The Seeds of Spring BLOG

Lessons From the Garden

Starting Over May 29, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 1:50 pm

A huge pile of dirt occupies a significant portion of my driveway, a mountain of soil. It will take me all weekend to fill the four little raised beds I just assembled and to dump the rest of the soil in various places around the yard.

In the raised bed I now approach, the soil is filled almost to the rim, but it will settle at least an inch over time. It’s time to dig three furrows in parallel. And to spread bean seeds generously.

The pale white seeds settle effortlessly into their new environment. It’s already late May, and temperature is high. Rain is abundant. It takes barely four days for the first bright green stems and seed heads to start peeking through the dirt, and it takes only eight days for the first true leaves to begin to unfurl. All seems right in the garden.

A rare moment of sunlight in the backyard. The spot chosen for two raised beds.

But this is not the garden I have formed, filled and feted for the past decade. This is not John’s farm. This is not the sharecropper plot where “The Seeds of Spring: Lessons from the Garden” was inspired. This is my own back yard, a yard where, at most, four hours of sunlight appear grudgingly on a good day. In early spring and late summer, when the sun is closer to the horizon and the hours and quality of daylight are diminished, it might be closer to three hours. Assuming clouds don’t get in the way.

Having been chased out of my beloved garden on John’s property by thousands of angry, swarming bees—some of which inflicted their stings on me before I wised up—I am starting over. Back to basics. Placing four raised beds in the least terrible spots of my own yard. Two beds in the back, two beds on the side. One with beans; one with zinnias; one with dahlias; the final one housing three tomato plants, two sweet pepper plants and a single basil plant.

There can be no doubt: I am desperate.

I very much hope that this is a temporary arrangement. John, who owns the horse-and-honey farm exactly one mile from my suburban house, says he will move the bee hives that are closest to my garden plot. But he can’t do it while the summer is upon us and the bees are in full honey production. Maybe this fall or winter. So next spring, I hope to be back on the farm, with its full sun for most of my 65-foot-by-30-foot plot. Unless he accepts my heavy-hearted suggestion that he let someone else work the plot—assuming they don’t get chased out or murdered by the normally placid bees.

But that’s next year. This is Memorial Day weekend. The beginning of this summer. So much promise. So much hot weather to spur the growth of our main season plants. If I have four small, shaded beds this year instead of a big plot with six medium-sized beds and tons of sun-drenched perennial plants to weed and feed, well, so be it. I can handle the reduction of time spent on my knees and bent over pulling weeds for seemingly endless hours every weekend. At my house, at least I have SOMETHING to do that resembles gardening, something that reduces the sense of frustration and loss. I have four raised beds, freshly planted. And, I must admit, I have no real hope of growing anything.

Two new raised beds get used to their more common condition: shade.

Three to four hours of full sun a day is a recipe for disappointment. For disaster. For failure.

But wait. I’ve been in this situation before, though I recall vaguely that I have done poorly with such conditions. These plants need six hours, maybe even eight, of direct sunlight each day to thrive. All I can do now is keep them alive and hope that they do something.But wait. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been in this situation before. And are in it again. Now and again they ask me: “What can I grow in my yard? It gets only about four hours of sunlight a day. Maybe three.”

I commiserate, then list some plants that like shade or partial sun. Begonias. Impatiens. Some other flowers. The occasional herb. But summertime veggies? Afraid not. Thanks for playing.

Yet they try. As I will try. Because, well, we have nothing better to do, and we really like growing things, and, gosh darn it, maybe that advice by that book author Bates guy isn’t really accurate—despite the fact that he just won an International Book Award (I hadn’t heard of the contest either before I applied). Who set him up as the EXPERT on gardening? Sure, he’s old, if that’s a good thing. He has been growing stuff a long time, so maybe experience has taught him something. But he has no training in horticulture.

I never get tired of seeing seedlings emerge from the earth.

So you try to grow plants where there is not enough sun. And I’m trying to grow plants where there is not enough sun. You know, and I know, that the chances of anything remotely resembling success are low. Very low. Sure, the plants look good now, less than two weeks out of the nursery or after surfacing from seeds. They haven’t had time to be stressed, or to show the effects of stress, related to inadequate light. Soon they will exhibiting the attribute that I term “becoming leggy”—starting to lean at odd angles toward what little sun reaches their area, and sending out stems and branches much too thin to support vigorous growth. Fewer and smaller flowers than expected will form. Fewer and smaller fruits, and later ones. Very sad. But that’s down the road. We’ll deal with that level of disappointment when it manifests later in the summer.

Right now, I am inspired by all of you who face these same odds and plant anyway. Those of you who persevere, who appreciate the good, the surprising, the process, the warm sun on your faces and the dirt on your knees. I salute you. Not because you “succeed” by some textbook definition: X pounds of ripe tomatoes and dahlia flowers Y inches across.No, I salute you because you have dreams. Because you don’t give up. Because you have hope.

