yankee. As we walked about in the yard of their house built in the 1780s, dad pointed to each tree and identified them all, including genus and species. I was in awe of his knowledge and that these leafy green things were so different, if you paid attention.
What cool things are you able to see at this time of year? Take a little break from screen time and connect with our landscape, both small and vast. You will be well rewarded.
Kim Bock has lived in the El Jebel area since 1989. In addition to being an avid gardener, she is an ISA Certified Arborist and ASCA Consulting Arborist.