Early March is a part of my zone 6A garden season that involves venturing into the backyard for the first time since the autumn clean up. I am caught half-way between the hope that something green has poked its way up through the duff, and the hope that young plants won’t be fooled by the unseasonable warmth. “Wait a little longer” I whisper to the swelling buds on the Red Bud tree. The air does not smell of earthworms: spring is not yet here.
I notice things that make me smile. Teeny grape hyacinths have sent their shoots through a two-inch mulch of acorn hulls, left by the squirrels that live in the oak tree above. I brush aside mountains of shells. No wonder my squirrels are so fat and sassy.
Welp, I think… I need to document what’s growing in the garden. Grimacing and hissing (and hoping that my readers appreciate the sacrifice) I sit myself down upon piles of prickly gum balls to catch this image of the snow drops blossoming reliably through the awful seed pods.
The hellebore is also arching free of the dry brown detritus left over from last autumn’s “clean up” carried out by the desultory efforts of my bored teenaged son. Writing that last sentence makes me chuckle. If I’d cared that the yard be raked up “properly” I’d have raked it up myself. The duff, the piles of gum balls, and the layers of acorns make my suburban winter backyard the lunch line for juncos, blue jays, chickadees, and tit mice. Disapproving neighbors be damned, my yard feeds the local wildlife.
Meanwhile, the youngest Johnson woman has been exercising her green thumb. Nothing gets her out of her PJs, teeth brushed and sneakers tied on, faster than mentioning that I’m going to the light box to check the seedlings.
She notices that two rows of seedlings have not emerged, despite the fact that their neighbors are thriving. The cayenne pepper variety has germinated poorly for some unknown reason. We start a new batch in damp paper-towels; and I explain how we will pot up only the seeds that successfully sprout. She is at an age of all eyes, all ears, all questions, and eager hands. I am blessed.
20 days or so have passed since she and I planted out the lupine seeds. Soaking them for 24 hours sped the germination significantly; but she grew impatient, and then despondent as the two little leaves sticking up out of the peat didn’t “do” anything more for the next two weeks.
Still, she watered the seedlings carefully with the turkey baster. When true leaves appear her despondency transforms once again to enthusiasm.
She digs through the recycling bin looking for an old mayo jar to hold a batch of stinky fish emulsion fertilizer. She is not… a quiet child: “How come true leaves need fertilizers but the first leaves don’t?” “How come plants grow downward before they start to grow upward?” “How come this one died?” How come… How come… How come…
Gardening with a nine-year old is not exactly… restful.
I answer her questions as fully as I can, as often as they come, whether she is listening or not, whether she understands me or not.
We aren’t people of means. I am passing to my children education and the know-how to create their own food security. This is the only real capital in my possession. I need them to know:
- How to keep faith and hope alive by poking in the detritus of the sleeping garden.
- How to search among the weeds for new life curling its way toward the sun.
- How to cherish and nurture the delicate.
- How to wait, and observe. And then wait some more.
- How to try and fail.
- How to problem-solve.
- How to start over.
This is garden capital, equally suited to the growing of chard and the growing of character. It is the same basic garden capital passed to me by my mother, to whom it was passed by her mother and backwards into our history. I think that all gardeners are practicing, preserving, and passing on this most ancient of human inheritances, more than 10,000 years in the making.