Snow, ice and freezing rain. What can gardeners and homeowners do? Well, I say instead of fighting winter, embrace it. There are all sorts of projects and activities that can not only buoy our winter-weary spirits, but can also bring loads of enjoyment.

Shopworn suggestions such as, "sharpen and clean tools and check flower pots for cracks," just seem awfully boring. So go ahead, take care of tools and all that, but don’t miss out on fun activities that are made for winter. And forget the ho-hum stuff, at least for now.

Here’s an example of what I mean. No matter where you live, some kind of wildlife prowls around your property. And everything leaves tracks. So here’s a question. Can you identify all the tracks you see around your place? If not, and don’t feel bad if you can’t, since hardly anyone can, it’s time to go out and examine sign left by passing critters.

A good deal of our native and now, thanks to wildlife moving to Maine from southern locations, non-native wildlife, is crepuscular. That means the critters are most active at twilight times of dusk and dawn. So a walk outside in the morning, especially after a fresh snow, will reveal the goings-on of a host of wild critters.

A list of potential wild visitors might include red squirrels, gray squirrels, snowshoe hares, birds of all kinds, including wild turkeys, cats, dogs and yes, opossums. Even woodchucks leave tracks in the snow, since woodchucks are not true hibernators and will venture outside their burrows on warm, sunny winter days. All of these have distinctive track patterns.

In learning about animal tracks, it is important not only to study the actual tracks, but also the way they are laid down. For instance, some tracks show an opposite pattern, while others consist of one following the other.

Not every one of us will equal the tracking skills of, say, Daniel Boone. But anyone can learn to recognize tracks of the most common critters. All you need to become informed is a good book on the subject, and one of the better tomes is the "Stokes Guide To Animal Tracking And Behavior." Also, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife offers posters of Maine animal tracks. Its website is

Some wild critters leave other-worldly-looking prints. Opossums' front feet have the five digits spread out as if in preparation for giving the “live long and prosper” sign made famous by Mr. Spock of "Star Trek" fame. And prints of the hind feet have what look like an extra thumb near the heel, a weird-looking track if ever there was one.

Porcupine tracks show the five digits as separate from the main track, again, very strange-looking. There are lots more out there, enough to keep an inquisitive person occupied for a long time. And remember, information gained is seldom forgotten, so learn one print or track at a time and you’ll be able to identify the same print at any time in the future.

Snow fleas

If you have never checked out snow fleas, you are in for quite a show. These tiny, flea-like insects are properly called “springtails,” a name that refers to the forked appendage on the body that the critter uses to propel itself far into the air.

Springtails by the millions appear during winter thaws and are most common around the bases of trees and in pools of snowmelt water. The insects may be so numerous as to completely cover these pools. Sometimes, a trickle of water will carry waves of springtails a considerable distance.

While these energetic insects are visible to the naked eye, for a real closeup view, use a hand-held magnifier.

While not a problem when outside, springtails can signal trouble when and if they come indoors. Springtails are attracted to dampness and moisture, and that is what draws them inside our houses. Wet conditions, perhaps from leaking water pipes, condensation from water tanks and so on, can cause wood to become permanently damp, a dangerous condition that must be corrected as soon as possible. So attend to the problem, allow the wood to dry and the springtails will likewise disappear. And remember, this isn’t the springtails' fault. They are only the messengers.

All the same, springtails are mostly found outside and they truly are marvelous to watch. I can see groups of people, including children, having the time of their lives, walking through the melting snow, searching for springtails, or “snow fleas.”

Winter bouquet

While our flowers won’t bloom for several months, nature offers enough ingredients for us to create attractive bouquets, minus the flowers.

Sprigs of white pine can serve as the main ingredient, which we can then spruce up by inserting dried seed stalks of wild plants such as goldenrod.

While this isn’t a universal occurrence, pussy willows sometimes produce their silvery catkins during warm spells in winter. I have a weeping form of pussy willow that grew catkins last December. And since the temperature is far too cold for the catkins to develop any further, there they sit, intact, waiting for me to cut the twigs and use in a winter arrangement.

