A job isn't done until it's enjoyed; sitting in the garden is very important. On a warm day, I like lying down even better. G.K. Chesterton wrote that essay about lying in bed that starts with "Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if one only had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling." Lying in the vegetable garden is a perfect and supreme experience. I used to mulch my paths with wood chips, but they're no good for this. Oak leaves are better, though they stick to your clothes and hair.
I fought this grape vine for three years, then I stopped fighting. Now I love it. It's nice to look out at the kitchen sink through green leaves. I can see the little pear tree there, and the geranium planted at its base. I love that tiny geranium though it's no different from any of the other thousands of wild geraniums out this May. Walt Whitman asked Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me? Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands in my blood? These might be the only questions I care about.
Lying in the garden today, I was reading Turgenev. He wrote about lilacs, and so did Whitman. So did everyone. Lilacs don't make any sense- they're not that pretty, and what beauty they have isn't there long. But here they are, and here I am, smelling the lilacs again. The ones that blossomed pale in the heat have opened further now and have gone purple as the weather cooled. I can't tell if these two-toned bunches are gorgeous or ugly. The truth is, it doesn't matter to me at all. They're here such a brief moment. That's beauty enough.
On the way to my daughter's school, there's a square that's been cut out of a lawn, and in it, two purple pasque flowers are blooming. The square is probably six inches wide, just big enough for what it holds and no bigger. Gardens like this are some of my favorites. Are they gardens? I've been told that the words "guard" and "garden" are related, and that a garden should be about enclosure. Those pasque flowers aren't about enclosure at all. They're just a little present, tucked right up against the sidewalk.
My own garden is looking less demure than those pasque flowers right now. It was hot last week, and everything grew dizzyingly fast. The lilacs that bloomed in the heat are all very pale, and so are the blossoms on the weeping crabapple tree in my front yard. They've always been the color of raspberry stain, but this year, they're a white froth, and I love them much more than I ever did before.
The potatoes are coming up. The strawberries are blooming. I've done so much less than I would hope to, but everything looks beautiful, anyway. And healthy and good and a bit riotous. The chives are full, and I've been cutting them by the handful to blend into a sludge with salt and oil. I put in another quince tree, and three cherry bushes, and three clove currents, and a struggling juneberry that is sprouting along its stems.
Speaking of riotous, a pair of catbirds is building a nest in the blue spruce outside my bedroom window. The way they sing is so jaunty and such a jumble. They talk and talk all morning, then talk and talk all evening. Every year I think about cutting down that spruce tree. But I love those catbirds.
This rabbit is building a nest under the gooseberry bush. She is not afraid of me. I left the tray of parsley in the garden overnight, and in the morning it was gone. Maybe we're frenemies. If so, she doesn't seem to know it, and the fact that she isn't afraid of me makes me soften toward her. Maybe a year without parsley is an alright thing. The bed is empty. We'll see what comes of it.
I planned to start the lettuces inside this year, but I planted potatoes in the garden, and then I planted some peas, and then some carrot seeds, and then cabbage, and then the lettuce went right in, too. Sometimes sowing seed is a chore, but nothing's a chore when it's April and the sun's out.
I pulled the bags of seeds that had been stratifying in the fridge and sowed those, too, but into flats. Shooting stars, river oats, odds and ends from a nearby prairie. I'm curious to see what will happen. Yesterday I met a couple who spent the last couple decades of their lives living deep in the woods, and now they live up on an open hillside and are trying to learn to love oak savanna. Something about it was kind of touching to me- the way they lived so intently in one place and then so intently in another.
The chives are coming up now, and so is there rhubarb- mostly in places I forgot I had moved it. I was told once that in Islam, original sin is original forgetfulness, and that's always seemed to true to me. But forgetfulness is blessing, too; it lets you find rhubarb where you don't expect it. Last night I talked with a friend about what it means to have a sense of wonder, and as the conversation ended, a bright blue meteor fell through the sky- I swear it did. What a world.
Where there was a raised path, there now is a trench. When the ground was soft and green, the path seemed alright, but ice and rain show how the land lies. In this case, it lies low against the basement window. There are worse ways to learn than by getting things wrong.
It is nice to get your hands and feet in the ground in the ground again, no matter what the reason. I like to think about Antaeus, who compelled every stranger who passed to wrestle him and whose strength was renewed whenever he touched the earth. One character or another said that Dr. Zhivago was like Antaeus, but I can't remember who or if they were right.
This week I clipped apple branches and brought them inside to see if they will blossom. I clipped black currant branches and stuck them in the ground to see if they will root. Uncertainty is a part of the deal and is part of what makes the garden good. Not all the ground was thawed enough for the black currant branches- plenty of patches were frozen just below the surface.
We'll be away for a week, and I hope when we get back the ground will be soft everywhere. Not for working, just for walking.
There are lots of good ways to live, and that's a nice thing. In warm places, winter is pleasant because everyone is still outside, there are greens in the garden, and there's heat to the sun. But I love winter here, too.
