When I moved to Connecticut almost 12 years ago, I came from Crested Butte, Colorado, a western slope former mining town turned fancy with a ski area. It was at 8800 feet in elevation. I had a garden, but in it I grew mostly grass. And I didn’t even mind so much, because it was green. I did manage some carrots, peas
and some herbs most years, but that was the sum total that my high altitude green thumb could manage. I tried for 10 years to get a serviceable tomato, but nary a cherry could I produce in that elevated locale.
Then I moved to Connecticut, and the sheer amount of vegetation astonished me. In fact, by mid summer I was entirely overwhelmed. I had to cut the grass ALL the time. And weeding? Forget it! I couldn’t stop things from growing, and that first year my cherry tomato vines grew to be over 11 feet long. I chuckle to remember how delighted I was with my first garden and the 12 or so varieties of vegetable I planted. Now I have over 12 varieties of tomatoes alone.
Springtime in Connecticut is both a magical and alarming time for me. The new life clawing up out of the ground and unfolding everywhere happens so fast and forceful that it is almost frightening. Each year in the early spring I wait expectantly for the growth to start. It begins with the greening of the grass, and gently blooms into a haze of green on the tips of the trees. Then I feel as if I’m rushing to catch and appreciate every last brilliant daffodil before the outrageous yellow of the forsythia emerges, but it all too soon blends in with the pinks and whites of the dogwoods and magnolia which give way to the purples and violets of the heavenly scented lilacs. Before I know it spring turns to summer and the business of hacking back the vegetation that grows uncontrollably everywhere, blocking my view of the oncoming cars at the end of the drive, threatening to overwhelm my perennials. And then the nasty posion ivy, the multiflora, the nettles.
There is usually a period of ease between these times, a period of calm wherein there is just enough vegetation to feel the world is a gentle place but not enough to feel as if things are out of control. For me, that time is now. Onions are beginning to poke out of the moist rich soil, and the first blossoms begin to open on the tomatoes. The last frost was last night, and tomorrow I relocate my delicate seedlings into their permanent homes. The lawn looks green, healthy and not too long. I have to remember to take a deep breath and savor every moment before the deluge of verdancy I know will be coming. Everything is a mixed blessing in this delicate balance we call life.
If you live in the North East, it’s that time of year to begin planning out your garden. Unless, like me, you have been planning since December. That is when the John Scheeper’s and Burpee’s catalogues start to arrive in the post. This is not to say that I have a plan. I don’t It’s just a plan in process. The plan won’t actually be finished until about November, when I pull everything up. Then I get a month of respite before I start my seeds for next year.
How you plan your garden says volumes about who you are as a person. Here is an example. I started 12 kinds of peppers in my bathtub this January. I carefully marked each container so I could tell the difference between the Aji Jamaica and the Aji Major after they came up. I watered them and kept the lights on them religiously, never really noticing that my painstakingly crafted markers were disintegrating in the constant moisture. Truthfully, I kind of knew what was happening, but forgot to do anything about it as soon as I left the bathroom. Some might say that that’s just lazy, and they’d be partly right, but the fact is I secretly don’t care that I can’t identify them anymore. Now it’s a big mystery what might evolve from my luscious leafy pepper bushes, and I’m delighted to watch it unfold as the peppers bloom and grow. That’s just who I am. I try to be orderly, but the mystery and randomness of life pleases me too much to try very hard. I would tell you that a garden is a microcosm of the larger world, and in that I’d be right. I would tell you that the mystery and randomness one finds while gardening is how the world operates, but as it turns out, that’s just true for me.
Here is how I know. Some years ago I helped some very wonderful people to start their vegetable garden. They had bought a house with an existing garden that still held the remnants of summer, and they were inspired to plant again the following year. The challenge was that the garden was hideously overgrown and they had never gardened vegetables before. It was an interesting exercise for me in more ways than one. I took it on as a personal challenge and began to plan…my way. What I found over time was that my way was not necessarily their way, and in the end I admiringly backed out of having much of a hand in their garden. My way leaves much to the whims of nature and admits that nothing is truly within my control. For them, it was just a bit unstructured and random. They wanted a more orderly and precise garden. Well planned, I should say. They chose vegetable types and locations in advance of whimsy and availability. They chose to plant in marked rows that had been laid out in advance. It was all slightly shocking to me. In the end I admit that I learned quite a bit from their gardening practices, and continue to consider myself divinely fortunate to know them.
Some people crave order. Some people thrive on chaos. I may be little of both. I tell myself it is the sign of a flexible mind. Which kind are you?
Even when it seems like spring will never come, there is hope outside if you know where to look. I love fresh flowers, and the long winter has deprived me of this bit of color in the house. The forsythias are always the first sign that spring is truly on it’s way. On a day when the wind howls, I can look at my sprigs of forsythia and know that there is no stopping the seasons, even if it feels like the warmth will never come. I pick them right at the end of February, and with a hammer slightly crush the stems. In about a week they will be in full bloom, earlier than the ones outside. Another one of my favorite indicators that sun and warmth are on the way is the tiny shoots of garlic that are pushing up from the half frozen ground in my garden. In another week the soil should be warm enough for planting peas and parsnips. I’ve started the lettuce inside this year, and my many hot peppers, started in January, are inches high and looking great. I also started some basil indoors, which is so easy to grow in a warm window, and that has provided us with a nice bit of fresh flavor for some of the earthier cold weather dishes of the early spring. This time of year is filled with expectation and planning for gardeners in the North East, and is a wonderful time to rejoice and appreciate that there truly is no stopping nature.
One week later…