A Winter’s Tale

Good things come in threes.

two bull elk standing in a snowy meadow
A pair of bull elk in the meadow.

There is no succinct beginning or end to any garden season. The seasons are on a constant loop with variations in tempo. Winter is when I regroup and lean into the next pattern, the next beat.

When the snow completely insulates the garden, the elk show up. We have an arrangement, this elk herd and I. They drift in at night and dig out the downy snow with their hooves and teeth. Once they remove the snow, they raze the standing garden. I never cut back my garden until the following spring since it’s a winter breadbasket for wildlife, and the elk didn’t take long to catch on.

Some elk sleep slouched against the outside wall of the house, like drunk cowboys passed out at a bar. We hear the eerie yipping on cold nights and rise to see their huge shapes dropped all around the garden like meteors, some sleeping, some foraging. They leave large imprints from their body heat, like lumpy snow angels, punctuated by scat and urine at the perimeters of their indentations. At first light, they retreat back up to the hills but return each evening until there is no more garden standing.

They eat the echinacea first, then move to the monarda. Then they inhale my lupine and delphinium but leave the sedum. Nor do they like eryngium or sea thistle, and are surprisingly finicky about some of the ornamental grasses. Finally, they snap the standing sunflowers if the birds and squirrels have overlooked them. And as they graze they distribute their manure. When I find elk skulls in the hills around my house I am amazed by the heft of these teeth. Elk teeth are the size of dominoes and well suited to the exercise of pruning a garden.

The morning after their arrival looks like the remains of a frat party. The elk expose the soil, while their scat is mixed with snapped stems and scattered leaves. It is a shock to see how thoroughly they tear through the garden. Then the next snowstorm tidies over their carnage. The first year I was anxious that the garden would never recover. But it came back after the assault with so much vigor that I knew I stumbled onto a secret. Even the nibbled dogwoods recovered and fleshed back out. It is an exchange where I benefit most.

When the elk aerate the soil, they distribute their manure. The following spring, I find new plants and new seedlings where I hadn’t thought to put them.  This approach does not yield the calibrated results of formal garden planning, but I am not that kind of gardener. I like to be surprised and love stumbling on an unexpected drift of columbines or butterfly weed in another part of the garden. The structure of a perennial garden is much more flexible than that of a vegetable garden and offers a different canvas. The elk are superb collaborators and the garden keeps offering new compositions, new ways of seeing. This kind of It is an exchange where I benefit most. They aerate the soil, leave droppings and I find new plants and new seedlings where I hadn’t thought to put them.  This approach does not yield the calibrated results of formal garden planning, but I am not that kind of gardener. I like to be surprised at what resurfaces the following spring like to stumble on an unexpected drift of columbines or butterfly weed in another part of the garden. The rigor of a perennial garden is different from a vegetable garden and a more flexible canvas.  This kind of disruption I can handle.

 

 

 

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