Gardeners need the enforced hiatus of winter

January gives us time to slow down, take a break, rediscover joy

In The Garden

January 19, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I hate winter. The long cold nights, waking up at 4 a.m. without electricity and wondering if the pipes will freeze and burst before it goes on again, antifreeze and layers of clothes. There are a few things I like -- steaming homemade soup by the wood stove, inky-limbed trees against Gauguin sunsets, Sunday papers and down quilts.

But I think the thing I like most is that I can't garden. I want to -- especially since I've recovered from the collective madness we like to call the holidays. Gardening seems so doable now that I don't have to weed, clear detritus, plant bulbs, keep up with daily household chores, work and organize Christ-mas simultaneously. Life has slowed to a crawl (or at least backed off to the speed limit), and I can almost keep up.

Now that I'm beginning to get my second wind, I'm thinking about the second-tier garden chores, like tool care and organizing, that get sidelined in the frenzied growing season. I'm not doing them, mind you, but I am thinking about them, which is the first step in the three-point program. (The second is doing them, the third is cleaning up after them.)

Yet for now, just thinking about them is enough. It's winter.

Spring is still many weeks away, so there's no rush.

Meantime, ideas for next year's garden bubble up -- a new flower bed in the semi-circle of shade by the cherry tree in the vegetable garden, an apple-whip wattle of scarlet runner beans to act as a sun-break for the chairs. A three-season shrub to add an autumn splash of orangy-red in the wildlife garden, something to fill the midsummer gap between the birdbath and elders, and maybe a rustic grape arbor over a blue stone patio by the barbecue -- or maybe not. It's fun to ponder the possibilities without feeling pushed to execute them.

Some of the planning limns maintenance, though without the dirt-splotched jottings I made during the summer, I'd never remember what I planned to do, let alone why. In my life before kids, I could easily retrieve all the mental notes I had made during the growing season. Now, I need crib sheets. I pull out and attempt to decipher the crumpled scraps of paper I stuffed into my tool basket in summer: "Shift 2 rd currants by blk walnut [tree] into sun." "Move camassia to [bed by] outbldg." Smudge smudge "lilies." (I think it's "transplant driveway lilies" but I'm not sure.) Some things I accomplished, others I blew off. Most are reminders to pull sun-loving perennials from now-shaded spots beneath saplings that without my noticing have grown into trees. Nothing in life is static, even when it appears to be.

Now, after a haphazard performance review on last year and a post-holiday respite, I'm beginning to feel like plunging in again. But I can't. And that's a good thing. Because the truth is, I'm just not ready. I need more than a weeklong pit stop; I need a sabbatical.

Winter is a kind of enforced recoup-and-regroup time, like a month in Bimini or a mini-nervous breakdown but without the drama. It offers the gift of dormancy, time to reflect, recharge our physical and spiritual batteries --- an underrated blessing in our sleep-deprived culture.

Without it, we're on a treadmill, a relentless forward charge whose first casualty is joy. Even things we love to do become a soulless grind.

Ensconced by the wood stove, sipping hot soup, I find myself appreciating this seasonal furlough. I browse through garden catalogs and books, making notes and imagining next year's horticultural successes (so far happily unsullied by the intrusion of reality). As I reach for another catalog, I catch a glimpse through the window of two hydrangeas I meant to transplant in October but didn't. Even if I wanted to pull on layers of clothing and trudge out with a shovel now, it's better to wait until early spring. The roots will set better, it won't require protection, and I won't disturb the worms.

Guilt-free, I snuggle down, take another sip of soup and suddenly realize: I love winter.

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