One of the best things about a cold-place winter is that it ends. The melting has started, here, and everyday I've been stomping around my yard seeing what's there. Last fall, I overwintered the kale by laying it flat and covering with oak leaves- it seems to be doing fine. The parsley under leaves seems pretty happy, too, but I'm not sure if that's because this variety (einfache schnitt 3) is hardier than the one I've grown before or because this was a milder winter. I'd rather think it was the good seeds.
Last year I overwintered four fig plants. This year I overwintered two. They're still dormant, and nights are warm enough to keep them outside. I brought them out two days ago, and the rabbits have already taken their share, but I'm feeling optimistic about the figs. It's easy to be optimistic when something's just beginning. I wish I had kept all four. Right now, it seems like there's room for everything.
The pomegranates aren't dormant. They started sprouting in the basement and are growing pretty happily, now, in a sunny window. They looked so ugly when they arrived in last fall, I didn't think they'd amount to anything; they had hardly any roots and were ready to give up for the year. They've surprised me. I've been surprised a lot this year, and that's something I'm grateful for.
Last year, I planted lots of flowers and grasses. I can't remember what. Some of it's written in a notebook, but most of it wasn't. I don't know what any of it will look like, and some things are probably all wrong (did really I plant senna hebecarpa in the front yard?) All the better.
All the better.
In one of his lectures, Roy Diblik asks how many plants we know that don't act like themselves. The answer is none, and I, acting like myself, cut my finger pruning the quince tree. I was using a saw when I should have used the pruners. I'm not sure I'll ever learn, and I don't really mind.
Seed-starting is a nice February chore, but pruning fruit trees is a delight. Each tree has its own way of growing, and each branch you take off is a suggestion. You respond to the tree, and the tree responds to you. No one talks enough about response. It's the thing that matters- everywhere, always.
The trees I don't prune this time of year are the mulberries and the peaches. Local advice is to prune peaches in late winter, but peaches tend not to live long here. Pruning peaches in spring, like they do in many places, seems more suited to their fast-growing, tender nature. Anyway, that's what I'm doing. I may be wrong.
I heard someone describe a newly pruned olive tree as looking like a bride. I don't know what that means, but I like looking at my trees* as they are now, ready for what comes next. And I like looking at the peach tree, too. It's rosy, limber, and fuzzy-budded: just what you'd think a peach tree should be. Even in February
*Except the quince tree- my pruning job there was a bit of a mess
January is sun season, and it's also seed season. My skill at seed starting has been spotty at best, mostly because I resist instructions and gadgets. Everyone says pepper seeds need heating pads, and after several years of thinking this didn't apply to me, I finally invested in one. The peppers grew beautifully.
This winter, I was introduced to Akira Miyawaki's work, and seeds have been on my mind ever since. I planted bur acorns in pots, but the squirrels got to them; my plans for growing an oak forest are deferred. Some of the compass plants in the prairie still have seeds, though, and they live almost as long as oaks. I brought some home, scattered a portion on the soil, refrigerated others in a wet coffee filter, and put the rest in a milk jug outside with potting soil. We'll see what happens. The invitation of seeds is to be curious and playful: a seed is free and a seed is unique, just like the rest of us.
The other seeds I'm giving a similar treatment are ones I bought: shooting stars and euphorbia, and some river oats for my parent's hillside. The milk jug trick has never worked for me with natives, but I'm trying again anyway. Like Pessoa says, in all the world, everything is worthwhile. The shooting stars seem especially unlikely to amount to anything- they're slow growers that take several years to flower. But why not try? I've never seen a baby shooting star.
It's been a cold start to the year without much good snow to play in; my focus has been indoors. The fires have been warm, the work has been interesting, and I learned to roast potatoes in the wood stove. For a while now, some seeds have been sitting on my dresser that I meant to snow-sow where the juniper had been- every day's had a reason to hold off until tomorrow. I finally got out to scatter them this morning. It was cold and very bright, and once I started winter garden work, I found myself re-engaged with my frozen yard and ready to do a hundred other little things.
I used the word "work" about the winter garden, but of course, the interesting thing about the garden in January is that it is has nothing to do with work. It's mostly about observation and enjoying sun as the days get longer. I wandered around looking at the shapes of things and contemplating different ways to prune my fruit trees. The opal plum I planted two years ago has little spurs, now, but the schoolhouse plum next to it looks youthful and uninterested in flowering.
Winter gives the impression of sameness, but there is always a surprise behind one door or another. There were deer tracks in our yard (we rarely get deer) and when I pruned some branches off the hemlock, I found the rings inside beautiful- rosy and dark. There's a new path, now, from the backdoor to the sidewalk. The hemlock above it has thousand of little cones cones, too small to call attention from a distance.
There's no snow, but the ground is cold and hard. I covered the parsley and chicories with leaves to protect them from the cold, and I forget about them. Or if I do remember, it’s after dark, when I can’t be bothered to dig through frozen leaves for a handful of greens. Otherwise, leaves work well. I’ve tried hoops and row cover, but it’s easy to be sloppy putting them up. The second heavy snow usually collapses mine, and I hate trying to keep the row cover from tearing, rolling it up neatly, finding a place to store it. In gardens, like in everything, it’s best to work with your nature.