Letting Go


These November days I practically pray for rain, and as the thermometer dips ever closer to that "first hard frost" level, I heave a quiet sigh of relief. This gardener is somewhat worn out and ready for winter. Not so many years ago, I remember arguing with my elderly friend Shorty when he adamantly refused to even consider planting a winter garden. Now I understand exactly what he was thinking. It's time for a rest.

This fall I've watched myself procrastinate on a number of basic garden tasks, like the final wave of cover-cropping, pruning my giant butterfly bushes, pulling out the spent tomato and squash vines, and, I hate to admit it, even composting. We've had an unusual number of warmish, sunny days lately, but that hasn't helped one bit to motivate me to get out there. It's just made me feel a little more guilty for wanting to be inside, but never for long.

Maybe I'm getting old and lazy or perhaps I'm simply gaining some wisdom and a sense of moderation. Oh, I put in a few fall/winter vegies in August and early September: hardy broccolis and cabbages, garlic and leeks, mustard, arugala, kale, various chards, and some hardy lettuces. And I planted several varieties of cover-crops- the usual fava beans, austrian field peas, and crimson clover- wherever there was space at the time. But beyond this, I'm simply not interested. And once it hits mid to late October, my garden libido slows to a virtual halt, as if I'm about to go into hibernation.

I like what garden humorist Des Kennedy says in his fun book, "Crazy about Gardening": He speaks about the gardener's recklessness in "pushing the hardiness zones" and "cheating the seasons" by trying to plant winter gardens or all sorts of flowering varieties that bloom in January or February. Sometimes this works: often it doesn't. But "deep down," Des writes, "most of us appreciate that a numbing bit of winter is good for the spirit." My sentiments exactly.

So today I had to struggle mightily to counteract the powerful pull of ensuing dormancy to go out into the cold to make the final batch of compost for the year. I simply couldn't delay any longer because our kitchen scraps were now overflowing their third five-gallon bucket ( not counting numerous smaller containers and plastic bags and whatever is still hidden in the refrigerator). The aroma of all this could no longer be contained or covered over by burning incense near the back porch. It was time to act. But of course, once outside I got distracted by harvesting herbs, picking the last dahlias, photographing the gorgeous ornamental grasses, repotting a few rootboound house plants, and washing the windows in our new garden sanctuary structure. And just when I'd decided to seriously get to work on the composting, our daughter Sonji called needing a ride to her high school's football game. Of course, road construction delays complicated this simple task, so by the time I finally arrived back home, I had less than an hour before dark.

Composting is not one of those jobs that can be rushed- if it's done properly, that is. I had to haul two batches of shredded leaves from the meadow into the garden, clean out the manure under the rabbit hutches, empty and wash all the dead food containers and buckets, pick enough fresh weeds to up the nitrogen ratio for a hotter, faster compost, and extract the mucky contents of my overflowing weed holding bin. Strangely, I was fighting a bit of resentment for the considerable time outlay these tasks required. What I would rather have done, now that I was outside, was to wander dreamily through the garden appreciating the lovely autumn colors and grazing on the occasional strawberries and raspberries that were hiding beneath their sodden leaves. And, you see, I very much wanted to be the philosopher and the contemplative, not the hard laborer and maintainence woman.

The sun slipped away as I worked feverishly to finish the pile. As the temperature dropped, a low fog drifted dreamily through the orange golden trees. I was struck deeply by the beauty of endings graciously accepted without undue mourning. I used to pine away for two or more months in the late fall, depressed at having to relinquish my hold on the garden. Now, I eagerly anticipate the inward days of winter when I can luxuriously reflect upon and absorb all the lessons of the year, whether garden related or not. What good all the poignant teachings of spring, summer, and fall if we cannot take the time to allow them to resonate deeply within us in the cold, still months of the year. Winter is sanctuary time in the clearest sense of the word, a time for nurturing the soul.

So, I have made no trips to the nursery this fall. I have refrained from indulging in the frenzied plant buying characteristic of past years, even at the big autumn plant sale at the arboretum. I first practiced for this by not buying a single grocery store poinsetta the last two Christmases or any of the early spring primroses that never again look as good as they do when they're first bought. I only had one moment of weakness outside the local post office/variety store a couple months ago when I very spontaneously grabbed a white mum and two purple asters on the way out from mailing a letter. I had no real intention to plant them, you see. They were just frivolous seasonal "color spots" for the deck. That's the kind of quick fix mentality I'm trying to get away from. It's harmless in one way, true, but wasteful in another. Throw away plants- the product of an over-zealous gardening industry hungry for year-round profits. Ah well, the rains have already reduced my color spots to brown mush, but that's okay. I'm not perfect.

Just give me a hard frost soon and then a long, cold winter so I can let go of any thoughts of the garden and any heroic attempts to keep it alive for another week or month. The firewood is cut and stacked. The freezer and pantry are full. I've got a full ream of paper, a whole pack of pens, two journals to fill, my little laptop computer plugged in, and a brand new rocking chair. What more do I need? Flowers blooming in January or February? Peas in March? Hothouse tomatoes in April? Nah, just a pot of peppermint tea and perhaps a good book or two. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow- at least for awhile...

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Tricia Narana McDowell