The Necessity of Winter

DenaFebruary 16, 2011

There is nothing easy about an absence of light or an absence of warmth. In fact, many people suffer from a recognized mood disorder called winter depression or winter blues. “People who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter … repeatedly, year after year. The US National Library of Medicine notes that ‘some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed … symptoms can be severe.'” (Wikipedia)

It’s mid-February and those of us in the northern hemisphere have been making (suffering) our way through winter for some time now. Most of us are ready for spring, to say the very least. However, while it might be difficult, maybe we should take a closer look at winter. I firmly believe that all things are necessary and accordingly, winter too, must be necessary. So why? Why the cold, why the dark, why the sadness & the emptiness?

Something I learned recently (being the novice gardener that I am) is that many spring-flowering bulbs—tulip, hyacinth, daffodil, crocus and iris—are planted in Autumn. These flowers, the first signs of spring, are actually in the ground through the entire harshness of Winter. Not only are these flowers able to survive winter, but they need it. If it were as simple as putting the bulbs in the ground come the warmth of May, we would do that but we can’t.

As I’ve been hinting, I am using the metaphor of plants for two reasons. The first is that plants have an amazing ability to survive winter. The second is that, in some cases, plants actually need winter.

Survival Mode

Plants go into survival mode during winter primarily because of water. Water expands when it freezes and if a plant cell freezes, like a frozen water pipe, it will burst. In order to prevent such damage from occurring, plants become dormant. They cease all reactions that require water. They do not grow and they produce a substance like antifreeze to prevent any serious damage. These processes begin to occur as the days grow shorter. By the first winter frost, plants are generally in full-on survival mode. In extremely cold climates, plants can take further steps to protect themselves, including moving water out of cells and leaving behind only the substances that can tolerate cold. The expelled water sits frozen between cells without breaking the cells open. In extreme states of dormancy, plants can count the number of hours that they spend below freezing. Plants in this phase will not wake up until enough cold time has passed and if a few warm hours pass (a false winter-thaw, for example) they do not respond. How amazing is that?

The Necessity

Planting perennials in autumn gives them time to establish healthy root systems. New perennials planted in spring must survive summer heat and stress with very young root systems while still producing enough nutrients to support months of growth and flowering. By planting shrubs and trees in the fall, roots have a chance to grow all autumn, and most of the winter as well, without having to supply nourishment for the busy growing season as well.

Roots of autumn-planted plants will continue growing as long as the ground temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit which can give them several months of head start growth time. Plants put in the ground in the autumn need less water to establish. All plants need plenty of water while they are in the “establishment” stage and growing strong root systems through the surrounding soil, however by planting in autumn gardeners will conserve water without the heat of summer stressing the plants. Plants themselves use less water since photosynthesis is slowed by shorter days. Evaporation rates slow down during Autumn so water in the soil lasts longer as well.

So how can we apply this magic in our own lives?

Embracing Winter—Your Renaissance

Now that we’ve seen how other living things survive and benefit from winter, let’s put aside the plant metaphor and look at ourselves. I think that we all go into survival mode during winter. Aside from colorful scarves, warm mittens and hot chocolate we must learn what we need to get through the long stretches of darkness. Depending on where you are in the world, you’ve got potentially another two or three months of winter to go. Find out what protects you, what saves you. Maybe it is cuddling with your cat in front of the fireplace. Maybe it is breaking out your sketch book & pencils to draw snowflakes or sunsets over frozen lakes. Maybe it is planning a weekend get away to the nearest ski slope and putting on your best snow bunny attire.

Beyond simply surviving, allow yourself to discover why winter is necessary to you. Because it is! Whether you live in the remotest mountains of Maine or the warmest region of SoCal, winter is winter. Winter serves a purpose. Immerse yourself in it. Focus on your personal hibernation. Allow your mind & your body to shut down for a little while if that is what they are aching to do. Remember that spring is never too far off. Prepare yourself for your own personal, amazing renaissance.

Comments (5)

  • Dena Botbyl

    February 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    evolution you | The Necessity of Winter

  • Lou Mello

    February 20, 2011 at 6:31 am

    I can definitely vouch for the fact that some folks suffer from the winter blues, the lovely Miss TK went thru that for years until we moved to Savannah and the California. Now that we are in Charleston, SC and enjoying the Lowcountry, she is so much better in the winter.

    Although I agree that winter is necessary for plant life, I an sure glad that I don’t have to spend winters in Ohio any more. It has been really hard for our friends and family still there and I know that they have at least another month of potentially rough winter weather.

    Even though it has been very cold here, much cooler than normal, our winter is so much shorter and milder and all we really have to worry about is starting up the lawn mower every so often to keep it running well. The other side of the coin will be that once summer hits, the lawn will have to be mowed weekly or it turns into the Amazon forest.

    Spring is just around the corner here and that will be my renaissance, being outdoors, boating, traveling around being a tourist in my own tow…those are the things to look forward to with Spring.

    1. Dena

      February 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm

      @ Lou – Hey there! Thanks so much for stopping by & for the comment. I couldn’t agree more. I would LOVE to relocate to a warmer climate. It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. I do enjoy having all four extreme seasons (I’m in New Jersey) but the winters take a toll. We had a couple of warm days earlier this week and it was SUCH a tease. It’s back down to the low 20’s again and the wind has been howling pretty much non-stop going on 72 hours.

      That said, I am doing my best to enjoy it. Last night I was lying in bed with feet like icicles and I reminded myself how much I longed for these days back in August when it was so humid at night that I couldn’t sleep & woke covered in sweat every couple of hours. I’m trying to enjoy the cold while the colds here & the hot when the hots here. 😉 Not always easy, but I’m trying. 🙂

      Yes, spring is just around the corner and it will be lovely. Being outdoors, boating, traveling — it’s such a wonderful season.

      Thanks again for your comment. Do you have a blog, too? I’d love to visit!

  • Lou Mello

    February 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Hi again, this whole weather craziness is just nuts this year, the Midwest and the Northeast have just been hammered and we have even had snow twice in the Lowcountry, which we usually get about once every 10 years.

    No, I don’t have a blog and generally just comment on Andra’s and one or two others that post occasionally. I do comment on Facebook with various friends and post only when I have something to say or some nice pics from a trip that I know some friends would like to see.

    The more I see the various folks blogging on so many different issues, the more interested I am in sharing thoughts and making new online friends. I work in an office and most of the time blogs are blocked, especially Andra’s now that she changed the title to the Cootchie Mama….the web blocker definitely thinks that’s a no-no.

    I try to check in on some posts during the day on my Blackberry, but, that is kinda hard and difficult to see. I’m heading off to Verizon tomorrow to check out the Droid and the iPhone and will probably switch. Andra was showing me hers Weds night and it was just too cool and the screen is so big compared to my little BB.

    really enjoyed your post and will visit regularly now.

  • Nicola Mann

    November 17, 2021 at 12:30 am

    Thanks for sharing this.

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