"The Bleak Midwinter," San Miguel style

San Miguel newbies are shocked to discover that we do have a winter season here after all, with some  overnight freezes, sere vegetation and spells of gloominess that might seem interminable next to the eternal sunshine they expected.  

Our winters are not nearly as bleak, mind you, as the one Gustav Holst depicted in his hypnotic Christmas carol “In the bleak midwinter,” (Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone, Snow had fallen, Snow on snow on snow), or the winters compatriots suffer through in the northern tiers of the U.S. 

But San Miguel winters are bleak enough to propel caravans of expats to decamp to one of Mexico’s beaches—as Stew and I did last week. 

Typical building construction here—brick, concrete, tile floors, and single-pane, leaky windows—doesn’t alleviate the indoor clamminess of most homes. Gas fireplaces with fake logs take the edge off the cold, but they struggle to deliver a steady, comfortable warmth, and sometimes provide gas fumes instead. 

At our ranch, we have a wood-burning version, a “real fireplace,” in the living room. Maybe it’s an optical illusion, but a crackling wood fire feels warmer, even if you have to poke and nudge it, only to be rewarded with an occasional burp of smoke.

For gardeners everywhere, winter is the season of the heebie-jeebies. It’s the time to pull out, mow down, clean up and haul away the remains of the growing season. Just today, I discovered that a large agave, and a companion nearby, got badly singed by the single overnight freeze we had a couple of weeks ago. They might survive but only severely deformed. And a few trees that succumbed to the mystery plague last year, still need to be cut down. 

Winter’s rare beauty at my ranch.

Most every type of vegetation, except for evergreens and large succulents such as prickly pears, looks uniformly dead, kaput, though I know well they are not. And yet. What was kelly green at the end of October, is now varying shades of brown. 

Celebrated Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, urges his myriad fans to embrace the austere beauty of the winter landscape. “You want a moment in the garden to be quiet. There’s so much to do in the summer, with cutting and keeping up with plants and just enjoying and looking at the garden,” he says. “Sometimes it’s too much. In the winter you need less to get satisfaction from the garden. If you have only a few plants in the garden in winter, it’s enough to keep it interesting.”

Oudolf’s winter garden in the Netherlands.

I’ll meet Oudolf halfway, and grant him there is a mysterious enchantment to the landscape around the ranch early in the morning, when dense fog envelops all vegetation more than six feet away. But that disappears by nine or ten o’clock.

Or around sunrise or sunset, that fleeting interval photographers call “the magic hour,” when the backlight of the sun exaggerates colors and contrasts. Wintertime also extends the morning magic hour, as if  giving me a chance to get out of bed.

Beyond that, I engage in the favorite pastime of gardeners the world over: Dreaming, envisioning and fantasizing what the presently bedraggled landscape will look like once we get to work on it. Just this week we planted a new xeriscape garden, featuring round river gravel and hardy succulents. It’ll be a work in progress for several more weeks. 

In the meantime, seed catalogs have arrived.  


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