Through the garden gate: Quiet in the Garden

During the height of the pandemic, baby Anca and I would sit on the porch steps and listen to the late-night sounds. The world seemed peaceful and much smaller when we sat there, and those moments in the dark were some of the few times when baby Anca was still. She seemed to know that the quiet was an illusion and that, if we both listened intently, we’d be able to learn some of the secrets of the creatures in the woods just beyond the garden gate. 

We heard coyotes and owls, especially the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), which has a deep resonant hoot, the sort used in movies to establish a creepy, unsettling atmosphere. When getting ready to hoot, the great horned owl leans forward, bristles its feathers, puffs out its throat, and makes a sound guaranteed to get the attention of anyone around. Each owl has its own signature version of the classic hoot, thus enabling it to be identified by other owls in the forest. 

This year, we’re back in town. Instead of owls, the late night is filled with the sound of train cars being moved onto sidings. There’s a constant high-pitched squealing followed by booming crashes. Sometimes a dog howls. Nevertheless, it’s quiet in the garden. The oaks have finally lost the last of their leaves, the camellias and Edgeworthia are blooming, the early daffodils are pushing up through the leaf mold, and the birds are methodically stripping the winterberry hollies of their berries. There’s not a sound coming from the water garden.

It’s that time of the year when Anca, no longer a baby but a full-fledged, mostly calm adult, and I are free to roam over our domain. There are squirrel nests to spot in the trees, occasional raccoons and opossums to frighten away, and a solitary rabbit that just must be chased. Mostly, it’s a time to contemplate our kingdom and plan for spring. 

By late February, we’ll be ready to remove dead perennial seedheads, prune the roses and Limelight hydrangeas, and look for patches of snowdrops. We don’t have great success growing them, but we’re ever hopeful. Every year is another chance for success. We’ll also check the status of the hellebores. If they’re budding, then we’ll remove the old foliage and pull back the mulch just a bit.

Yes, it’s quiet in the woods and the garden in January, but it’s a period of sweet anticipation with tantalizing hints of new life yet to come. Walk in the woods and you may find the first skunk cabbages emerging from frozen muck. They’re not afraid of the cold. Check the leaf buds on trees, and you may find that some are beginning to swell. And don’t forget to search for snowdrops and early daffodils in your garden. I hope you planted some because they’ll make you smile and reassure you that spring is coming. 

Happy New Year! Celebrate by going for a walk in your garden and in the woods. Just like my buddy Anca, you’ll be calmer and happier.

Dr. Cynthia Wood is a master gardener. Her email address is