Most gardeners know what a winter garden is. Some variation of:
1) Designing a landscape with plants that fully exploit the architectural effects of snow and ice (such as evergreens, bushes with vibrantly colored branches or berries, and grasses that look graceful edged with frost).
2) In moderate temperature zones, growing outside plants and vegetables that can handle cooler conditions.
3) Growing plants under cover of protection (greenhouse, cold frame, houseplant).
But today I offer you a different type of winter gardening. One where you don’t have to do a thing other than grab your binoculars, bundle up and go outside.
Anywhere will work… botanical garden, your own back yard, or even a roadside gas station.
There are, however, a couple of qualifying factors.
Firstly… you have to be in a place where there is snow. Secondly… a bright, sunny day is best.
I confess, this winter garden idea did not originate with me. It originated with a friend of mine, although labeling it as “winter gardening” is my designation, not hers. But credit for coming up with the actual “doing” is not mine. Nonetheless, she has given me permission to use some of her words and pass along what she has discovered.
She visited another friend, it seems, who was scooping up snow and bringing it inside, to take close up pictures of individual snowflake designs. Try it, her friend suggested, and my friend did. The pictures are amazing, she tells me. Not that I’ve seen them. But my friend has since made frequent visits to her own personal patch of snow, staring at the white ground with her binoculars.
“I thought of you,” she told me. “Because I know how you are about light, and you really can see the flake designs with your binoculars if you just look close enough. Each snowflake is like captured light, and full of colors. I’ve never seen so many different colors.”
Well, of course this makes sense.
Visible sunlight appears white in color but is actually made up of different colored wavelengths (photons). Photons exhibit qualities of both a particle and a wave. Since snow reflects back most of the light that hits it, without preference to any particular wavelength, we see the surface as generally white. Not all the light is reflected away, however, and this is where the color show comes into play.
Light that isn’t reflected scatters and bumps over the surface of the snow. Snow, being composed of tiny ice crystals and various edges (acting like prisms), bounce the light along from surface to surface. The more it bumps along, the more the light gets broken up and absorbed. The part of the wave not yet absorbed (now acting more and more as a particle) emerges from the snow and continues bouncing along, until it too is finally absorbed. Different photons have different rates of absorption. They also have different colors, depending upon their energy and frequency. So, as they bounce along, the remaining photons emerge from the snow in different colors. How long the light keeps traveling along the surface determines which colors you see.
In general, the shorter the distance the light bounces along, the more reds are seen. The longer the distance, the more of the blue spectrum shows up.
In conjunction with all this there is the matter of the shapes of the ice crystals in the snow flakes. Ice crystals in the shape of dinner plates, with hexagonal patterns, have different angles than ice crystals in the shape of columns. The ice crystals act as tiny little mirrors, reflecting the bouncing photons from angle to angle. Sort of like that carousel…. round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.
This all seems very technical and, really, what does it matter? The main thing is, my friend is right.
So I took my binoculars out this morning and observed for myself. All I can say is, it was a thing of beauty. I think this will become one of my favorite ways to “winter garden” from now on.
Try it, before the snow melts away (which it seems it may do this next week). Enjoy the tail end of your own little patch of Winter Garden.