Fall and winter are the dying times. Here in Northern California, everything begins to turn brown and dry from lack of water, crumbling away to the touch and building up tinder for ferocious wildfires. In the garden, the prolonged heat and dryness turn vegetables into ghosts, herbs into brittle sticks, rationed water leaving some with enough to struggle through while other beds are allowed to wilt away into mulch.
It is easy to look outside during these seasons and feel a certain sense of helplessness, with nothing left to do but watch the long slide into oblivion, but this would be a mistake.
While the surface is dying, beneath, there is tremendous potential. Withering brown grass will slowly be supplanted by green in late winter, and so too will the listless dregs of the year’s garden. In this potential, a promise: Hang on, it’s worth it. Spring will come again, if you are patient.
I don’t know if gardening helps me manage my mental health or if my mental health helps me manage my garden. Either way, as the days grow short and my mood grows gloomy, there is in fact a great deal to be done in the seemingly lifeless expanse of the garden and yard.
In many ways, it is the most lively period, for it is one full of possibility, the need to button things up in advance of spring because there will be a spring and when it arrives, you must be prepared. It may not hold the same instant gratification of planting seeds or setting starts, but it is instead the kind of investment in the future that reminds me life is worth living. I will still be here in the spring to take advantage of all the work I did in the fall. Things will grow again.
There is compost to be managed, turning the active pile into the curing one and settling it with ample straw from the chicken yard. The beds need to be cleared out (more fodder for the compost), and for perennials like strawberries, it’s the time to trim the dead away to the lively green core, a hint at things to come, at bright red berries eaten on long summer days. Planters may need to be emptied, their failed contents (damn you, tarragon) tossed in the compost, in preparation for new plantings in spring.
Without the distraction of things growing, it is a good time to organize planters and oil tools and do all the things you kept meaning to do but forgot, in the hurry to harvest perfectly sweet and round English peas or set gopher traps or clip flowers for the house.
It is an excellent time to attack the rogue blackberries once again, taking advantage of the fact that the greenery has died back to clip deeply and viciously, wrangling the tangle of canes into something more neatly resembling a food source. It’s too easy to let them run wild in the spring, too many things to do, loath to clip back branches covered in delicate flowers, unwilling to deprive the tiny birds that dart between the leaves of a place to roost.
After nine months of unchecked growth, they benefit from the touch of shears and the remains can be tossed on the burn pile, which is finally growing tall enough to burn when the weather is wet enough for it to be allowed. It will make for an afternoon of racing flame viewed from a camp chair set up nearby, occasionally pushing branches in and drinking tea out of a thermos as the contained flames consume that which is unwanted.
These rote tasks are necessary and there is something contemplative in them, the process of cleaning and readying and making way. I have a mental health condition that makes me crave order and calm, clarity and organization. To go through my fall and winter garden checklists is to find the evenness my mind craves, to feel a sense that the darkness is survivable, will eventually give way. To have a list of things to do and then do them, ah, what a delight! To accomplish things even in the darkness, even when everything else is moving like sludge. One of the great joys of gardening is that it yields meaningful, definable, visible results, like other tasks that involve working with your hands.
It also brings the sweet potential of planning for spring. Poring over seed catalogues on rainy days and deciding what to grow, mapping out beds and pondering what to place where. Conducting seed exchanges with friends, to try growing the things they grow, sometimes heirlooms or other things not available commercially. I will promise strawberry starts in exchange for strange things with names I cannot pronounce, will take Jerusalem artichokes in exchange for beet seeds.
When it’s raining and blustery out, I can pull out a notebook and doodle out a path to the future, wondering if this is the year I expand the vegetable garden and taking note of which ornamental plants were a bust last year. (Primroses, while lovely, stubbornly fail to thrive in my soil, no matter how coddled they are.)
And fall brings one of my favorite tasks, dividing and planting bulbs, sweet presents to myself to be enjoyed in the future, when their leaves will slowly poke up through the grass of spring, followed by tall stalks and flowers. Inevitably, gophers will move some, depositing a random patch of daffodils in the middle of the lawn, spreading the bearded irises further than intended, but this is the nature of gardening. It is at times random and uncontrollable and you can surrender yourself to it or drive yourself wild.
This, too, is how my garden calms me, reminding me that some things are beyond my reach, and I must lean in to that or perish.
There’s a reason some inpatient programs have gardening programs, and, failing that, activities that involve working with hands and heart, rather than simply mind. Gardening is calming and distracting but it also helps reorder thoughts and ways of processing information; for those of us who sometimes feel trapped in our heads, it is like sinking into a pool of cool water on a hot day, calming the heat of our minds and gently pointing to another way out, one that is not self-destructive or dangerous but instead reassuring in its firm simplicity.
Everyone should have access to a garden, even if only a row of herb boxes in the kitchen or some pots on a fire escape. Growing things, especially things you can eat, is a deeply rewarding and satisfying experience and one that becomes transcendent when your mind sometimes makes war on you.
This, at least, is something you can control, something you can plan around, something that comes with set, understandable rules alongside problems to solve.
Gardening is an alchemy for the mind, a combination of ingredients that grow to be much, much more than the sum of their parts.