Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The best day of the year

I count it a measure of my inexperience as a gardener that I still love planting day the best. Hours go into my garden plans as I scope out which plants like which others, how to lay out paths, what did well last year and what I would like to try this time. The fickle Vermont climate here in Zone 4 adds unpredictability, an insouciant invitation to try peppers and okra on the chance that this may be their year.

The Deep South, where I grew up, is so different in its seasonal sighs. There, flowering trees bloom every year in colors that are startling only in contrast to the gray, rainy winter. But here in Vermont, trees are blooming this year that last year did not. Old news to the locals that sometimes the blossoms freeze before spring, but this chilly truth requires an adjustment on my part. The higher peaks and lower lows of Vermont seasons also demand the observer’s keen attention, particularly if the observer wants to garden.

In the South, the long growing season allows for a more gradual slide from winter into spring, spring into summer, although most people still put in the largest part of their gardens all at once. The tradition is that you plant your peas on St. Patrick’s day, not that they are likely to do much before the heat of the summer comes. You plant most of your garden on Good Friday. In Vermont, our last reliable frost free date is Memorial Day, and there has been frost documented well into June. With this weekend’s perfect weather for planting, there must have been millions (billions?) of seeds nestled into plots and fields, covered over by a warm blanket of earth and gently nourished by last night’s soaking rain. Perfection!

We must be grateful for planting days like the last three. Now the race is on! Soon it will be the Fourth of July, sometimes barely warm in Southern terms, then August’s second cut of hay. And after the second cut, we feel the chill at our backs as we hurry to prepare for another winter. A critical skill for Vermont gardening is to read the back of the seed packet: days to harvest mean the difference between getting a crop and not.

I do love the planning stages. I love dreaming over my graph paper and my books, imagining the soft sweep of fennel behind a bed of tall marigolds. I love walking around my yard and pondering seriously the consequences of where I plant rhubarb, horseradish, and lovage. I will never plant Jerusalem artichokes again, and I am astonished that anyone would plant morning glories.

Sometimes I struggle because I so badly want to put seeds into the ground. At one level I am falling back into the seasonal patterns of my youth—surely it must be time! But I know that it is best to proceed systematically, laying in the paths, planning crop rotation and labeling as I go. Still I yearn to dream over the little seeds, to put them to bed as I conjure visions of tall, perfect specimens untangled by weeds.

Then one day it is time. This is it. There is soft sunshine in the morning and almost no breeze, but thundershowers are forecast for the afternoon. The garden is tilled, and the paths are laid out, if not quite properly clothed in newspaper and straw. A week of daily gentle showers has left the ground dry enough to work but moist enough to show a darker shadow of where the rake has been. It’s time to plant!

About two thirds of my garden is in. I am trying corn this year. There is a whole row of beans of different types, alternating colors so I can easily tell which is which for the freezer. I had no squash last year or the year before, so this time the whole bottom row, which tends to be wet, is a trial of three years worth of accumulated squash seed. There are beets and carrots and radishes. The vegetable garden gets the messy annual herbs, like coriander and borage and summer savory. And for serendipity, there are two kinds of melons. Maybe this will be their year.

I made some mistakes. According to my notes, sunflowers do not like pole beans and vice versa, but there is a long row of sunflowers behind the corn and the pole beans. We’ll see. Onion sets still need to go in, and maybe some seed potatoes for a new experiment. A big crop of garlic. And a variety of greens, which last longer for us than for Southern gardeners.

And the herb garden still waits. Seven of the eight wedge-shaped beds in the circle have been dug and prepped, and the planting plan which looked good on paper is evolving nicely. Having banished the weedy herbs to the vegetable plot, I am considering a veritable avenue of lettuces for this new garden just outside the back door.

There comes a day when the planning and the preparation aren’t done, but it is time to plant. So we respond to the day, we fling ourselves into the task. At the end of the day, we see that we have accomplished not only a good day’s work but also a turn of the season. And we turn our faces toward the joy of whatever comes next.


Robert said...

Ah, jealousy rears its head! I've yet to till (in fact, haven't even mowed yet). Sob!

Jean said...

Hello Karen, I've enjoyed your recent posts a lot and missed you while you were silent. I've passed you the latest book meme, over on my blog. I thought of you because you write so beautifully and fluently but haven't, I think, written much or anything about what you read and I'd love to know what your influences are... if you feel so inclined - these things are meant to be fun, not a chore.