GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – There is no longer any doubt, winter is here to stay, and buried somewhere under a metre of fresh snow is my broccoli, that I was planning to stir-fry last Saturday night.
Question: by the time the snow melts down a couple feet, will my fresh-frozen but on the stalk broccoli be edible?
Probably not, but let’s see. Last year I harvested some celery that survived a dump of snow.
I woke up Saturday to what appeared to be three black-nosed sheep on the edge of my veranda.
Sheep have wandered into the garden once or twice, but given the snowfall I was surprised. I put in my contact lenses and discovered they were my geraniums in pots.
I also discovered that if, for some reason, I want to go out to the swings or the raspberry bushes at the end of the garden I will need to put on snowshoes.
For now I’m happy to just admire nature’s gift of beautiful snow in the Swiss Alps.
My Alpine garden is under so much snow that it’s hard to believe we might have something growing there by June.
And I’m not sure how much my budget will have for lovely new things, since so much will go to replace the fence and broken trees after our stupendous 1-metre-plus snowfalls.
Another Alpine gardener, across the Rhone and a row of mountains in Zermatt, Bill, sent me this advice, with a photo taken from his kitchen window (you’ll find it here): “Look closely and you will see a bird I just fed by hand (cheese ends) flying in front of the church tower. If you have a friend in the states who can mail you garden seeds go to www.fedcoseeds.com. Some great producers.”
Closer to home I buy some seeds by catalogue from Wyss Select, which claims to be the largest online supplier, but I have a weakness for buying seed packets whenever I go to a plant store or garden center. And I’ve just received a message saying Schilliger’s sales are on until 11 February, uh-oh, and of course they will be starting to put out new seed packets.
Time to dream a little dream of warmer weather, the sun on the earth in my garden, ahhhh.
No more garden chores! That’s the bright side, as winter lays its first mantle over a sadly neglected garden, covering the debris that should have been cleaned up, the flowers that were never dead-headed and even the weeds that were still arrogantly poking their heads out of my vegetable garden. Never mind that the lawn did not get scarified. In a moment of serendipity last weekend we pulled out the lawnmower for the last time and it vacuumed up the leaves we hadn’t raked.
This was the worst gardening summer I can recall, a combination of confused weather patterns and family problems that included my husband the digger and manure bearer having knee surgery, putting him out of garden action. I’m ready to pull down the blinds over a summer that brought me just one strawberry, five raspberries and not a single apple or cherry or pear from several fruit trees.
Occasional bursts of flower color from plants that survived drought and inattention from The Gardener sadly reminded me that most of these perennials are meant to be good neighbors, always there when you need them.
I’ve learned two lessons from this unhappy year of unplenty. Firstly, that if you leave them to get on with life most garden plants and the rough company they keep, those nasty weeds, are charming even as they go down. And secondly, each season ends with the promise of a new one, bursting with goodness.
Here is a visual catalogue of the final days of 2010, before the snow wiped the slate clean. We had a sudden burst of rain and warmer weather mid-October, so 17 October I rushed around the garden snapping shots of each bit of color I could find, before they disappeared. The garden then fizzled out very quickly.
Last weekend, 19 November, we had one day of gardening weather and I pulled weeds and dug up potatoes, stripping down to a t-shirt. The weather was so mild before the sun went down that I didn’t bother to bring in the red weed bucket.
Silly me. The next day it was covered in snow. This weekend, the bucket is still out there, the snow deeper, and it has been well below freezing, with a wintry wind blowing. Brrrrr.
More photos in the album: Alpine garden 2010, the last hurrah
Fortunately, my garden was spared the snow, but it was definitely a chilly rain that fell on my Alpine garden at 1,100 metres Saturday, 30 May. When the clouds cleared at the end of the day the peaks were covered in snow, as was a large meadow above us, near Aminona, at about 2,000 metres. Pity any hikers who were out for the long weekend!
Down below, farmer Bernard has been mowing the hay for his calves, too young to be out in the still cool and damp meadows.
My barrier between the garden and his fields, not very effective at keeping out wild meadow grasses and flowers, is a collection of irises. They always have a green backdrop and the additional pleasure of freshly grass or hay smells. Weeding the middle of each clump is not much fun at this time of year, though.
If you’re an international person who moves around, one of the odd side benefits is that you learn about the many faces of snow. I grew up in the Midwest, in the US, and winters meant we had huge piles of heavy wet snow dumped on us. I remember walking to school along what felt like an open-top tunnel. We were small people then, but these were enormous piles that gradually sank. That’s what snow did in that flat land: it sank, and sank until late March, when green grass reappeared.
Then I lived in Minnesota, not far from Canada’s Midwest, and our snow was dry and light. It had a particular crunching sound and feel to it that you get only in very cold places. Everyone parked on the street and we had long extension cords running out to charge our car batteries during the night. Most people put blankets over their engines as well, at night.
Snow in Paris existed only in the sky, for once it came too close to buildings and people it turned into something else that was brown and sloppy, lacking beauty or elegance.
Snow in Ireland, near Galway, arrived just in time for Saint Patrick’s day in March. It crippled the countryside, but since nothing happens there in winter it made little difference. It had the extraordinary quality of a bird that’s landed in the wrong place and is temporarily stunned, before it gathers it wits or its courage and moves on.
But Switzerland! Oh, snow in the Alps is altogether different, coming in great dense piles and then settling like an older child home for the holidays. It ignores our usual routines, our expectations of daily life: it’s noisy with snowplows (heavy metal). It has an ego.
Or so it seems until it is diminished by the foehn. This, to me, a lowlander, a flatlander, is the great mystery of snow in the Swiss Alps. It comes, it sits, it – gets pushed away by these strange yellow winds that blow from the Sahara.
I spent part of Sunday working near the window. The foehn is not a gentle wind in any sense, or to any senses – it roars around you, turns the air yellow, shoves up against the shutters and doors until they bang hard.
It blows the snow, getting into every nook and cranny and upright bank of snow until the white stuff can no longer resist.
First there is a hole in the snow. In the end, there is only the hole. The wind worked for two hours on the 100-year-old apple tree outside my window and won. The snow-decked tree was nearly stripped of snow in that time.
For further lessons on snow and how it works, the Swiss federal avalanche institute has a glossary that makes interesting reading if you are really trying to avoid going outside or looking for excuses not to work on your end of year bookkeeping.
We’ve had a metre or so of fresh snow, falling slow and steady. It makes the perfect blanket for my onions and garlic, happily snug on the slope, above the swing, which won’t get much use for several weeks, I think.
It’s also very good for the raspberry canes at the top of the slope, near the fence. They’re about a metre high and sudden wet snows and winds can break them. Under snow, they are well protected.
We try to be good gardeners and citizens by composting as much as possible, which is easy most of the year, but it tries the spirits in winter when you have to put on snowshoes to trek out to the compost bin! The alternative is to put the compost closer to the house but phew! in summer you don’t want that.