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.
In the garden, as in life, endings and beginnings are easily confused, one for the other.
I thought it was spam, and then a scam… A Nigerian prince offering riches beyond my wildest dreams. For a price. The e-mail read: “Dear shopper: You have received this notification from Prairie Moon Nursery because you received a gift certificate from Admirer for $400.00. Message: ‘A blog admirer is sending you a gift certificate to thank you!’”
It’s a cold, grey February in southern Illinois and my garden is an ugly expanse of soggy forlorn. Waiting chores and half-assed un/finished landscaping projects clutter my vision as I stand at the patio window, fists on hips, and consider the coming spring. The gap between what I want my garden to be and the truth of what my garden can be and will be in the coming year lies naked before me; and no matter how hard I squint, I’m having a difficult time blurring the lines between what I wish I had to work with — time, energy, cash, physical strength — and real-politik. I thank God for what I do have, and for what I can do. But if I’m honest, I’m thanking Him from between clenched teeth.
Significant fiscal disasters over the last three months have devoured the garden budget. The front garden bed, bulldozer-decimated, will have to wait another year at least to be re-landscaped. The cost of repairing the broken water main and paying for the lost water devoured the means with which to buy new plants. I know what I’ve got to do. What I can afford to do. I’ll add compost to the clay, mulch the bed, and wait to satisfy my creative gardening impulse until the family has recovered it’s economic equilibrium. I thumb catalogs — that cherished gardener’s January preoccupation — with uncharacteristic disenchantment. “Not this year,” I say to myself. “Not this year. Not this year.”
Real-life will interrupt the vegetable garden this year as well. The old car died; a new car-loan sits pretty, blue, and blessedly reliable in the driveway. The plan to add the final raised beds to the vegetable garden will have to wait another year. Ah well. I gardened successfully enough around poorly drained compacted soil last year. I can do it again this year, if I think creatively enough. The Bard tells us that the course of true love never did run smooth. Gardening is a true love. The bumps and grooves of each successive season can’t be avoided.
For example, I haven’t a shred of doubt that the insanely cold weather this winter has killed my fig trees dead as door nails.
But… I watch the dog putter about the yard, and my eyes come to rest on the two plum trees, each now three years old. Are they mature enough to bloom? Yes, I think, remembering the single bloom on last year’s tree. Yes. I nod in satisfaction, shiver, and call the dog inside.
For example, by autumn last year, my pumpkin patch was a nightmare of squash beetles. Some of those mafia goons were the size of my big toe. I had resigned myself to avoid planting anything in the cucurbit family for at least one year… But then, miracle of obnoxious miracles… the temperature dropped, snow fell, the ground froze and stayed that way for a whole month or more. My kids are begging for a watermelon patch… I’m thinking maybe, just maybe. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the way watermelon vines snake across compacted soil, and the way those broad green leaves shade out weeds. I think of delicate yellow flowers stuffed with herbed-ricotta then flash fried in a hot skillet. Something in my mouth prickles. I stroke my chin speculatively. Heirloom melons, chock-full of seeds. Children giggling as they spit them at each other across a picnic blanket. “Hey you two, cut it out,” I murmur aloud, practicing an irk that is nothing more than pretense. My lips part as I consider kissing the juice from my husband’s beard.
Fewer canning tomatoes this year, and more slicing tomatoes. Skip the turnips, go back to the rainbow chard and expand the beet bed. I’ll have room for garlic if I leave out the leeks. The salsa I made last year was namby-pamby: find a hot pepper with some real bite! Pull out the ancient, decrepit raspberry bushes. Replace them with something that grows easily from inexpensive seed: Tithonia for the butterflies and birds, perhaps… and a long row of sunflowers along the fence where the neighbor’s weed-whacker has whacked the raspberries into ill-health. Fertilize those irises! Their second-year showing was poor because of the rain, but also because they’ve flourished in that bed for ten years.
Ideas spin, thoughts swirl. Before my eyes, the ugly dun of the February garden peels back and I can almost see Spring Beauties unfurling beneath the bare elderberry branches. The signature sweet fragrances of hyacinth and lilac fill my brain case. I curl these painted toe nails down into sun-warmed soil.
I stare from the the patio windows, starry-eyed with possibility, and shiver with impassioned impatience for spring.
Right around this time of year, landscaping and yard service companies start cruising my neighborhood. They come in search of easy prey: nice middle-class homeowners eager to keep a tidy yard, and concerned about the danger large trees supposedly pose to telephone and electrical wires, the roof, or the neighbor’s five-figure fully winterized RV. They’ll leave flyers in your mailbox or dangling on the doorknob. In my case, they come on up to the stoop and ring the doorbell, having greedily eyeballed the monstrous pin-oak that towers over my house, the phone lines, and the neighbors’ houses on two sides.
“If we top your tree before leaf-fall,” encouraged one sly salesman, smiling his honey-sweet money-shredder smile: “you won’t have any raking to do. We’re insured.”
Get thee behind me Satan, indeed.
1) Cole crops with… wait for it… white flies?
2) Cabbage and broccoli are far tastier to rabbits in the fall than in the spring. I want my hasenpfeffer!
3) If you’re going to grow 14 broccoli plants and 14 cauliflower plants in the fall garden, when you typically only grow 4 of each in the spring garden, you have to have 28 wire cages, instead of 8, if you want to have 28 plants by harvest time. #mathavoidance
4) Cabbage whites in September. Who knew?
5) You can’t harvest sunflowers with pruning shears. Buy a machete, fool.
6) This year’s flock of chicken’s favorite mode of locomotion = flight. #nospinach4me
7) Dear chickens: if you decide to roost in the trees at night one more time, I’m LEAVING you there for the owls. I’m too old to climb a ladder in the dark. Chumps.
8) Guess what? Cole crops like cool weather. #Ireaditinabook
9) You still hafta water. #flaccidturnips.
10) Mosquitoes. ‘Nuff said.
There’s nothing quite like coming home from a long, hard day’s work to find a tag on your doorknob from the water department telling you that the water main has ruptured… on *your* side of the meter.