Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.

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