Digging the Dark
I love dahlias. I love their wild rainbow hues, their spiky petals, their generous size, their heft, their persistence into late fall. I’m willing to work for them, to earn the joy I get from watching them grow and flourish.
I have seasonal dahlia rituals. In spring, I separate and plant the tubers next to sturdy stakes, ringed by plastic collars topped with strips of copper tape to keep slugs from eating the tender shoots down to nubs. In summer, I tie the stems, heavy with blooms, loosely to the stakes. I cut off dead flowers and bring vibrant ones inside to liven our table. In fall, I dig up the tubers. In winter, I descend into our cool cellar to check them for life and dryness.
I used to leave the tubers in the ground over the winter. The hardiest ones survived, but I lost too many to freezing cold. So I started my cycle of rituals. In November or December, after the first hard frost turns the blooms black and the stems begin to rot, I cut the stems a few inches above the surface with hand pruners. Shoveling about a foot from the stems, I circle the plant, gently prying the roots loose from the dark brown soil until they give way. I carefully lift the cluster of tubers, gleaming, globular, full of promise, and brush off loose soil and worms. Using a hose, I wash more dirt off, taking care to remember which cluster is which. They have elegant names: Deuil du Roi Albert, Glorie von Heemstede, Juanita, Mrs. H. Brown. I place each gleaming cluster into a labeled brown paper bag, tuck them all into a large cardboard box, and cart them down to the cellar to rest.
As I hold the tubers in my gloved hands, I experience them in past, present, and future. I remember their summer and fall beauty and color. I admire the amount of stored energy in each golden handful. I look forward to green leaves bursting aboveground in late spring.
I sometimes put off this damp task, thinking it will be hard. It’s never hard if I’m dressed for it. Winter is like that. Going into darkness, digging into the earth, yields rest and richness if I’m ready. It’s a respite from light, noise, activity, if I let it be, if I let myself rest in the dark, store up energy for spring growth and summer adventures. In our modern world, we can summon light, heat, dryness when we want to, at least those of us privileged to have homes with heat and electricity. It’s easy to forget natural cycles. Our bodies remember.
This winter, let yourself close down, go down into the dark for a while. No one can bloom all the time. Dig the dark. Find your roots. Rest.