Feb 7, 2010


Most people I know, gardeners included, tend to think of March 20/21 -- the Vernal Equinox -- as the 'first day of spring', just as June 20/21 is thought of as the first day of summer, and so on. We gardeners, at least, should know better. Especially for those of us who live in a climate where 'spring' is of necessity a rather elastic term for the several months of .... varied .... weather leading up to summer, a keener eye set to subtler signals than a mere calendar date are needed to track the seasonal changes.

When I started gardening, I certainly thought in these more traditional terms. I read books and made my plans and charts based on what I gleaned from their pages, not having had any personal experience of gardening as a child, other than eating what my mother grew in the back yard. The urge to start gardening hit me quite suddenly and unexpectedly, just a couple of months after getting married. I was going through some of my parents' old books that summer and found my mother's copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book, probably the 1933 edition. Like lightning, I was struck with the nesting urge and proceeded to draw up the first of the possibly hundreds of garden plans/seed lists/planting schedules that have filled my garden journals in the nearly 40 years since.

For the record, said 'nesting urge' resulted in no human children, but I have had plant babies in abundance. Here's a photo I sent to my grandmother (Arabella, this blog's namesake) entitled 'your first great-granchild and me' in January 1974.

I was as proud as any parent of my darlings, which I always thought of as my children. Many early photos of me in the garden show me in similar embrace -- with tomato seedlings, fondling my first ear of corn, hugging a sprig of apple blossoms. My poor sweetheart soon became resigned to being dragged out in freezing cold or rain to gaze upon a field of freshly dug soil, then pulled along, foot by foot, to admire 'this will be carrots ...... over here will be onions ...... this is where the tomatoes will go next month ....'

As the years have passed, if I have shown no signs of waning enthusiasm for gardening, I have at least stopped pestering him like this. Well, not often. Now I take my wee digital camera out, point, shoot and pester YOU, dear readers, with such shots! Hahaha

The photo shows a wee, wee spinach seedling, just popping up in the garlic bed a couple of days ago. On a whim I had thrown some spinach seed in an empty space at the end of the bed, after planting the garlic and shallots last fall. Being either lazy or wise, I have learned that the easiest way to gauge planting dates for early vegs like spinach, peas and hardy greens, is to pay attention to when overwintered volunteers germinate on their own, and then plant more ASAP. Here's the result:

If this first sowing freezes or rots, it doesn't matter. It's certainly not taking the place of anything else, at this time of year. I never seem to plant spinach early enough, so maybe this year I will be lucky.

The point is, for me, and in my garden and climate, the old tradition of honoring the four other seasonal markers -- the so-called Cross-Quarter days, or Celtic Fire Festivals -- makes more sense as a garden planning device than the more obvious and well-noted Equinoxes and Solstices. Imbolc, the first festival of the ancient year, was celebrated at the point halfway between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox, on February 4 or 5. I have heard this described in other traditions as the time when 'the back of Old Man Winter is broken.' Modern American pop culture has trivialized this as 'Groundhog Day' but ignoring this silly, shallow media non-event, I am reminded to stop my winter dreaming and get on with serious garden planning for the new season just ahead.

Sure, we will have months (and months and months -- sigh) more of cold weather. But starting in late January/early February, we and the plants notice lengthening days. In the greenhouse, I begin fertilizing the wintered-over flower pots -- geraniums and other stalwarts -- and begin to take an interest in what might be sprouting out in the garden.....

Get a Grip, Ned....

or, there's no need to panic just because I loaned my favorite seed catalogs to a friend, and am now going through withdrawal .......

When I first started gardening, at the tender age of 21, I was pretty much on my own for inspiration and information. No internet, no knowledgeable neighbors; just my mother (300 miles away and in a vastly different climate zone) and the garden books I found at the library. At the time I lived in a mild-winter area (northern California coast) and could pretty much plant year-round. I killed lots of plants and murdered a lot of seeds in my first stumbling efforts but had fun anyway. With the wisdom of hindsight, I can say that beginning gardeners should just plan on this happening, no matter where they live.

A few years later when we moved to Central Oregon, things got a bit dicier. The neighbors all said, 'you can't grow anything here' but I ignored them and planted anyway. A lot of things died as the local axiom 'frost is possible any day of the year' proved to be true. Blackened squash and bean vines in July -- oh my!

But I was determined and found a few resources for encouragement: legendary local OSU Extension Service agent, Marvin Young (with his list of vegetables that would indeed grow here), and a wizard gardening friend or two who astounded the community with beautiful perennial flower and vegetable gardens in the face of the common wisdom against such bountiful potential.

The only local source of seeds was the occasional rack in the hardware store, and there wasn't much of a selection, nor were most of the varieties particularly well-suited to our crazy climate. I became a seed catalog junkie, welcoming into my home the standard Burpee and Park seed companies back when they were still smallish and family-owned, along with a growing crowd of newcomers and new-to-me oldtimers: Johnny's, Nichols, Gurney's, Stokes..... I was soon able to turn up my nose at the pitiful local offerings, and order varieties that showed actual promise of surviving our short growing season. With the birth of the heritage seed movement, options expanded again: Seed Savers' Exchange, Seeds Trust (then High Altitude Gardens), and many more. Now there is an embarrassment of riches in the seed catalog world.

Early in December, I looked forward to the catalogs, which began to show up in my mailbox right after Christmas. They come earlier now, but I still feel a tingle of anticipation when the first one arrives. In my early garden journals, I noted the date of the first entry in what I thought of as the Seed Catalog Sweepstakes. I'm a bit more blase nowadays, but I still love to see them piling up on the shelf, awaiting the day I have time to sit down and start making lists of things I need. Want. Lust after. Whatever.

Luckily, I have help in sorting it all out.