Winter: The Quiet Season

By Wendy Mills, Extension Master Gardener

On a recent walk at Long Branch Park, I noted that the last of the redbud’s heart-shaped leaves had fallen. Naked branches etched the gray sky while the purling of the stream echoed in the still, quiet air. Winter, the season of dormancy, is here.

Just as you might feel the pull of the couch, comfy blankets, and carbohydrate-rich foods, much of the natural world around us is reacting to the loss of light and decrease in temperatures by pausing growth and minimizing metabolic activity to conserve energy.

Walking in the woods, we see the culmination of this annual adaptive process, choreographed by plants’ biological clocks that tell them when to begin preparing their soft tissues for freezing temperatures and the water and nutrient shortages to come. Leaves are shed, and aboveground foliage dies back while life continues underground in the roots and core of perennial plants.

The natural world is replete with plants that spend part of each year in a state of dormancy. Seeds, for instance, contain a complete embryo along with a reserve food supply within their hard coverings. When they fall to the soil in late summer and autumn, they lie in wait. Were they to germinate so late in the season, the new growth wouldn’t survive the winter.

The foliage of bulbs, like tulips and daffodils, dies back after spring flowering, leaving the bulbs hidden underground where they store up energy for next year’s growth and bloom. Evergreens that keep their green leaves or needles during winter also slow or stop growing. Even houseplants that are subject to a stable temperature can be susceptible to the shortened days. Less sunlight means less time for energy-producing photosynthesis that enables plants to grow and reproduce. This is why most houseplants can get by on less water in winter.

Winter is a good time to prune many plants. In general, if the plant blooms on new growth it can be pruned in winter before the new season’s growth begins. Before winter’s end, Extension Master Gardeners at the Glencarlyn Library Garden will prune the beautyberries, roses, red twig dogwood, summersweet, hollies, spirea, and our Harry Lauder’s walking stick. We’ll cut back to a “healthy bud”—a dormant bud that is not growing now but could when the conditions are right.

Unlike plants, people move when their surroundings become uncomfortable. But not so in this pandemic year with its restrictions on mobility. In this quiet season, I personally feel drawn to the cocoon of home with a soft blanket and good book. We like to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world—answering to the call of a different wild—but a new study in L’Anthropologie reports that bones found at a fossil site in northern Spain suggest that our hominid predecessors may have dealt with extreme cold thousands of years ago by sleeping through the winter. Perhaps the inner call to rest is a message from our primordial past reminding us of our interconnectedness with the natural world.

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