In the Northern hemisphere, winter is nature's time for slowness and rest. Farms and gardens sink into a period of dormancy, inactive but protected from the harsh elements.
Many plants have natural cycles of growth and rest that match the climate of their region. For some species, the cold is as necessary as the sun. For example, aptly named winter wheat won't flower in the spring unless it is exposed to winter cold. An uncharacteristically balmy winter can lead to shorter tulips and hyacinths with smaller blooms.
People often fight against this annual slowdown. There is a social pressure to remain productive, to go go go — even on the coldest, darkest, shortest days of the year. In fact, humans are such busybodies that some scientists are even using genetic engineering to apply this human need for constant production to plants by reducing dormancy in rice and barley crops.
Before we impose such ceaseless high-performance onto common food crops, perhaps we should consider the benefits of moving with the seasons. Maybe slowness has its own gifts. Maybe the sloth is no less miraculous than the cheetah.
Seeds are truly amazing things, bundling critical information and nutrients in a deceptively modest package. Seeds are miraculously resourceful, with the ability to lie dormant in soil only to sprout years later (as anyone who has tried to stay ahead of the weeds in their garden is painfully aware). This talent for biding their time helps to improve species' resilience, allowing seeds to pass through periods of unfavorable conditions and still produce a new generation.
Not only do seeds persist despite winter's cold, some thrive because of it. Many seeds rely on the freeze-thaw cycle to crack their hard shell so it can sprout come spring. Some seeds fail to germinate at all if they don't experience the cold they need. Because of nature's inherent interconnection, there's more at stake than beautiful blooms. Failure to germinate could impact soil nutrients, pollinators, invertebrates and the larger organisms that depend on them (including us!).
Make like a fruit tree and chill
Fruit and nut trees need periods of cold weather to produce fruit the following year. For example, apple varieties require cold exposure and won't produce blossoms or apples without it. The stress of insufficient cold exposure is so acute that, over time, it can actually kill an apple tree.
Apple trees begin their transition from growth to dormancy after the summer solstice. Bud dormancy begins with the shortened days of late summer and fall. The tree produces hormones that prevent growth during the winter, keeping tender buds safe from freezing temperatures.
When winter arrives in earnest, the time spent in the cold (known as "chill hours") causes those growth-inhibiting hormones to break down, allowing the tree to come out of dormancy when the conditions are right. Winter's cold also protects fruit trees by limiting the reproduction of pests such as insects and disease.
Winter on (and under) the ground
Winter temperatures also spark changes below the soil line. The billions of soil-dwelling microorganisms that live there break down organic matter and recycle nutrients, acting as the foundation of our food system and, during winter, their frenetic pace slows down.
Herbaceous plants die back to the ground, where their leaves and stalks protect bare soil and add organic matter. The leaves that fell to the ground in October decay, and the bold colors of fall are replaced by the lace-like webbing of winter. Its beauty is quieter, but just as profound.
The root system of long-living perennials have their own tricks to make the most of the cold. Some plants reach deeper into the ground, establishing tap roots that pull nutrients up and create pathways for air and water. Surface roots might expel moisture, making them less vulnerable to the expansion and contraction of freezing cycles. Or, plants can concentrate sugars and salts in their roots, creating a natural antifreeze.
While we march towards the coldest and shortest days of the year, it might be impractical for us humans to limit our activity or commit to a strategic period of dormancy. However, there is a standing invitation to amend our activities, reflecting what we see around us. To let the darkness stand, uninterrupted by phones, tablets and blue light. To sleep fully and deeply, even if we measure our rest in hours rather than months. To match our ambitions to the climate we inhabit instead of constructing ways to defy it.
Winter is the time to use energy strategically, so that we can go deeper, endure longer and appreciate the ingenuity of nature's many speeds.