Climate change has altered the winter season and the gardener's sense of it

My mother, who never drove and who walked daily to the shops, used to say that she could endure winter as long as it didn't snow until after the holidays.

Leading a more cosseted life, I like winter. It is the season when hardy garden plants are not dead but dormant. And not just dormant, but sleeping in a way that is beneficial to them. Until relatively recently, the Mid-Atlantic was a region where the winters seemed longer, colder and, most importantly, not so erratic. Weeks of frigid stillness had an unrelenting quality about them - in memory, at least - and spring seemed so far off in early January that it was pointless to think about it.

To capture that idea of a winter that is agreeably entrenched, I keep returning to Robert Frost's poem of a guy traversing a New England woodland on a dark night illuminated by snow. The protagonist of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" pauses for a minute to take in the peace of a sylvan snowfall before continuing a journey of "miles to go before I sleep." That moment captures the essential tranquil stasis of winter. Spring can wait. Well, it used to.

The year 2020 was so abnormal, so disconnected, that it was easy to forget that the weather was strange, too. Last winter was almost nonexistent, even if we had a cruel late freeze. In February, in one of my last professional outings before the pandemic shutdown, I was in Maryland listening to emerging tree frogs, spring peepers, filling the air with a wall of croaking sound. From Texas to coastal New England, spring arrived as much as a month early, according to the USA National Phenology Network.

November is usually the month when autumn says: "All right, you've had your leaf-peeping fun, now get inside." But November 2020 was the stuff of shorts and T-shirts, with average temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond much above average. For Washington, it tied with 1985 as the third-warmest November on record.

This induced plants into bloom or precocious development. In my neighborhood, autumn-flowering cherry trees, which normally bloom sporadically from November to February, bloomed in a single cloudburst of white-pink blossoms. The autumn-flowering sasanqua camellias enjoyed a long and unmolested season that continues, and they have been joined now by the earliest of the Camellia japonica varieties, normally seen in late winter. The winter jasmine, with its yellow bells, erupted, an event that leads many to think the forsythias are abloom. But this winter, the forsythias were also in flower, or at least a couple of shrubs in a protected corner that I saw.

In the community garden, a tazetta daffodil began to bloom. Elsewhere, the hybrid witch hazels are just starting.

The mahonia is a spiny evergreen shrub, hollylike, that usually blooms in February and March. It is now full of its sprays of golden yellow blossoms - enough to draw honeybees from their winter hive clusters. I also saw some hosta leaves sprouting, and they are destined to get zapped by forthcoming freezes.

Walking past the Smithsonian Castle's rose garden the other day, I was greeted with the odd experience of seeing bushes in full flush, though the blooms had been battered by recent frosts.

All this misalignment might be a lovely distraction, except there is a price to be paid. April-flowering trees and shrubs need their winter chilling to remain cyclical and healthy. Prolonged mildness allows insect pests to survive and multiply. Winter weeds, such as chickweed, are deeply entrenched and spreading. This year, if you wait until April to tackle your winter weeds, you will be doomed.

The trendy practice of not cutting back the remnant top growth of certain grasses and perennials at season's end is one I favor, though a little grooming will make the scene more artful and less scruffy.

Gardeners do this for the lingering ornamental effect of seed heads and stems, and to provide insect shelter, but this winter, the look provides the odd sensation of juxtaposing last year's growth cycles with unseasonable new growth. To see, say, frost-shriveled red rose hips near a clump of giant snowdrops in December bloom is wonderful, but the sight also seems to signify winter's altered state. It replaces the idea of a landscape in hibernation, of Frost's slumbering woodland animated only by snow, and replaces it with a garden that is merely in a different mode of growth.

Need this be stated? The elephant in the room is climate change, and with its effects come an altered appearance of winter and, for us, an altered consciousness of winter.

The changes foster ambivalence in gardeners. Suddenly, the once-fringe idea of planting a garden (or a corner of it) for offseason interest, with such plants as winter aconite, witch hazels and wintersweet, becomes a much more mainstream notion.

As the pandemic has proved, we are adaptable creatures, though I still feel the loss of a landscape rendered drab but predictable by brown earth and gray forest. The bleakness had its appeal, a place and a season away from the sapping power of life without rest.

Gardening tip:

If you want to create or expand a pandemic vegetable garden, now is the time to plan and construct it. Frames for raised beds and fence posts can be installed any time the ground is not frozen.