We are already, unbelievably, into February. Mark, as he usually does at this time of year speculates that winter is almost over. But Ground Hog Day has come and gone, and if the Punxsatawney groundhog is to be believed we are in for six more weeks of winter. And this is now being confirmed by our heaviest snowfall of the winter. But nevertheless it is not too soon for us to begin going through our Fedco seed catalogue and choosing our seeds for this summer’s vegetable garden.
In fact, we need to start this week end as Mark and I need to talk through our seed choices. And talk we do, a lot, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each seed choice. What brassica thrived last season? What beans tasted good? What radishes proved to be a bust? Getting our seed order together always proves to be a lengthy, intense collaboration.
Once we’ve finally reached agreement on the order we then need to run our choices by Daniel, who soon returns as our garden guru, undoubtedly with plenty of ideas of his own. We suspect mushrooms will be on his list as he has spent most of the winter working in a big indoor mushroom facility in Pennsylvania. Once we get his input we need to get the order into Fedco, which will already be inundated with seed orders and, therefore, as usual, slow to deliver. Fedco (Fedcoseeds.com) is our choice for most of our seeds because it is a company not just dedicated to selling seeds but also imbued with a mission — propagating and preserving valuable seed varieties, and ultimately what is best in our food. It is a company we support since it is threatened like all such small companies by the large corporate seed companies that are steadily buying up the little guys.
Given the white-out that I am seeing out my window, it is unbelievable that planting time is actually not that far away. We have a bit over a month before we can consider planting anything outdoors, but just a matter of weeks before we can start planting in the greenhouse leeks, scallions, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, and fava beans. Some of these vegetables are hardy enough that the seedlings can be transplanted out in the garden by Saint Patrick’s Day. But sometimes the ground here in Germantown is not thawed enough and the weather unsuitable for planting on that day; if it is, which lately is often the case, we wait expectantly for the first opportunity after that.
Having a vegetable garden completely composted and mulched and a greenhouse set up for planting and, in particular, having the seed catalogue before me invariably releases all my planting juices. And mental juices as well for what almost immediately pops into my mind is the eternal question as to why I have these planting impulses and where they might come from. “Is it Nature or Nurture?” I find myself wondering.
Certainly, my desire to grow things is not, as far as I know, hereditary or because of family influence, or because of the environments I found myself living in as I grew up. The two branches of my family I know best have no farmers in the last few centuries whatever. On my mother’s side, according to a genealogist who has so far traced her Breckon ancestors back to the mid eighteenth century, I descend from a continuous line of master mariners and an occasional artisan in the jet-stone trade; the other line of my mother’s family, the MacLeans, according to family tradition were barristers back to the eighteenth century. A very “Jane Austen combination” one of my friends once said. But, significantly, not a single farmer to be found anywhere.
And it would seem that my desire to grow things did not derive from my immediate environment either: first, a terrace house in urban Cardiff in Wales, followed by suburban houses just west of Chicago in Hinsdale, Illinois, where the surrounding farmland at that time was fast disappearing under housing subdivisions.
Further, the household I grew up with in Illinois, my mother’s second family, evinced not the slightest interest in things horticultural. This became quite apparent when I at the beginning of my freshman year of high school found the partial remains of a farm engulfed in a sea of tract houses and convinced my parents to move to it. Once there I plunged fully into flower and vegetable gardening, kept the lawns, trimmed the fruit trees, and raised ducks and chickens while the rest of my family looked on in seeming puzzlement.
So the mystery of my impulse to garden is planted somewhere within me. And the essence of a mystery, of course, is that there is no answer.
My earliest memory of plants and planting is from when I was around five or six. Our tiny walled garden in Cardiff did not have much space for planting since it was dominated by our Andersen air raid shelter, a corrugated domed structure half buried in the ground. But in a tiny strip along the garden wall, there were some plants — freesias, I think — that I took to caring for since no one else did. I cared for them in a very loving way. Other than the bay tree in the back corner and dock weeds, these were the only green, living things in the yard.
My next foray into caring for plants, this one unsuccessful, came when we got our first Christmas tree. I was seven. During the privations of the war years in Britain, there were no Christmas trees available. The only one I had ever seen, other than in pictures, was being carried into an orphanage nearby on Cowbridge Road. Someone obviously had bequeathed an annual Christmas tree to the orphanage, and not even the Nazis could prevent that bequest from being honored. Seeing the tree go in the door each December was the only time I envied the orphans.
But with the end of the war near, grocers at Christmas began hanging rows of tiny cut Christmas trees on the fronts of their shops. And to my great excitement we got one. But since our family Christmas ornaments had all been destroyed in a bombing raid that took the roof off the house, exposing everything stored in the attic to heavy rain, and since there were no ornaments, to say nothing of Christmas tree lights, available yet in the shops, I set to work with my usual determination. Using tin foil wrappers, painted paper, and wads of cotton wool, I patiently cobbled together enough creations to decorate the tree, which stood proudly in the bay window of the front parlor. I was very involved with this tree so that when it was time to take it down, I could not let it go.
“It will never grow. It has no roots,” my mother, uncle, grandmother and aunts repeatedly said, as I stubbornly dug a deep hole and carefully planted the tree next to the bomb shelter. I ignored all of them absolutely convinced that if I watered the tree regularly it would develop roots and grow. No one could convince me otherwise.
A man with a mission, I carefully watered it faithfully every day and checked on it morning, noon, and night. But in spite of my will to have it live, this was not to be, and it soon, to my great sadness, gradually turned yellow and then brown. It was not until after planting the next Christmas tree a year later, with the same sad results, that I finally, reluctantly accepted failure.
But the impulse to grow things survived and has continued to the present, finding its way over the years into perennial flower gardens in Illinois, Montreal, New Orleans, and Sag Harbor; roof gardens in Turkey, New Haven, and New York City; vegetable gardens in Illinois, Montreal, and Sag Harbor; and now Turkana Farms in Germantown. This mysterious impulse seems to have grown and intensified, rather than waned, over the years.
But as you can see from my peripatetic life, my impulse to grow things was inevitably in conflict with my restless search for the perfect place. Settling in one place. I now belatedly realize, is a necessity for any horticultural pursuit. A perennial garden seems to take around twenty years to really reach perfection, and a farm obviously takes much longer, requiring a lifetime commitment. It was not until I was approaching my so-called Golden Years that I finally settled in at Turkana Farms, where this spring Mark, Daniel, and I plan to whip up a veritable planting frenzy.