Willpower

March 23, 2010

It’s early yet to be eyeing the raised beds so greedily. Yes, the garlic planted in late October has pushed up its green tips. Yes, the hardy perennials of the chive, Egyptian onion, sage, and mint persuasions are showing themselves. Slowly, slowly what’s been going on for weeks beneath the soil and deep in the old woody plants has reached the surface, tilting us to spring. Any other year, I’d be in the barn hauling out the cold frames my husband made from boards and old windows and once again try to outsmart Mother Nature by gaining a few weeks on the growing season.

Spring is revving up its engines. Geese are streaming by in noisy ribbons; redwing blackbirds are trilling up a storm at the edges of the pond. Our neighbor has been busy at his sap buckets, the neighborhood bobcat has eased across the near field in full view, the birdfeeders are reaching the end of their season. Even the bushes in the copses wear that first haze of color, like boys with whisperings of almost-whiskers.

What’s more, and more to the point, the farm and garden stores are jammed with seeds and more seed-seekers than I’ve ever seen. I should know–I’ve already been to town four times, prowling the gardening aisles, filling my hands with colorful packets. And I’ve sent away for the specialty varieties, the ones people don’t think I can grow around here but are indispensable in my kitchen: cumin, lemongrass, fenugreek, paprika and chile peppers with lovely names: pasilla, ancho, guajillo, serrano, cherezo, dulce rojo.

Yesterday I strolled about between my long raised beds. It was tempting. Sorely tempting. But it’s only March. Steady, girl. Take a deep breath, count to ten and walk away.

Over the years, as soon as the soil has drained the first of its winter freeze, I have planted the cold frames with lettuce and hardy greens, put peas in, carrots and beets. The seeds do okay, but not as well as their counterparts put in later. The greens snugged under cold frame hood end up ready for harvest at the same time as the ones I sprinkle onto the cold, exposed ground. So really, all that super early planting is as much about stretching those rake-wielding, back-bending muscles in the brisk spring air as it is about the good-natured competition to see if I can beat my record for the earliest salad, first fresh peas, sweet little carrots and round scarlet radishes.

But not this year. I’m waiting. Biding my time. Showing uncharacteristic patience, smiling knowingly while all those impulsive types try to shuck winter like a sopping wet shirt. I just watch as the juncos and sparrows keep at their gleaning of the garden, letting them take their time choosing the right pieces of dried grass and weed for their nests. I’m in no hurry.

Truth is, I’ve been gardening for weeks. Varieties I’ve never grown before and some of my old stand-bys. Some just to see what they look like in growing form, some to make sure my family will eat greens whether they think they like them or not (it’s hard to say no to something I’ve not only cooked but grown). I say good morning to the peppers, tomatoes, eggplant. I encourage the cumin, the chamomile, the lemongrass. I am pleased to see the artichokes. I cheer on the basil.

But it’s a bit unnatural. You see, I’m gardening in the basement–a windowless space. I feel like a mad scientist as I inspect the three tiers of grow lights humming near the furnace. Our housesitter txted my daughter while we were away last weekend to ask if I was an aging hippie growing pot down there.

Luckily, it smells like earth down the stairs, late-spring-bursting-with-life earth. And what could be more elementally beautiful than seedlings holding up their first real leaves to the warm light. They don’t know it’s unnatural, so I’m getting over it. And I had forgotten just how satisfying it is to see shoots breach the soil’s surface in a small peat pot. I haven’t started plants from seeds in years other than directly in the garden, not since the early days of my married life when I grew just about everything we ate. The demands of a full-time job, raising children, and a busy life made me no less avid a gardener, but more inclined to buy my plants, to let professional farmers start them for me. But that’s expensive at the scale I grow things and given that I want to experiment with varieties I can’t find locally, here I am.

I’ve heard that some people have put their peas in. Maybe spinach, beets and carrots, too. Not me. Soon but not yet.

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