Saturday, March 22, 2008

I Hoe, I Hoe…. if only it would Grow

I’ve been away from blogging because this is the pre-garden season, the time when I insist on putting seeds in the cold, wet ground and fertilizing their corpses. We’ve had just enough sun down here to sprout my garden hopes, and the cold frame has been busy nurturing seedlings, or at least giving them odd salmon-colored soil mold. I’ve been outside at any flash of sun -- digging, turning the sod into vegetable beds, and planning where everything will eventually go. With an artist’s whimsy, I of course refused anything as easy and efficient as linear rows of the same crop -- I have my “talls” and my “shorts” placed around the circular garden to best show off the artistic (or at least strange) trellises that I’ve put together from the dead fir tree… the place is looking more and more like the set from The Ancient Mariner, or The Chalk Circle. I have hung colorful plastic spiral trinkets on the poles to scare off marauding birds… and watching one tiny hummingbird sitting on the top of the pole for 15 minutes showed me that even the baby birds aren’t scared! (I can see the workers in China, twisting taffy-strips of plastic and putting them in individual plastic wrappings, thinking, “What kind of mental deficient would pay money for melted, twisted plastic??”)

I have moved my compost heap and various logs, rocks and planks multiple times as I find yet another perennial poking through the soil. I love that, but I have deep frustration at not being able to figure out the borders of the old man’s garden beds! The house was vacant for two years, with no one caring for the yard, so the sod reminds me of Kansas prairie, and the perennials have “naturalized” (ie: taken over) parts of the yard far beyond their original turf. And I, with my greenhorn tendency to want to keep any plant alive (“No Seedling Left Behind”), am anguished at the number of baby weeds I have to cut down in the prime of their colonization, and then when I realize it was actually some kind of perennial bulb! -- I’m guilt-ridden and have to go inside and dig into the chocolate seeds, ah, chips. If only I had an old photo or someone around here to point out where to just leave the ground as-is, so that I don’t dig/kill something I might want! I’m amazed at the number of neighbors who say they knew him well for 10-15 years, but can’t tell me where his flowers came up! Sort of like friends of mine saying, “Cathy? a poet? I never knew…”

Anyway, this morning there is another frost, and I haven’t dared go out yet to see how the babies fared… I covered the cold frame with bubblewrap last night, anticipating the lower temps. The night before, I’d forgotten the bubblewrap, but the layer of ice protected them. I think. I realize this is why most folks just buy their garden plants about a foot tall and spade them into the garden on Memorial Day. Saves a lot of anguish. But that way, you’ve paid approximately $150 for about a dozen plants from which you will get two batches of salsa (tomatoes, peppers, onions) and a big bowl of nibbled salad greens.

Whereas I, who raise my plants from seed, pay that same $150 for hundreds of individual seeds with the potential for two acres of plants, which I sow in successive bi-monthly plantings because they keep rotting in the ground or being eaten by birds, and end up with enough for three batches of salsa and possibly enough salad to last one decent party. But during that time, I get all the joys of watching tiny seedlings poke up through the damp soil, unfurl their two cotyledon leaves like twin flags, turn these tiny, tender leaves toward the thin March sun, contract damp-off, and keel over…. at least once a week. They say Nature is a Mother, and they’re not wrong. Meanwhile the weed seeds are sprouting even in places that don’t have apparent soil. They have turned the backyard into Weed Central, rather like a hoard of New Yorkers descending on Paris, (or the reverse, in these Euro-centric times) and anywhere I have turned the soil, there is a sprinkling of cotyledons strewn like a star field on the dark earth. No damp-off there, no sir! I read (in one of the many gardening bibles I’ve bought) that weeds developed tough survival strategies like a million seeds and becoming bitter so animals and birds won’t eat them -- somehow also reminds me of New Yorkers (of which I was one, once) at Coney Island . I barely turn the soil, then my back, and they have raced for a prime spot on the “beach” and are spreading their root “blankets” to make sure their extended family has room to picnic. I don’t have time to hoe them all down (and they know it!) while still trying to get all the beds turned in time for the real garden season, which starts about the date of the last average frost (which here is mid-May, apparently).

As I said, I try to catch any moments of sun… because the usual weather is rain that would worry Noah. There was a teaser week of beautiful blue skies, and then a month of downpour followed by sprinkles followed by downpour. I am deeply grateful to be 40 feet above the river that runs along the other side of my neighbor’s yard. As it is, the clay hardpan under the loam has finally backed up, and large puddles have appeared in my driveway and along the road. Raised beds might be the only option in Spring around here… that, and moss. When the sun peeks out, I race outside and try to weed or plant (ie: drown) a few more seeds. Like a dog thinking it’s going for walkies, I race around eagerly, only to be startled by the rain coming down to look over my shoulder.

And so I am pressed to blog before dawn, so that I can catch any clear day -- like today -- and pretend to impose my will and design on a garden so used to raising itself that I can almost feel the adolescent resentment when I show up with my hoe. “You’re not my gardener!” I can hear it think… but I will forge ahead. Excuse me - there’s the sun!

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