One of the gardener's greatest satisfactions, after long periods of angst, is to stand in admiration of a plant or an entire landscape that has finally reached its peak of form and color, delivering in reality what was once only a hopeful vision in the gardener's eye.

For many of us, that image was ripped apart as early-December winds tore through and sent dazzling fall foliage to the ground, leaving us to wait a full year until colors once again attain what we had waited for.

Where deciduous trees are concerned, there's little we can do to improve their character this time of year unless they need broken branches trimmed away.

But devoted gardeners who want to keep alive the feel-good-spirit that comes only from garden satisfaction can turn to other plants. Fall color is temporary anyway, so rather than waiting for results, we can do what we do in other seasons. Wind and weather can't deter us from digging in the dirt that we've prepped to be well-drained and workable year round.

There are plenty of gritty activities that satisfy during winter.

A while back, a friend sent me a clipping about a gardener who changed her life when she moved to a new home and began looking differently at what lay out the door.

This new gardener took a giant leap, embraced the unknown, and soon found herself learning the language of plants and adopting a new wardrobe of baggy clothes and rubber boots. She turned her heart and mind to nurturing seedlings, restyling her yard, and plotting against pests.

In short, she was a new woman.

If you identify with this passion, it never occurs to you that gardening should stop because of winter or a wind storm.

You're almost happy when summer annuals flag at the end of the season. You never mourn drooping perennial stems that come with the first hard frost. You don't consider weather and change of seasons as adversaries; rather, changes wrought by time and temperature merely present us with a canvas that needs some touching up, an opportunity to do more gardening.

Getting down and dirty

Embarking on a trek down the garden path has been all of this and more for me and many of my gardening friends.

Linda's husband asks her if she's been rolling in dirt when she comes in at the end of the day covered with dust and leafy debris.

"Yes, of course!" she tells him. "You know where I've been."

Carol proudly points to open spots where she grubbed out disappointing shrubs and replaced them with metal sculptures and a container. Not far away is a pile of mulch sitting in wait, what remains from the 15 yards delivered last month and soon to be wheelbarrowed to more beds where it will suffocate weeds.

My neighbor Fred says that when I stop by, he'll be in the garden reworking soil in his raised beds, beautiful permanent structures he built with stones gathered from his property, one by one. Or he may be sifting compost or digging out invasive roots that threaten his vegetables.

Never look back

Some of the jobs are tough — and dirty. I've just finished pulling out one of the first deerproof shrubs I ever planted, a prostrate juniper that had spread too far in two directions. It had done its duty, but now that I've found far superior species, this had to go.

It wasn't easy pulling out rooted stems up to 8 feet long and dealing with prickly, needle-like foliage that clung to gloves and clothes, but every minute was satisfying.

Over time, gardening habits change. I am now taking out plants I once coveted, having found others I now prefer. This time of year is perfect for making these changes; the soil holds some residual moisture from November rains and is easy to work.

As I write this, I wish I were out trimming back the sad looking Daphne burkwoodii that has suffered behind an overgrown violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides). The daphne will grow back but it needs some serious grooming.

The rangy vine is wary, for it knows it, too, won't escape my pruners.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.