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Celebration of Life at Winter Garden

Garden designers use this quiet time to consider how plants can teach us to grow into our best  selves.

The older you get, the more difficult it becomes to slow down. The forward motion of everything is relentless, and the force on my back grows stronger every year. Watching my daughter grow up, watching my parents turn 80, or even watching the plants come and go in my garden seems impossible to celebrate impermanence and the joyful purpose of rest and renewal. The vibrant vitality of the summer garden, the guiding metaphor of my life, would be less felt if it were not for the quiet months of rest and reflection. Sometimes we just have to stand still and listen.

When you get down to the refined part of being alive, you find little metaphors in everything. It is like a distant candle in a midnight snowstorm. These metaphors can easily cut through the darkness and remind us of ourselves.

Hoarfrost on dwarf blue indigo pods is a good example. These soft shells, puffed up like
marshmallows roasted over a campfire, contain seeds that require several years of warm and cold weather to best germinate. Although protected from the winter, they are valuable winter cargo, storing large amounts of food and energy for the days when their ships are full. After winter, the dead top growth falls off and the entire plant rolls around like a tumbleweed, dropping offspring along the way.

Everything is connected in ways we cannot see, but we know and believe. I know it better when I sit in the garden on a cold morning, with thick fog or light snow covering me, letting go of my worries, doubts and fears and letting my mind wander into a quiet harbor.

My life is rooted in the same way as a plant. My story impacts the stories of others, and together we build resilience to harsh weather, disease, and a changing climate beyond our control.

This may be the fibrous roots of side oats grama’s that hold the soil in place, or the roots of cone flower and blazing stars that push deeper to alleviate the flowers’ hunger for nutrients. It might be same. White prairie clover provides another example of how it adds nitrogen to the soil, naturally fertilizing those around it. This reminds us that as we take care of each other, we are all taking care of ourselves.

There are many textures and nuances to leaving plants out for the winter. They provide numerous ecosystem services, from seeds and mulch for birds to reducing storm water runoff and helping snow insulate plants. It’s easy to believe that nothing happens and that the winter garden has no purpose. After all, we don’t want to go out and observe the cold weather every day, and more importantly, stay still and quiet like the rotting remains of our favorite flowers.

It’s not a graveyard. It is a life that requires essential rest. And if we don’t rest, if we don’t have the courage to look within and feel all the complex emotions we experience at different moments in our lives, we can’t grow and become more adaptable. And we certainly can’t help others do that.

Is it too much of a strain on your garden? I don’t think so. The garden is a story full of metaphors. As gardeners, we give our lives to these stories, being reconstructed within them. Plants and wildlife come and go. We bring ourselves into the space over art and drinks with friends.

These are rituals of the growing season. But if you sit on a garden bench in January, hugging your coat, scarf and wool hat and engaging in a daily ritual of stillness that reflects the monochromatic textures of brown and slate, you will discover a fulfilling life. It’s a deep breath worth the effort. A few months ago, you start putting your hands in the dirt and planting a new colony of plants in your home.

To take a break. Whatever life takes you, lean into it. And know that a season is just a season. This brings comfort in knowing that everything passes and that there is great power in growth even when it seems not to. So many plants are still strengthening their roots, preparing for spring, and storing energy to give back many times over. Everywhere we gardeners walk, we see resilience, like the wings of a cardinal in the snow or the heavy branches of a young elm tree.

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