The Backyard Naturalist – The Seeds of Winter
Gardening is always a strange temporal exercise. Tasks need to be done that require attention in the present moment, and not on a human schedule. Pruning needs doing before the buds appear, or after, but can’t wait, whenever it’s time. There is much of the now in gardening. There is also long delay, and generational patience sometimes, like in the planting of a tree you know you will not live to see reach its full height. There are tasks that require now-thinking for future rewards. Starting seeds in the nadir of winter is one such task.
I hadn’t managed my time well enough to start seeds in the past few years, but this year I was determined. I have a couple of grow lamps wired to rickety frames in my basement, but they are set above a bench that had been subsumed gradually by junk we’ve thrown down there, and by the end of the holidays it looked like the wrack line on a beach after a strong storm. We spent a long weekend sorting things into trash, donation and reorganized piles until we had a clear path to the bench. I swept and cleaned and kicked up a cloud of dust and mouse droppings that hung in a haze under the fluorescent lights, and finally the place was made ready.
There isn’t very much that I want to plant that requires starting seeds quite this early, and the only packet of seeds I still had was for yellow bush beans, but they don’t need an indoor head start, content to go into the warming soil in late April. After all the cleaning and airing, I was craving green shoots in the gray and brown cement-floored landscape, so I got a bag of wheatgrass seeds and set them up in the dark.
The first snowstorm of the year hit around that time, and I was sitting at my dining room table when the plow guy arrived to ram the snow around into big piles. It had been many months since he’d been to the house. When our yard is under snow, it looks like a featureless ocean, with no indication of what gardens lie underneath. Without landmarks, he plowed snow deep into the middle of the yard and onto raised beds at the edge of the driveway that he couldn’t have known were there. It was too late to tell him to stop, and as I stood at the window, listening to the scrape and grind of gravel and dirt being dragged up and on top of my garden, I felt my stomach lurch.
I was in tears, feeling ridiculous about it, and later in the day my husband texted the plow guy to try to delineate what we did and did not need plowed, but finding it hard to explain. The garden in winter is an act of imagination, and the terse text we got back (“Less in yard Avoid septic tank OK”) showed our failure to conjure for him the drifts of daisies and black-eyed Susans, or the small azalea and juniper.
A few days later, the wheatgrass shoots started up. Beginning in darkness, they were white as cave worms so I set up the lights on a timer so they could start the real work of growing. Looking out at the melting piles of snow in the rain, I know the yard will be a stone-strewn moonscape come spring, requiring digging out, redoing, repairing the damage, seeing what plants can be salvaged. The plow guy was only one catastrophe. After all, winter is always this way, visiting disaster on the empty land, in ice storms and fallen trees, and still, some seeds make it.