Garden Notes: Season for renewal

Winter is a time for plants to rest and repair.

Gift books for gardeners. — Susan Safford

The Christmas wishes and New Year hopes remind us that intending to do good and be better is possible for all of us.

The darkest time of year has actually passed. Winter solstice, Dec. 21, was two days ago, and although we are now officially in winter, we begin the long circuit back into the light.

Replenish in Winter

“To those of us who appreciate the beauty of decay in the garden, not chopping everything back as soon as the first frosts arrive isn’t an opportunity to be lazy, it’s an opportunity to celebrate another point in the natural cycle of life.” — Ben Probert,,

In temperate zones, the time of diminished rays from the sun is functional, and not to be disparaged. (The temperate zones are the latitudes above and below the equator demarcated by the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.)

Resting, pausing, renewing: these aspects are part of an evolved existence of living things in the temperate zones. They are conditioned by eons, built-in ever since Earth got a “wobble” in its rotational axis, causing our seasons.

Feed the Soil

“Feed the soil, not the crop” is the watchword of organic practice, and winter is when it happens. Winter is repair and rest time: these take over, while active growing is paused. Low light in winter is when soil life goes deep, rests, and replenishes. Soil life is unseen, uncountable, myriad living soil organisms that enable things to grow.

Soil life is – duh! — alive. Destroy it with harsh chemical products and poisons? It is really unthinkable. Mulching, composting, cover cropping: these are off-season practices that encourage that teeming myriad and prep the ground for the next round of activity, whether you are tending a small patch, or broad acres.

From Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners (MOFGA): “Bacteria feed on organic matter and store and cycle nitrogen. Mycorrhizal fungi form microscopic threads around plant roots that make nutrients available to the plants. Earthworms process organic matter and help create soil structure with their castings and tunnels. Protozoa, mites, and nematodes eat living matter and other microbes in the soil and cycle nitrogen.”

Disruptive practices, “excessive tillage, compaction, and chemical use,” all damage soil health. They destroy the complex web of organic matter and organisms. Poor soils lack nutrients for plants to thrive and the structure that helps absorb and retain water.

Impoverished and poisoned soils have eroded to create the unimaginably vast dead zones in the deeps of the Gulf of Mexico, still increasing as I write today. Building soil health helps farmers and gardeners develop climate resilience and slow the loss of critically valuable topsoil and its systems.

Now, when heavy winter rains may make soil wet and soggy, alleviate compaction by putting down planks or other means of distributing one’s weight while performing garden tasks that could not be finished earlier. (I mean, I just cut my asparagus ferns on Dec. 12, and they were still green!)

Gift Books for Gardeners

Several come to mind for garden book gift-giving. “Garden Allies,” (Frederique Lavoipierre, Timber Press, 2021, illustrated by Craig Latker) describes the mini- and micro-lifeforms on and among plants in our gardens, how they benefit us, and how they keep gardens beautiful and thriving.

“‘Garden Allies’ introduces and engages readers about the many phenomenal organisms — from soil-dwelling microorganisms to beetles, bees, bacteria, and bats — who are our natural allies in the garden. In demystifying these fabulous creatures, Lavoipierre inspires us as gardeners to stop, look, listen, learn, and put away the toxic chemicals.” — Jennifer Jewell

We must figure out a new modus operandi, here on earth, here on Martha’s Vineyard. Stan Cox, research agronomist at The Land Institute, has written “The Path to a Livable Future” (City Lights Books, 2021), where he lays out “a refreshingly grounded roadmap for the survival of all life on earth, based on up-to-date science, and anchored in the racial justice imperative.” — Leah Penniman

“When it comes to the climate crisis, our governments are still in complete denial about the scale of what needs to be done. Stan Cox cuts through the fog of mediocrity and offers a clear, honest vision . . . for a truly just and sustainable society.” — Jason Hickel

Any book by Henry Mitchell, the late Earthman of the Washington Post, is worth a gardener’s reading. His titles are in reprint almost thirty years since his death and all are good writing and witty entertainment: “One Man’s Garden,” “The Essential Earthman,” and “Henry Mitchell on Gardening.”

In the Garden

Depending on the weather, apply low-number, slow-release, organic fertilizer that greens lawns well into spring.

Mulch and amend your soil with compost. Based on soil testing, organic material and nutrients need renewing and replenishing: lime, bone meal, kelp, Azomite, and other organic sources of minerals. These need time, over winter, to break down and become available.

Although shrub roses are often fine when allowed to become just that — shrubs — if there is over-long growth, prune it back to avoid snow, ice, or wind damage. Once roses are dormant, they may be heaped with compost or manure to protect their crowns. (These days, determining dormancy is challenging.)

Raspberry canes that have fruited can be cut back now. Check gutters.

House Plants

Coming inside in late October or early November is a shock. They should be kept on a low-water, no-fertilizer regime until the light has noticeably strengthened. For some, it is a good time to reduce and tighten up growth that has flowered. I recently cut twelve inches off the tips of a large potted gardenia and hibiscus after flowering ceased. These plants will now rest for a month before watering gradually resumes.

Check resting amaryllis (Hippeastrum) for signs of emerging new growth. Bring into the light and barely water, from the bottom, when a green tip shows.