Like my garden, if I don’t go dormant every now and then, I may one day grind to a halt and quit. In Botany for Gardeners, Brian Capon explains what dormancy is, and I love the definition so much, I occasionally paraphrase it for my husband, saying: “I am currently dormant. My physiological activities are now reduced to the minimal level needed for the family’s survival only.”
This doesn’t please my evergreen-minded husband. Like other plants, evergreens do slow down in winter, but they maintain some level of photosynthesis year round. In other words, my husband contends that you should never come to a stop, or you’ll probably never get started again. And in our ever-busy world, I usually follow his reasoning.
But I’m not an evergreen. And as I prepare for winter, I study Capon’s Botany and reflect.
Capon observes that while botanists don’t fully understand what happens during dormancy, they do know that plants take cues from their environment. At the proper time, they enter a “restful state.” Botanists also know that plants can measure the passage of time, recognizing when days are getting shorter, and nights longer. Plants seem to sense that it’s growing colder and that any reproductive activity that needs to get done had best occur before first frost. Before they can end their dormancy and send forth new shoots and flowers, plants require a “chilling period” that entails a certain amount of darkness. But it’s still a process that botanists don’t completely understand—and I like that.
Plants have not yet given up all their secrets, and neither have I. My own dormancy—a very private and quiet time—coincides with my garden’s winter season. While my plants and I lie dormant, botanists and others who are searching for answers can find something else to do. We are not to be bothered: We are resting. Beginning Nov. 1, there’s a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my garden gate.
I take my cues from my perennials dying back and from the sassafras turning red, orange and yellow. I make it my goal to have my garden cleaned up, covered up, mulched up and closed up by Oct. 31. By then, new bulbs should be in the ground, new shrubs or trees planted to replace the dead and or dying ones, and the garden gate shut tight. After that, both my plants and I do our secret business in the quiet of our dormancy.
I’m sure a physician could tell me what my body is doing metabolically when I spend the winter months napping by the wood stove or sitting by my favorite window, watching the day drift by. But I’m not sure anyone could explain what my spirit is doing. While my garden’s newly planted seeds nourish embryos through the still winter months, I’m nurturing new life, too—even when it appears that nothing’s happening.
I spend my time reading garden catalogs and books, and I study the bones of my garden, made visible by winter. I make copious notes about what worked that year and what didn’t. My garden journal is as much the story of my life as any autobiography would be. I take stock, I dream, and I get inspired—not by the activity of gardening, but by the quiet of dormancy, of rest. I can never say how long I must be dormant; I can only say I’ll know when it’s time to get active again. It’s an organic process not to be tampered with. If anything’s going to happen come spring, my plants and I both require this mysterious, silent time.
And then, just as my crocuses will pop up in February when one least expects them to, so do I.
In my visions, my garden outstrips both the budget and our property 2-to-1. My husband reminds me that Martha Stewart doesn’t do it all herself: She hires gardeners. But in our garden, if weeds are to be pulled, we’ll be pulling them. If new borders are designed, we’ll be the ones mowing around them.
“Well then, what do you think of Xeriscaping?” I counter. “More gravel, less grass?”
My husband shakes his head. He doesn’t want to rake gravel any more than he wants to mow grass. I don’t mind; the dreaming is as refreshing to my soul as a long winter’s nap. It gets creative juices flowing, even if I never do the things I dream up.
I make plant lists, lots of them. Then I total up the cost. Could those $2 seed packs really add up to hundreds of dollars? I refigure, recalculate and, finally, delete.
Deleting is a wonderful thing. It forces you to look at what you already have, to dig through old piles of rocks or steppingstones and ask yourself, can I do something with these? Old scraps of wood are nailed together for cold boxes, compost is turned, and rich, new soil is carried out to the garden for layering. Seeds are planted in Dixie cups and placed in front of every available window. Reference books are stacked by the bed so I can check plant zones.
When spring is close, activity revs up in the Milner/Bagwell household and garden. My plants and I begin stirring around, thinking about waking up—but not till the dormancy has finished its work, and plants and gardener alike are fully rested and ready for spring again.
[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]