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Landscaping, Yukon style

Ah, the sweet sounds of spring: crrr, whup, crrr, whup. Sam is excavating the door of our greenhouse from a metre of snow.

Ah, the sweet sounds of spring: crrr, whup, crrr, whup. Sam is excavating the door of our greenhouse from a metre of snow. We’re not such hard-core gardeners that we’ll start firing up the stove in there and begin planting now, waging a desperate battle against the minus-12 nighttime temperatures. Although, getting up at 2 a.m. and struggling through the snow to stoke the stove might combine nicely with a chance of still seeing the northern lights this winter.

It’s just the gardening paraphernalia that we’re after. Well, Sam is digging that out. I’m merely supervising from our backwoods version of a lawn chair - the snow machine makes a comparatively comfortable, if somewhat short, recliner on which to stretch out in the sun. With my feet stuffed in behind the windshield, I lie and soak up the warm rays, sprouting freckles as the first crop of spring. Sam seems to be hitting bottom now: a throatier scratch is wafting over from the garden. Then silence and a mad rattling. I crack open an eye and see the whole greenhouse shaking.

“It’s all frozen shut,” Sam shouts. Suddenly a tortured, wooden groan and the flapping of plastic, followed by: “Oops. I think I broke the door.”

Oh well. Plenty of time to fix it. At least the wayward pots for starting our tomatoes are discovered, plus the pruner. This is when my lazy supervisor shift ends. I have to go and cut back the willows since the moose have been slacking in their gardening duties over the last two years. The willow bushes in front of the cabin windows have been growing with a vengeance, smothering the view, and so I thought it high time to cut them back. The northern way of gardening - pruning weeds. Who needs fruit trees and fancy hedges?

I strap on my snowshoes and shuffle off, unsure if this is a good time for willow pruning. Something about sap and frost is knocking around in the back of my mind, but I figure they can’t be too fussy because moose break off their twigs for the better part of the year. I start out gingerly, aiming to give the willows a natural, fluffy look with straggling branches coming out here and there. Just as they looked before, only shorter. There’s a great resemblance to giving haircuts, I realize after inadvertently cutting a hole into the bush.

For the first time, I understand the appeal of hedges, of cutting greenery into shape. It’s the same satisfaction you get from cutting hair, but without the dirty looks and complaints from the victim. More trimming to the left, making sure not to get too symmetrical here, and I step back to admire my handiwork.

It doesn’t look bad. A moose would have left the longest, sturdiest branches hanging, but I cut them off and throw them down. The snow is a patchwork of rabbit tracks here, major highways and a dizzying number of offshoots with a few feeding hollows trampled down. The rabbits themselves stay invisible, leaving a few brownish pellets here and there, existing mostly by proxy, courtesy of their tracks. Another healthy population thrives in the garden, where it has developed an unfortunate taste for my mullein plants. That does not bode well for gardening season, I fear.

I leave the willow cut-offs littering the snow and go to see how Sam is making out. He’s in the cabin and has the floor covered in a multitude of pots, thawed-out soil and seed packages. How many tomatoes of which variety? We debate the pros and cons, luxuriating in the fact that it’s time to have this conversation, that winter is drawing to end. Ever so slowly, it’s true. But by mid-April, everything will be happening so fast that it’s hard to keep up.

We’re getting pretty fancy out here, I think as I push a couple of seeds into the soil. This spring, we’ll not only have a new greenhouse door but also landscaped willow bushes adorning the front of our cabin. Who knows, perhaps by next year, we’ll have broken down and finally purchased a recliner so we can lie in the sun in style. I do hope though that the ungulate gardening crew will return.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.