November 9th is a hard day. The anniversary of my mom’s sudden death two years ago brings renewed heartache with it, and it is just… hard. No words are ever going to be strong enough, so I’m going to stop ransacking my brain to find the right synonym. It’s just hard.
And it seems so appropriate that this dreaded anniversary is in the dying season, when the earth is turning cold and preparing for its frozen sleep. My whole garden, after a summer bursting in reds and greens and yellows and pinks, is in the process of turning every shade of brown. It’s the season for beautiful trees and flannel shirts and pumpkin everything. It’s also the season when the colors fade, stems droop, leaves fall, and a hush settles where once there was life. The dying season.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot.”Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
It’s no secret that I love my garden, and I talk about my flowers the way my friends talk about their dogs and babies. And anyone who knows me and knew anything about my mom (an incredible gardener. See photos below) can quickly connect the dots: I have been working out my grief as I dig, plant, and tend to my little plot of dirt.
The following is what God showed me as I prepared my garden for winter. It was never an audible voice, but He was very, very clear with me, in a tone that balanced authority and tenderness, “It is time you listen to me, you stubborn girl that I happen to love so much.”
Here in Indiana, you have to cut most perennials almost to the ground around the time of the first hard frost. The green that lived above the ground cannot survive the winter. As I took my shears around my garden and cut away the stems and leaves of the lilies, phlox, daisies, black-eyed susans, peonies, cone flowers, and so many others, it felt so wrong. I was so thrilled when these plants first poked through the ground in the spring. And now I’m MURDERING them (ok, for those of you who don’t know, I’m also super dramatic.).
And God said to me, “They cannot survive outside in the harsh winter. But their roots are sleeping in the warm ground, safe from the ice and cold winds. And when it is time, they will wake and grow again, bigger, stronger, and with more blooms than last year. That is what I have done with you. It may feel like I have cut away your joy, a joy that was so obvious for everyone to see. But I have kept you rooted in the safety and warmth of my presence. When we get through this, your joy will grow again and be more beautiful than before.”
So I mounded mulch up around what was left of these forlorn perennials and told them to have a good sleep and that I would see them in the spring.
In the fall, it’s time to rip out your annuals. These are the flowers you plant in the warmth, that are never intended to stick around for the cold. They aren’t made for surviving a winter.
But sometimes it hurts. Pulling out my sunflowers felt like a betrayal. “Hey, you planted me! Why are you killing me? What did I ever do to you other than bring you joy?” When I put my begonias and petunias in the trash, it was like they were screaming, “HEY! Why are you abandoning me?”
And God said to me, “As the gardener, you know that this was their season, and now it is done. It is time to uproot and make room for what you will plant next year. Just as the flowers do not have any way to understand what you are doing, so you do not have any way of understanding what I am doing. Trust me. I am clearing out old things that are weighing you down or wearing you out. Stop clinging to them. They are dead. At the right time, I will fill those spaces with something new.”
So I uprooted all that couldn’t survive the winter, thanked them for bringing so much color to my life for the last few seasons, and got on with the rest of my work.
Shrubs and Bushes
I have lilacs and hydrangeas (the type that bloom on old wood) as the tallest layer and backdrop of my garden. Unlike the perennials, which grow completely new plants out of the roots in the spring, these shrubs and bushes go dormant for the winter. The very same plant comes back to life in the spring. It may have a few new branches and some added height, but it is not a completely new plant.
It’s incredibly important that you do not trim these plants before winter. Attempting to prune lilacs and my type of hydrangeas in the fall will likely result in no blooms the following year. You know why? They have already set many of their buds, which will survive despite freezing over the winter.
I had a ton of hydrangea blooms last spring, but I had ZERO lilac flowers on the bushes in my garden. This didn’t have anything to do with cutting them back at the wrong time. The lilacs in my garden were planted a year and a half ago, when I moved in (unlike the giant ones in my hedge, which are decades old). It takes a while to establish themselves and start producing buds. So, since moving into my house, there have been no lilacs on these baby bushes.
And guess what I noticed as I prepped my garden for winter recently. Lilac buds. The very first buds for this bush.
And God said to me, “I know you feel like these sad shrubs that are turning brown. I know you feel like you have been living in the cold, blown around by icy wind, weighed down by heavy snow. But you are tough enough to survive. I have made you that way. I don’t need to cut you all the way to the ground to make sure you get through this winter. You will stand tall through it, with buds of hope already in place. And when the earth warms and the ice melts, you’ll grow taller and stronger, and those buds that are ALREADY THERE will bloom and be full of life and spread their fragrance all around.”
So I took lots of pictures of these little lilac buds, cried about how excited mom would be if she saw them, and decided these shrubs were the perfect place to put some extra Christmas lights in a few weeks.
Fall is also a great time to plant perennials, transplant perennials from one place to another, or split overgrown perennials into multiple plants. After my new flower beds were built (thanks again to Decorative Edge Curbing out of Anderson!) I did a ton of planting. A friend of mine said, “You can plant this late?? I thought you were supposed to plant flowers in the spring.”
Fall is actually a fantastic time to plant (except for annuals). It gives plants time to settle in and grow some roots before winter, without having to withstand a brutal summer that could fry them. This fall I have planted more lilies, coreopsis, English roses, yarrow, catmint, sedum, an assortment of perennials that were on clearance, a million transplants from my dad’s (really mom’s) garden, some more transplants from my friend Londa’s garden, and a baby dogwood tree that will someday grow to about 20 feet. Honestly, I went a little crazy.
And a few weeks ago, I planted 100 bulbs. 50 daffodils, and 50 tulips. That’s on top of the 50ish that I planted last year. I LOVE SPRING FLOWERS. Beacons of hope. Signs that warmth is coming. A reminder of resurrection and joy and new life.
And God said to me, “The cold is coming, and I’m so glad you have tucked these little ugly bulbs into the warm ground. All winter you will know they are there. Hold onto that. I will cover them with a blanket of snow, and I will watch over them as they sleep. There is absolutely nothing you can do for them. It is all up to me. And when they wake up, I want you to remember that I do this for you, over and over again. I cover you with my love. I watch over you even when you do not know it. And I bring you back to life after a dark and cold season. So tuck yourself into me, and all winter you will know exactly where you are: with me as we wait for the spring.
So I cried as I thought of myself as each one of those bulbs, and I hid them in the earth to be protected by God through the coming harsh season.
Mom, I miss you. The overwhelming pain is gradually subsiding, and we are starting to breathe again. And then the guilt comes. My heart cries out, “I don’t want to feel better! The depth of my sadness proves the depth of my love for Mom! I still love Mom, so I can’t be less sad!” (yep, Enneagram 4 over here). And I have to talk myself off that ledge, reminding myself over and over again that you would want us to be happy and would be thrilled that the clouds are lifting even just a little bit.
But today I am sad. Today is hard. It has been two full years (plus 4 days) since I last spoke with you face-to-face. It has been two full years (plus 1 day) since I heard your voice on the phone. It has been two full years since that awful moment, kneeling on the ground beside you, pulling back the white sheet to see you one more time even though it wasn’t really you anymore. It’s been two full years.
Two full years of the dying season. Of fall turned into winter. But even as the real world is getting colder, mine is ever-so-slowly warming. God’s work done in the dying season – uprooting, cutting back, planting, and tucking me into His presence – has given me the strength to survive the winter. And at least for me, I can feel spring approaching, even though today is hard.