When the plants go dormant, a gardener takes his cue

Maybe I shouldn't admit it, but this gardener secretly feels relief when frost and freeze blacken basil and tarnish tomatoes.

This is not to say, however, that I dance a jig on the first icy morn.

Long before the big chill, my heart suffers pangs at the faintest sign of approaching autumn. On chilly September mornings, I begin to mourn the loss of flavor and flowers, which will be absent from the backyard and from roadside farm stands for months.

Yet, with the autumnal death stroke comes a sense of guilty pleasure.

Not only will the plants go dormant, but so, too, will this gardener – at least until cabin fever flares sometime in February.

Having gardened many years in central Florida, I realize that not all growers enjoy a season of respite. In warm, sunny climes, lawns always need mowing and flowers watering. Yet a year-round work schedule seems a fair price for gathering camellia blossoms in December.

And after having tended a garden nonstop, I was determined to mitigate the bleakness of the Midwest winter when I moved north nearly 20 years ago.

The endless brown, gray, and beige of an Ohio winter illustrates almost perfectly Gertrude Stein's famous saying, "There's no there, there."

To enliven the dismal winter landscape, I've added tan ornamental grass accents, and hunter-green English ivy and vinca ground covers.

Brightening the scene are silvery mats of dianthus; burgundy-fruited crab apple; ocher-stemmed willow; purple beautyberry; feathery bamboo; and the white, translucent seed heads of lunaria, which appear here and there like friendly ghosts of the long-gone summer. Snowdrops and fall crocus are the floral bookends of the growing season.

My dormancy is mostly spent in the cheery confines of my tiny sun porch, which overlooks the long back lawn, a low stone wall, a lichen-covered bench, and borders filled with some of the plants mentioned.

My conservatory houses flowering maple, Christmas cactus, potted palms, and other tropical greenery.

This pale imitation of summer seems quite lush when winter's chill whirls outside, and I doze over garden catalogs and crossword puzzles.

Mitigating the seismic shift that frosty fall creates is the approach of the holidays. With the gathering of evergreen boughs, colorful berries, and dry plumes of ornamental grass, I ease into the reality of winter's tightening grip.

All is quiet when the last garden chores are completed. No pesky mosquitoes or flies buzz. With woolly, gray clouds overhead, my part of the world lies tucked in for a long rest.

Winter, however, is no maintenance-free affair. Icy windshields need tedious scraping, and snowy walks and driveways require strenuous shoveling. But unlike mowing, watering, and weeding, these tasks are infrequent – if winter is mild or dry.

Usually around Thanksgiving, the lawn gets a final mowing to remove the dillydallying leaves that deign to fall until weather is bitter.

Free of chores, I gaze upon and savor the winter landscape. It remains almost static until minty green spears of crocus and daffodils poke holes in the black, leafy mulch – and prick my enthusiasm for cultivation back to life.

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