Gardening: Seedlings and Other Beginnings
Five days to germination! Last Friday I looked at my seasonal indicators (the long-range forecast, the fur flying off the dog and cats in response to the longer days, and the empty plastic box from the organic baby spinach that was on sale at the farm market), and knew The Time Had Come. It was time to hunt for the peat pot starters left over from last year.
One of my grandfathers was a farmer and the other was a gardener, so I come by it honestly. I'm not the by-the-book sort of plant nanny, but even during the many years I lived in rentals, I always found someplace to put a pot of tomatoes. What's summer without the real thing? And in the decades I lived in Ohio, I got reasonably good at the basics.
But life is all about change. I fell in love with an old friend, and this time it was the real thing… and politics got ugly, and Ohio passed a version of Proposition 8 that would invalidate our attempts to establish legal protection for our home and our right to care for each other. The prospect of legal marriage, combined with the awful downturn in Ohio's economy, made Canada look like the way to go. We applied for immigration and were accepted. A job turned up for my wife—a very good job.
We made the jump.
We moved to Ontario a couple of years ago, too late to start a garden when we arrived. The new place was a letdown, in any case. Our yard in Ohio had been a treasure, left to run wild by its aging owner. The five years we spent was mostly a matter of discovery under the hundred-year old ash trees—a hardy raspberry patch that had been mowed down by the realtor sprang back up, the cherry trees we planted bore fruit after only a year, and all sorts of wildflowers, even trillium and dutchman's breeches, appeared in the shaded nooks and corners. The little ecosystem lured both hawks and hummingbirds.
The yard in Ontario had … a regulation horseshoe pitch. No full-grown trees, just a dark maple sapling and a weeping mulberry in the front yard, neither of them as tall as the one-story house. And the house behind us looks like a barracks—grey brick, grey wall, faded grey cedar fence. We'd moved in a housing crunch, with a fifty-pound dog who had to be carried in and out, and two days to find a home. We had to settle for what we could get.
So we put in trees the following summer—not much more than a gesture, since I'm not likely to live to see a baby oak grow up, but nothing else would screen the barracks or its rather surly inhabitants. You move to another country, you expect some things to be less than you'd hoped, but this house, this yard… it was all 'settle for.' The only thing I could really look forward to was gardening. There was plenty of sunshine, at least, and a big yard. Big and empty; I told myself it was full of potential.
The first spring was late due to heavy snow, the last of which melted in mid-April. When the ground thawed we dug up an 8x4 foot stretch of lawn, set up a raised bed, and dumped in the compost that had been collecting since we got there. I managed to raise a beautiful bunch of Brandywine heritage tomatoes. Massive and firm, most of them were at least a pound apiece, great for eating fresh or cooking down into sauce for the freezer. It looked to be a wonderful harvest.
And then the plague struck.
Ever hear of Season End Blight? You have if you're a gardener. The disease, the same virus that caused the great potato famine in Ireland in the 1800's, hit tomatoes all over North America in late summer of 2008. It takes a lovely, nearly ripe tomato and turns it into a mottled, grey-brown, inedible mess. We had picked maybe half a dozen ripe Brandywines before the blight hit, and lost probably a hundred pounds in less than a week. And the virus stays in the soil; we can't put tomatoes in that bed ever again. "Disappointed" is not the word for it… the only thing that lessened the blow was knowing that almost everyone in the area had the same problem; it wasn't just my unfamiliarity with the local climate.
Last summer I was still too disheartened to bother with much in the way of expanding the garden, but I put a few tomatoes in other spots in the yard, hoping the blight wouldn't spread. I didn't get them in soon enough, though, and it was a long cool spring… the second year, we lost most of the crop either to frost or rot, waiting for them to ripen indoors. The one good note was the cherry tomatoes—hundreds of them, and while I must've looked silly wrestling the oversized tub in from the front step when the nights got cold in the spring, it was worth it when we had the first ripe, home-grown, tiny but delicious tomatoes by the first of July.
A few other things looked hopeful last summer. The pussywillow I started from a cutting is taller than I am, from last summer's growth. And the daffodil bulbs and iris we planted came back and multiplied. We lost two miniature roses; two survived. But the birds started coming to the feeder, and so have chipmunks. And a hawk. And a hummingbird.
This year we seem to be getting milder weather and an early spring, but this is Canada, and I'm not going to be caught by Ma Nature's April Fool's joke. A real greenhouse or cold frame is on my wish list, but I went ahead and splurged on a plastic tent 'greenhouse' that can be set out on the porch. At least if it has to come indoors at night, it's got wheels.
So it's time again. I started a set of a dozen Brandywine seeds on March 5 in a plastic salad box with a fold-down lid, and put it in the big south window in the living room. Five days later, one peat pot had two tiny green leaves, and two more seedlings were poking above the earth. Today it's three seedlings and two more showing. Outside, the winter's snow is melting.
I guess if the plants can keep trying, so can I.
Copyright Lee Rowan, March 2010