Choice of plant matter is, of course, entirely up to the individual. And that’s what makes it so much fun. So bundle up, get out and walk about and search for interesting components for your winter bouquet. It’s fun and even better, such bouquets never need watering.


While it is inadvisable to approach wild animals too closely and also illegal to keep wild animals as pets, every rule has an exception, and for many, that exception comes in the form of black-capped chickadees.

While chickadees quarrel fiercely among themselves, they evidence little fear of humans and are usually the last birds to depart the feeder when a human approaches. Because of their trusting personality, we can train chickadees to take seed from our hand.

To do this, place several black-oil sunflower or other seeds in your hand and stretch out your arm, palm up, toward the chickadees. It’s difficult to hold your arm out for very long, but in time you’ll be able to maintain that position for longer periods. And hopefully, after several days of trying, the chickadees will respond almost immediately, thus reducing muscle fatigue in the arm.

The first time a tiny chickadee lands on your outstretched palm, think about the tremendous amount of trust this little bird has placed in you. There are life lessons here for those who wish to ponder them.

Eventually, chickadees will not even hesitate to hop on your palm and grab seeds. For me it’s a fulfilling ritual, one that makes me feel more at one with nature. Try it and see for yourself.

Outdoor barbecue

For more and more people, winter does not necessarily signal the end of the barbecue season. Those with propane grills, especially, can just brush the snow off their grill, turn on the gas, light the burner and start cooking.

And even if we don’t plan on eating our meal outside, it’s easy enough to cook outside and then bring it inside.

For me, barbequing has acquired a new twist. I recently purchased a Cameron stovetop smoker and it works wonderfully. This very closely resembles a standard oven roasting pan, but it also has a sliding lid and a metal rack inside. It works this way. Drop a teaspoon of dry hardwood sawdust on the bottom of the pan and then place a strip of aluminum foil on top of the sawdust. This keeps the dust dry and smoldering and also serves as a disposable grease trap.

Place on the grill and turn on the propane. Then add whatever it is you wish to smoke, by evenly spacing it on the rack. Then slide the lid to the nearly closed position and when the first, tiny tendrils of smoke arise from the smoker, slide the lid all the way closed and continue smoking for the appointed time.

This also works indoors on the stovetop. Those with an exhaust fan will find no problem with the small amount of smoke that escapes from the smoker. In my case, I have no exhaust fan and was still able to smoke some Gulf shrimp without much bother.

My next attempt will be with some scallops I’ve been saving. If anything tastes better than smoked scallops, I have yet to find it. But really, anything works in this handy smoker, even vegetables.

Cameron smokers come in various sizes, Mine was of the smaller variety and cost about $25, a good deal for an effective, durable stovetop smoker.

Binocular astronomy

Fate plays a cruel trick upon those who would observe the heavens in winter. While viewing is seldom better, frigid temperatures make telescope viewing a chilly proposition. Despite this, most anyone can grab a set of binoculars and step outside for five minutes of high-quality viewing.

While binoculars cannot offer the in-depth, highly magnified views afforded by a telescope, binocular astronomy has a big benefit in that binoculars provide a wide-field view.

So the next bright, calm evening, try stepping out with binoculars and begin scanning the sky. Or, even better, wait until two hours or so after sunset and check out Orion’s belt, an asterism (something that presents an easily identifiable shape) in the constellation Orion. And while viewing the three belt stars, drop down a bit and check out Orion’s sword and with it, the Great Orion Nebula.

And when it becomes too cold, just run back indoors, no telescope to pack up, no eyepieces and other equipment to assemble. Any pair of binoculars will suffice, but 10-power binoculars will give the most detailed views. Either way, it beats sitting inside and going over seed catalogs for the umpteenth time. So defy the elements and have fun this winter.

Tom’s tips

When driving on slippery ice, torque can be our enemy. If you begin to slide and are unable to correct it, try this. Put your transmission in neutral, or in the case of a standard transmission, depress the clutch and hold it there.

This releases pent-up torque and allows your brakes to do their job without pressure from the transmission. This has saved me more than once. It pays to practice this maneuver so that when the time comes, putting your vehicle in neutral will come naturally.