Respecting Dormancy


Tomato plants in decay. All photos by author.

Tomato plants in decay. All photos by author.

The Boiled Down Juice recently began a new partnership with ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. In addition to regular features for their publication, our editor Meredith Martin-Moats is also writing a monthly backyard living column about regional growing, intergenerational research and conversations, and the intersection of applied folklore and everyday living. This column is also connected to our work at the McElroy House for Cultural Resources and Community Action.  

These columns will be a bit more personal than much of what we post here. But we think they’ll still fit with the larger mission of the BDJ. Thanks for reading!

The first seed catalogs are arriving in the mail. I sit dreamy-eyed staring at the heirloom tomatoes and peppers; I imagine the return of five-foot tall hollyhocks and sunflowers. In my imagination my garden is a bee and butterfly-filled fairyland of blooms and harvests, and my kids and dogs are running carefree, and carefully, between the rows (this is my dream, so I can pretend they actually run between the rows, right?). I look up from the catalog and stare out my window. A few yarrow plants made it through the winter, but mostly the garden is brown and bare with months of cold yet to come.


Loving the transformation.

It was back in late November when I finally convinced myself to complete that most dreaded task of garden cleanup. With my young sons and old dogs running ahead of me, I walked down the steps and down the hill. Setting my jaw to ward off any thoughts of quitting, and pulling on my winter gloves to ward off the cold, I began to pull up the tangle of bamboo and wire and vines that had been our garden. Feeling the lifelessness of the tomato vines in my hands, I decided to snap a few photos and share them on my personal blog, posing the question: “Why is it gardeners only share pictures of harvest? Isn’t this dishonest?” I made a promise to take more photos of my dead plants.

I first started pondering this concept of dormancy when my mother died a few years ago. She passed away on October 17, 2008, right as the fall was coming on. During her last days the air was warm and the plants were plentiful. The Monarch butterflies were heading south and they stopped by my house everyday for a drink. They were joined by other butterflies I’ve since learned the names of: Little Sulphurs, Diane’s, Spicebush Swallowtails, and Viceroys. But within a few weeks the temperatures dropped and an early frost took the flowers.

I’d created that garden for her, or so I thought. I had moved into the house across the street so that I could care for her in her last days. I dug up huge chunks of the yard so I could give her something to see from her bed–––something growing, something with color. But when winter came I was lost. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was too inexperienced a gardener to understand the power of dormancy.


Elsie, a true companion.

The literal meaning of the word dormancy is “a state of quiet (but possibly temporary) inaction.” We use the word dormant to describe anything “marked by a suspension of activity” or “temporarily in abeyance yet capable of being activated.” We often use it as a negative or neutral word rather than a cyclical description of a necessary activity. It’s usage among gardeners, however, comes with a certain sense of expectancy. It’s seen as a time when growth of the organism is temporarily halted, preparing the plant for the explosion of creativity, growth and vibrancy we call spring and summer.

As all seasoned gardeners know, dormancy is when life happens below the surface. The decomposing leaves fall to the ground and nurture the soil; the rain and snows renew the water table and tree roots grow deeper. But it takes a lot of faith to believe in the power of dormancy. And, what’s more, I think it takes a little proof. A bare garden space may never ignite in us that same spark we feel when our tomato plant is bowed over with ripe fruit. But if we spend enough time carefully watching the winters, it becomes impossible to overlook the power of dormancy or the hints it provides of a returning spring.

Since my mother died I’ve been obsessed with this concept of dormancy and all it can mean for us humans. I’m only beginning to wrap my mind around the depth of the metaphor. Despite my deep appreciation for winter’s stark beauty, I still haven’t figured out how to look forward to the days when my garden becomes a patch of bare upturned soil. But as I watch my kids’ fascination with decaying leaves and the bareness of winter, I know they’re tapping into a wisdom I lost years ago. I may never return to that wholeness of spirit, but I have learned to respect it when I see it. And kids have it in droves.


Dismantled bamboo.

Most gardening magazines and columns will tell you that February is the time for planning, preparing, dreaming and plotting for the growing season. And certainly this is true. But perhaps dormancy’s greatest power the way in which it forces us to to slow down and grow deeper roots before focusing on flowering. If we let it, dormancy can bolster us for the coming days. Maybe there’s something about our own dormancy that asks us to sit with sorrow long enough for it to seep deeply into our bodies, preparing us to reach out to others in their pain without being crushed under the weight of our own losses.

There’s a certain peace that comes with learning to sit with the cycles. And there’s a measured expectancy in not being afraid to spend time in our winter gardens rather than rushing to dream up a new spring. The joy of harvest is undeniable and contagious. But there’s something in the beauty of late winter that asks us to consider the importance of our own cultivation.


This essay originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. For subscription information visit them online here.