The Peony/Farm/er in Winter

Question: What does a peony plant look like in winter?

My favorite measuring tool.

In winter, it’s said that peonies “die back” to the ground. I guess that’s sort of accurate, if a very people-centric way to say it, since the top half of the plant does die entirely. Below the ground, though, a peony root is the exact opposite of dead. 
If, in spring, we were to dig up some of the bare root peonies that we planted in the fall, we’d find that they’re covered in white, hairlike feeder roots that they’ve been industriously growing all winter. If we dig up a plant that’s been in the ground two years, we’d better have a strong back to haul out all the root mass that’s been accumulating under there.

Peonies are creatures of cold climates. Like your friend from Colorado who can never shut up about the heat and humidity here, they sulk and struggle in our summers. But when winter comes, they’re in their element and can do some of their best growing. It looks like nothing from where we stand, but it’s vital to their life cycle.

So saying that peonies die back to the ground each winter is about like saying that I die back to my bedroom each night. I like that. I think I will say that from now on. Good night, it’s time for me to die back now.

Question: What does a peony farm look like in winter?

In the fall, maybe mid to late October, things stop growing like mad and give me a break. Weeds slow down, winter cover crops take over and assure me they’ve got this until spring, we put the mower away. Now there’s time to plant new roots, complete projects that have sat waiting, and clean up. Soon even those activities run out, and I have time to reflect on how the previous growing year went, and plan how the coming year will go. 

The farm in winter is quiet, but alive. The vibrant green of my cereal rye cover crop draws a family of geese that lives in and around the pond to come waddling and nibbling across the field every day. A walk through the planting plots sends kildeer screaming away into cold gray skies. A red-shouldered hawk sits atop one of my T-posts and uses her laser vision to pick mice from the ground. I stand at the window inside the house and watch a herd of deer that uses my field as a highway, thanking my lucky stars for the quirk of nature that makes peony plants disgusting to them. A pair of red foxes jumps and plays and hunts among the rows on frosty mornings. 

Snow has come once, the one big snow that’s all we can hope for in a year’s time. The growers in Alaska show photos of their peony fields blanketed in snow, assuring us that the snow is good, the snow is necessary for the peonies’ well-being. Don’t tell my field, is all I can say to that. I do know that enough hours of cold are important for peony roots, which is why my roots are planted so shallowly. That’s given me a reason to be happy all winter no matter what the temperature. If it’s warm, I am glad for my heat-loving bones. If it’s cold, I’m glad the peonies are getting what they need. Someone wins, no matter the weather. 

And the peonies sleep. 

Question: What does a peony farmer look like in winter?

Dormant farmer. Do I have my laptop open? Am I trying to convince you that I’m working? No. 

I am a recovering workaholic, which sounds like a humblebrag in our productivity--obsessed society, but I promise you it isn’t. To me a workaholic is someone who gains their sense of worth from how much they get done. That was one thing when I was younger, and thought the endless hustle would actually get me somewhere I wanted to go. Thing was, I didn’t know exactly where that was, figuring I’d know it when I saw it. As I neared the magical age of 40, I began to realize that I was never going to reach the end of my to-do list, and if I was, in fact, going anywhere, I was already there.

I needed to reshape my thinking, to gain the ability to get my worth from something less ridiculously unattainable. If this sounds familiar at all, let me suggest a couple of books that have been helpful.

Laziness Does Not Exist-Devon Price

How to do Nothing-Jenny Odell

Both books made me think about who benefits from hustle culture, and whether I want to sacrifice the limited time I have in my life trying to meet their goals. Both books helped me reshape the meaning of leisure time as a vital part of a life that includes productivity, but isn’t eaten alive by it. 

This winter I’m embracing winter things instead of fighting them and wishing it were growing season again. I’m reading deeply, making a quilt, doing long division by the fire with my children. I have other hats, and my farmer hat will wait until spring calls for it again. 

As always, the farm has something to quietly teach me if I’ll just hold still a moment and listen. Endless growth and endless work aren’t good for anybody. Resting isn’t slacking. Resting is active. Even sleep, the peonies tell me, is intensely busy. Come spring, everything here will be more beautiful for having taken a long break, but that isn’t the point. The rest itself, like the farm in winter, is beautiful. 

So what do a peony plant, peony farm, and peony farm look like in winter? Actively, resting. 
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