Paul J. Hang

Hibernation — not hyper nation: we have plenty of that. Hibernation, like a lot of our words, can have different meanings. The root of the word is from the Latin “hibernus,” which means wintry. The informal use of hibernation, or hibernate, is to become less active.

For example, “I am going to stay at home and hibernate this winter.” The biological meaning, and one we often use, is to spend the winter “in a sleeplike dormant state while living off reserves of body fat, with a decrease in body temperature and pulse rate and slower metabolism, “ as written in th Encarta World English Dictionary.

Some animals hibernate: bats, chipmunks, and groundhogs. Some amphibians hibernate: turtles and frogs, even some insects.

There is controversy about some animals’ ability to hibernate. I’ve read about bears and whether they truly hibernate. My fascination is how animals and plants spend the winter. Every living being will die if the water inside their cells freezes. The ice crystals’ sharp edges will pierce the exterior of the cell lining, killing it instantly.

The result is the living tissue turns to a brown mush. Some animals don’t take any chances and migrate south. (Anyone you know?) Some hibernate, some die off leaving behind a queen with a store of eggs, some go into a state of torpor, a slowing of metabolism, overnight or during a storm, e.g. some birds. Some produce chemicals that serve as anti-freeze. Some of us stick it out and cope with the cold the best we can.

But what about plants? The one thing all individual plants have in common is that they are stuck. They can’t move to another place unless aided by us. We take in houseplants don’t we? Do plants hibernate? If not, how do they survive freezing temperatures? Some die off (annuals) leaving behind seeds to carry on the family name once conditions dictate. Some perennials’ green parts die off and turn to mush, while their roots take cover underground and live off stored food and continue to grow.

Woody plants, including trees, spend the winter naked. Their skeletons are bared to icy winter winds. Their roots like other perennials store food and continue to grow.

The tender buds of woody plants are covered with scales, or sheaths, which provide some protection. The buds, as are animals in their nests, insects in their cocoons, are said to be in their hibernaculum, or the place where they hibernate. Dissolved sugars also serve as anti-freeze lowering the freezing temperature of the moisture in their cells. Many plants also produce glycol which also serves as anti-freeze. Plants do not technically hibernate, not having a pulse. They do go dormant slowing down in a sleeplike state.

Luckily, we can all be awakened from hibernation, dormancy or torpor when the right conditions are present. As for me, assuming we will have more of winter like we used to, I plan to spend more time in my hibernaculum until spring.

Things to do in the garden:

The list of things to do in the garden has gotten shorter. Things we can do about gardening can fill your idle hours, if you have any, are: Review last year’s garden; draw a map while you can still remember what grew where.

Check your supply of old seeds. Are they expired? Do you want to reorder that variety? Read your new seed catalogs and begin to plan next year’s garden. It’s not nearly as much work. Order seeds and plants of new varieties that you want now. They usually sell out quickly.

Believe it or not, by the end of the month, you can begin to grow members of the Allium family (onions, leeks, garlic and shallots) from seed indoors. You can get ready by getting your seed starting supplies together. Make sure you provide plenty of light.

Cut back on watering your houseplants and don’t fertilize until March or April when growth begins as the amount of light lengthens. When your poinsettias are looking ragged throw them on the compost heap. The same goes for paper whites. In my opinion, it is not worth trying to get them to bloom again for the next holidays.

If you like a challenge go ahead but be prepared for disappointment. Amaryllis and Christmas cactus are exceptions and can be kept for re-blooming. Check the internet for instructions.

Plan your gardens and plantings. One of my favorite guides for this is “The Ohio Gardening Guide” by Jerry Minnich. Need some more seed catalogs? Go to

Establish a new bed by placing black plastic or several layers of newspaper, cardboard or even old carpet down over the area you’ve chosen for the new bed. Weight it down so the wind doesn’t disturb it. By late spring, the vegetation under it should be dead and the space ready for planting.

Learn to sharpen your tools, trowels, pruners, spades and if you are adventurous, your mower blades. Oil them and use linseed oil on the wooden handles. It’s always a good idea to consult the experts. Go online and google it.

Getting rid of a live Christmas tree? Don’t. Use it to serve as a wind break for evergreens, cut the branches off and use them as mulch for perennials, put them near your bird feeders as cover, decorate them with suet, fruit, seed cakes, as a bird feeder, Chip them eventually for mulch. The needles can also be mulch and will not make the soil too acidic. If you had a balled live Christmas tree, plant it ASAP.

This article was written by Paul J. Hang to be published in The Circleville Herald. Hang is an OSU Extension Master Gardener. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.

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