The Garden Guru: Look around for the natural passing of time

Posted Friday, Jan. 24, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Whether you’ve thought about it or not, there are constant reminders of the passage of time in our environment. Tourists talk about the excitement of the midnight sun when they visit Alaska in summer. “But how do they endure those long, dark winters?” they add. So, we do notice the differences. Gardeners and photographers certainly do.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways we hear the marching of the footsteps of time.

Our plants are our prime means of determining the seasons. You can look out a window and get a pretty good idea of the time of year just by observing the plants. First jonquils of spring (beginning to emerge already). Aroma of violets. The heat-proof beauty of day lilies and crape myrtles. Spider lilies, mums and other fall color. Berries of the wintertime. They’re all benchmark measures of the seasons.

Changing of the birds at our feeders and in our landscapes and the nesting of birds in our shrubs and trees are guidelines of the season. If you pay attention to what’s going on around you, the migration of birds will identify the season. Robins, goldfinches and others head south in the winter. By early spring, they’re heading back north. And, just as you and I recognize the voices of our friends and family, serious birders know the calls of hundreds of bird species.

Daylight into the evenings. Daylight when you get up in the morning. Have you noticed the vestiges of daylight at 6:20 and later into the evenings, and we’re still in January? Longer days tell us the growing season is at hand. Many folks who have lived in the tropics tell you that the lack of seasonality, including the sameness of the lengths of the days, can become monotonous. We here in Texas have just about the right blend. Winter days are short, but they’re not so oppressive as the dark days of the northern Midwest.

Color of the daylight. There is a purity of sunlight in the wintertime. Photographers and other artists will tell you that winter light tends toward rich yellows and oranges. Summer light, filtered by shade and bounced from wispy summer clouds and hazy blue skies, takes on more of a cool bluish-green color.

Shadow direction and length. One of my favorite sights in our rural landscape is across our creek and onto the neighbor’s hillside. Magnificent old pecans dot the natural landscape and the grass has been browned by the cold. Early each sunny winter morning, those old trees’ trunks act as giant wooden gnomons casting their long shadows across the slope.

By April, the pecans have leafed out and my magnificent vista has disappeared for another season. That’s not a bad thing, however, because it has been replaced by the bright green new growth of my groundcovers, hollies and ferns, all standing testament to the return of springtime in my garden.

Sundials. To this point, most of our references to time in the garden have been esoteric. This one is graphic. It’s our oldest man-made means of telling the time, but it has become a form of garden art. Sundials come in all manners and modes, from horizontal flat dials to handsome round armillary pieces, even vertical dials that hang from south-facing walls. One Texas landscape architect has built sundials in parks where you become the gnomon. You stand on a specific rock, only to notice that your shadow is telling the time. Kids will tell you: That’s really cool.

Wind chimes and weathervanes. The direction of the prevailing daily breezes tells us whether we’re feeling the cool winds of mid-winter or the refreshing Gulf breezes of summer afternoons. Weathervanes were a lot more common in earlier gardens, but they’re great final touches to today’s plantings as well.

Time has a place in our lives. It even has a place in our gardens. Learn to enjoy the changes time brings to our lives, but don’t become captive to it. Don’t hang a giant clock on the porch, and don’t take your cellphone outdoors with you. Get away from the stress and get some fulfilling exercise. Enjoy gardening for the extra time it will add to your life.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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