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Reflections on the Winter Habitat Garden

A lot of creative writing has gone into emphasizing the native habitat garden's winter state. The life cycles of many species have adapted to how prairie plants exist in winter, whether that is utilizing the seeds as a food source or the dense thatch as hibernation cover. The dead tissues of flower stems are then used in subsequent years as nesting sites for native bees. There is thus incentive for naturalists to preserve these dead relics of flowers throughout the offseason, resisting the cultural pressure to "clean up" the garden and chop this habitat down at its knees.

In this native habitat garden, Silphium integrifolium earns the metaphor of "sculpture", standing several feet above the adjacent plants. It glows blue when photographed with Lomochrome Turqoise 35mm film.

How are we to convince those who value their gardens as aesthetic wonders, predicated on the presence of flowers? The ethical argument has been attempted, and to some extent it has provided further incentive to those who already garden for wildlife. Although most native plant gardeners have their gardens rooted in habitat preservation, the fears of a "messy" garden still permeate. To address this, other advocates appeal to the unique aesthetic of winter. We hear allusions to winter "sculptures" (of plants) and the palette of browns and oranges as illuminated by the winter sun.

Unfortunately, the mind of many still sees the colors of last year's plant vegetation as dead material, and dead material rarely garners as much value as the life below or within it. Sometimes our brains needs to be tricked. This series uses Lomochrome Turquoise 35mm film. The film color cast transforms the golden browns of winter into electric blues.

When shot on Lomochrome Turquoise 35mm film, winter stands of little bluestem really earns its namesake.

My hope was to ignite the senses of those who have yet to fall in love with the winter garden. The cold and quiet prairie garden becomes a cobalt wonderland, with the blue sky melting to apocalyptic orange. Can an abstraction of nature connect us more deeply to it? I'm not sure. The internet is full of photoshopped or staged nature photos that likely garner a momentary stall in the scroll, but no lasting engagement with the real versions of the wildlife subjects. The cynic in me sees these images to be a pause in the scroll (at best). But the optimist on my opposite shoulder reminds me that at one point in time I would not have looked twice at the beauty of a winter prairie--no matter how much someone were to convince me otherwise. There had to be some experience that changed my opinion, although I'm certain I could not pinpoint that experience.

Sculptures can add "intention" to the winter garden, letting others know the space is managed.

Allowing the winter garden to flourish might be more than simply providing habitat for the species that utilize plants in their winter form. It is a statement that the operating procedures of nature are enough. It is conceding that we needn't try to "improve" every aspect of wildness with our influence. It is a reminder that sometimes inaction is more valuable than action. That reminder can be quite comforting.

These spindly stems may go unnoticed in summer, when bright flowers attract focus. In winter, they have their time to shine.

While the flowers and bees and butterflies distract the attention in the summer, structure becomes the star in the winter. Stems, seed heads, and crinkled foliage--all essential (but overlooked) aspects of these plants that go unnoticed when the garden is busy. Silhouettes that were once obscured by thick vegetation are now spindles against the open sky.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) looks similar in both winter and summer. The only thing missing from the winter garden is the countless small bees and wasp that utilize this flower for nectar/pollen.

Despite the eloquent prose of some of my favorite nature writers, the winter has yet to become my favorite season on the prairie. Still, I have come to appreciate the potential of winter. By leaving the plants up as habitat in the cold, I know I am stoking the coals of potential life for next season--the flurry of bees, butterflies, and all sorts of insects that send me to my identification books.

The low light of winter means the native garden is illuminated in attractive light on almost any cloudless day. These asters were glowing in the low mid-morning sun.

And while I wait in anticipation, the winter prairie garden reminds me to enjoy the present, to take solace in the uniqueness of the season, and to appreciate the quiet that comes with this lull in activity. Soon, green blades will emerge and insects will follow.

Seed heads in winter can be as lovely as flowers in summer. Plus, they are similarly functional--instead of attracting pollinators, they disperse to create new plants.

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