Dormancy: the state of having normal physical functions suspended or slowed down for a period of time. December is the calendar period for the start of winter. Nature does not obey our schedule. If we are sensitive to nature’s advance, the timing is a loose second. In fact, UT’s Dr Allen Williams said that “nature will humiliate you and if you refuse to be, nature will defeat you.” Deep and true.
Our climate is now changing at a fairly rapid rate, and the things we remember as “normal” in the environment are now a guessing game. Whether or not we believe in climate change does not change what is happening in front of our eyes. The weather has become more intense, harsher and often unpredictable. Summers are hotter, even in places that historically have not experienced hot and humid periods. Hotter, colder, hotter, more humid, more humid, drier, more windy; It’s everywhere. Scientifically, the weather is very different from what we grew up with.
For now, we here in Upper East Tennessee are going dormant. The leaves have fallen, the shrubs bend their frozen branches, and the birds are silent. The bugs have found places to wait and the critters are crouching in their hibernation spots. The days are short, the nights are long. So what’s going on under our feet, in the ground?
It’s a different world there. Biological processes slowed down, but not stopped. No matter how cold it is above the ground, the temperature in the ground has a fairly stable number. Some bugs and critters are still busy digging tunnels, turning organic matter into poo, and there’s even some growth going on.
If you are not cultivating, you have the soil covered with either a cover crop or a thick layer of composted organic matter and a cover of old hay. Underneath all of this, the humidity and temperatures are quite stable and the fungal activity is busy getting ready to feed the plants in a few months.
“What can I do outside now?” Is a question I get often. I’ll cover a few possibilities.
Lawn mower: sharpen the blades, clean under the deck, change the filters, check and repair all the parts of the tool that you use a lot in the summer. If you can’t do it on your own, get on the list early with a reputable company that does this sort of thing.
Weed remover, shovels, cutting tools, etc. – clean, sharpen and oil all the parts. Wipe the pipes with an oily rag, drain, check the washers, repair any breaks and protect them from the elements. Keeping all of your gear in good working order will help you when it’s time to reuse it.
Check the trees for dead, damaged, diseased, and crossed branches, and remove them with sharp tools, being careful not to tear the bark. If you don’t know how to make the cuts, write to me. Proper pruning will keep your plants healthy.
Straw landscaped areas. I love pine straw, but if I can’t find it, I’ll use coarse bark nuggets. I never use finely ground wood mulch. It can create an unhealthy environment during stressful weather conditions. Keep mulch removed from the stem or trunk of all woody plants, to avoid other unhealthy conditions.
If you have young fruit trees, protect the lower trunks from rodents. I use a 4 “corrugated drainage pipe, cut into 12” lengths, then split on the side. Pull up on the slit and put the piece of pipe around the trunk, being careful not to scratch the bark.
Pruning: only shrubs which bloom in summer are now ready to be pruned. Crepe myrtle, rose-of-Sharon, spiraea, etc., can be pruned until the end of February; before bud break of course. If it is an overgrown plant, now is a good time to downsize. The shrubs are quite forgiving. I know people who cut their myrtle crepe to the ground every year, to contain its size. Shrubs with multiple trunks also need to be thinned out.
Do you have shrubs that you want to multiply next year? Take 12-18 inch woody stem cuttings, bundle and label them, then drop them in a 12 inch deep trench (I like a long flower box) and cover them with soil. Straw the top to help mitigate temperature variations. Next spring you can start new babies.
Look at the plans and notes from last year. Decide what you want to do differently and put it in your garden notebook. Order plants and seeds.
Now make yourself comfortable with a nice drink and a blanket and read some new gardening books … or whatever you like. Humans can sort of be asleep now too!
Sherrie Ottinger, aka “The TN Dirtgirl”, is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. His passion is all that is “dirt”. She can be reached at [email protected] with comments or questions.