Jill Severn’s Gardening Column

It’s the worst week of the year for gardeners


Sunday morning dawned late, cold and foggy. You couldn’t even describe sunrise as “getting light,” because it really didn’t.  It only got as far as dismal grey. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that the fog cleared, and we had about 90 minutes of sunlight before the sky turned grey and, a little after 4:30, the curtain came down and it was dark again.

In mid-afternoon, a neighbor walking by stopped to complain about the impending darkness as I was cutting back the peonies. Their foliage provided nice fall color for a while, and then they collapsed in a miserable heap.

That’s when it came to me that this might be the worst week of the year for gardeners. The sky is low, sunlight is scarce, and it’s getting colder fast. Fallen leaves have turned to mush on the streets. Every day is shorter than the last, and the solstice is still almost a month away. And even then, it’s another month before the days become noticeably longer again.

We wish we could hibernate like bears and sleep through this time of year, or flee to warm, sunny places. But when would we want to awaken or return? Some people I know flee until the beginning of April, but they miss quite a lot: snowdrops, crocuses, the first flowering of daffodils, forsythia and daphne. Others come back earlier, but they report being dismayed and depressed by the shock of coming home from Palm Springs or Mazatlan to the grey chill of the Northwest.

There’s really no foolproof escape from this annual dying of the light, any more than there is an escape from the grief we feel when we learn of a loved one’s demise. Winter is the price we pay for spring – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s the price we pay for spring, summer and fall. Surely that’s a bargain, just as life itself is.

But right now, it’s not really even winter yet, and knowing that made this past week all the harder. So here we are, raging against the dying of the light, grieving the deaths of this year’s peonies, the fallowness of all our flowerbeds, and the lost pleasure of sun-ripened tomatoes.

It’s no wonder this week was the time we turned to something else – Thanksgiving – for comfort. It’s also no wonder we’re out putting up holiday lights on our houses to ward off the darkness. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Hanukkah’s festival of lights comes this time of year, with one congregation organizing a parade of brightly lit cars traveling from Tumwater to the Olympia downtown waterfront this Sunday.

This dark cold time will pass. And while it’s here, we will come to terms with it. We will turn to books, movies, crafts, and to each other to get through these long evenings.

We will rediscover our warmest jackets, and relearn how to enjoy walks in the cold. We may notice the lacelike branching patterns of bare trees, and admire the sturdiness of newly visible birds’ nests, still in place after November windstorms.

We will also focus our time and attention on preparing for the ancient, probably prehistoric celebrations that still occur on or soon after the first day that is longer than the last one.

Christians often ask “What would Jesus do?” Well, apparently the first thing he actually did was to come into this world just a few days after the solstice, as the days were beginning to get longer, not shorter. Now that’s divine wisdom.

Right now, regardless of our religion or lack of it, we are just waiting, heavy and anxious  (not unlike pregnant Mary) for that rebirth of hope and renewal. 

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • DeaneTR

    It is indeed hard to stay motivated in these dark cold times, but perhaps I enjoy gardening in the twilight hours of the evening all year round because this is the time of year I need that habit to keep me going?

    Because there's always more work to do in the garden! At this point all the primary raking and bulk of fall clean up is done in my gardens and it's time to start prepping (weeding and mulching) the flower beds. Next Spring's seedlings are already sprouting along with the first round of weed seeds under all that debris and helping them see the light of day, no matter how little light might be available, is what keeps me inspired, especially once the tiny weeds around them are dug out! :-)

    I always say if you can weed your whole garden this time of year and you get after them again in February, most of your late Spring wedding hardship will be addressed. And as always, this is also a great time of year to do foundational work, like major tree pruning, putting in paths, rock walls, etc..

    Friday, November 26, 2021 Report this