Down to earth – Dormancy: a beautiful excuse for a rest

(To be published today, November 27, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

I sometimes have trouble finding the beauty in dormant plants and it feels like sacrilege to admit that. After all, I’m a born and bred Rhode Islander who, no matter how much I dream about the Caribbean and surround myself with tropical houseplants, cannot actually imagine living in a climate of perpetual summer. And I’m a hardcore gardener. The type who is probably supposed to think that a preference for spring and summer over winter signifies a lack of imagination.

It’s possible that I’m being a little hard on myself. —And you if you’re anything like me. Of course it’s perfectly reasonable to prefer spring and summer. Those seasons will always be more gratifyingly gorgeous than winter (fall is, of course, the best season of all) and unless your favorite colors are in the bronzy-green, russet-brown, or battleship-gray ranges, and you relish the feeling of frozen toes and fingertips, there are few winter gardens that would knock your socks off.

Even so, I want to like the approaching season just as much as all the rest and I want to still find enjoyment in my garden. So I have gone in search. To start with, I left everything standing for as long as I could stand it. I wanted to give the look of dead stems and seedheads a chance to grow on me. Then I began editing, same as I do all during the growing season. If something didn’t contribute to a pretty view or vignette, it went on the pile. Stems broken in half—out. Seedheads lying on the ground—out. Stems that are all stem, no seedheads—out.

Of course, pretty is relative because what remains is dressed in rags. Brown is the predominant color in my garden, flocked with the black of false indigos leaves, and rudbeckia and coneflower seed heads, and minimally ornamented with the evergrey-green foliage of lavender and cat mint, red rose-hips and burgundy crabapples. I live now for the morning those stems and twigs are dusted in snow or sparkling with a heavy frost and until then I guess I’d rather my garden wear widow’s weeds than nothing at all.

Some gardeners cut everything back, evidently preferring the look of bare naked tidiness to summer’s hand-me-downs. To each his own. But a garden left standing offers more than what some might consider dubious “winter interest.” It provides habitat for wildlife. Being hungry for color always makes me appreciate that not all of the birds that rest on branches and peck at seeds are camouflaged in winter’s dullest. Male house finch are capped in a raspberry ombré. Tufted titmice have splash of peach under their bluish wings. Bright yellow was made for goldfinch. Birds make any dormant garden—even one as ugly as mine—pretty gorgeous.

Praying mantis seedcase on an aster stemI also like knowing that all sorts of nature’s creatures call my tiny urban garden home. Spiders, snakes, beetles, toads, and bumblebees all tuck themselves under leaves and into its soil. Invisible legions of insects—bird food—nest inside hollow twigs. I haven’t spotted any yet but I have every hope that praying mantis, the garden’s most fascinating predators, have laid some egg cases here and there on the stems of perennials and shrubs. I suppose though, if any of my favorite plants’ roots were routinely eaten by voles, I’d sing a different tune about frosty stems and winter interest—and mulch for that matter. Plagued gardeners know that voles are shy of crossing open ground between meals, and discourage them by whisking their cover away before winter.

Maybe beauty is in the eye and imagination of the gardener after all. In any case I feel pretty lucky and plenty grateful to have a garden that rewards my small efforts with so much pleasure year-round and gives me the excuse of dormancy to embark on a proper winter’s rest of my own. Is there any better season than this? (It’s okay if you answer yes.) Happy Thanksgiving!

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