And because you have hope, so do I.


The Crack Between the Worlds May 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 7:46 pm

Anthropologist and author Carlos Castaneda referred to twilight as the “crack between the worlds” of day and night. I think of May as the crack between the seasons.

Many people consider May a month of transition, a time when it’s late spring and early summer simultaneously, when the best of spring crops linger and the anticipation of planting summer crops excites. They seasons ebb and flow, overlapping, these observers say. Maybe. But so often it seems as if each year there is that one day, one hour, one moment, when the needle moves. It was spring. Now it’s summer. Boom. Next.

Maybe it’s a sudden thunderstorm. Or it’s the moment you realize that your spinach plants have all bolted to seed overnight. Or when you place those tomato and pepper plants on your patio to harden. It’s a feeling, a recognition of sudden change. One yields to the other. We have graduated. Bring on the main attraction: Summertime.

For some reason, I feel the transitions more smoothly and with more nuance when winter yields to spring and when fall succumbs to winter. Summer, though, sneaks up without warning and pounds on my door, and I’m grateful when it’s time to answer. I long for the searing heat and rapid plant growth and promise of big-crop harvest that summer brings. Spring wants to linger, but it just gets overwhelmed and banished by heat and bugs and the incessant onslaught of June, July and August. The cool days of early May get forgotten so quickly when the thermometer starts spiking.

It’s crowded in there! Spring lettuce is a colorful and tasty treat.

The phenomenon is not just visible in the garden. Along the roadsides and walking paths, brilliant white wild blackberry flowers explode everywhere, supplemented by early wild roses—with smaller but similar white flowers, in many cases—and by white and yellow honeysuckle. Other wild flowers appear by the day. Wild strawberries invade lawns and flower beds. It’s fast and furious.

My raised bed filled with lettuce looks like it will burst any second now. You can thin out every other plant every other day, and the remaining plants will spread eagerly in the intervening hours, filling those momentary spaces again and sucking up every remaining cool, moist moment before turning tough and bitter toward the end of the month. The crowded plants remind me of the much-too-narrow seats on the commuter bus I ride a couple days a week. I always seem to sit next to someone determined to jab his elbow into my side as he reads the paper, engaged in a silent but not-so-subtle fight for space. He apparently feels resentful that he does not have as much room as he deserves, so he’s determined to make life miserable for the guy next to him, even though I’m not encroaching a millimeter on his space. Occasionally, I push back; I paid for this seat. But often I find myself leaning away from him—even if I start to get in the way of the guy standing in the aisle. At 7 in the morning, it’s too early for a fight.

So maybe my lettuce plants are engaged in the same pushing and shoving, in slow motion, when I’m not looking. Or even when I am looking—I just don’t interpret what I’m staring at. If so, I hope they remember to get off at the right stop.

It was Saturday morning, Kentucky Derby day, when I first heard the sound. I was alert for bees. Individual bees, and bees in small groups. But nothing prepared me for the sound, and then the sight, of a swarm of thousands and thousands of frantic honey bees, whipping each other into a frenzy as they circled each other like electrons around a core of plutonium, a dark cloud of doom in perpetual, insane motion settled over almost half of my garden. Almost like a CGI movie scene: biblical and fearsome and deadly.

Wild blackberry flowers decorate roadsides in May.

Upon seeing the swarm, I moved cautiously and slowly to the far side of the garden. I tried to control my breath and assess the threat rationally. I had survived several stings in recent weeks without the severe reaction I had as a teenager, which required emergency medical treatment. I had recently bought a new kit for emergency use if stung and in danger of passing out. But this cloud of venom was beyond anything my worst nightmares could produce.

Seeing that I could not reach the garden gate without passing through the swarm, I weighed my options. I could stand still and hope the swarm simply went away. Or I could bend a metal pole, pull down the corner of the deer fence I so had carefully erected and reinforced, and crawl out of harm’s way.

Once I realized that the swarm was advancing toward me, the choice was simple. Down came the fence. I crawled to safety.

That moment provided a very sharp crack between two worlds. My days of leisurely gardening on my friend John’s horse farm spilled through that crack and drained away. I’m trying to figure out how I can just walk away from the garden plot I have loved for so many years—and which formed the basis for my gardening book, “The Seeds of Spring: Lessons from the Garden.” I had hoped to find a community garden plot in the area, but alas, all are spoken for. It’s just not meant to be, at least for this summer. I have no intent of being found dead dressed in my ratty gardening clothes and covered with stingers, sweat and sunscreen. When I go, I want a little more dignity.

By next year, at the latest, I suspect that the frantic bee activity will subside. So in a worst case scenario, I won’t be doing much gardening until then. So, dear reader, I thank you for following this blog, and I promise to resume it at some point when the world settles down for me.

Until then, happy gardening!