While My Garden Sleeps

While my garden sleeps, I make big plans for it. Each year I learn more about how to make it bigger and more interesting. I have always had what one calls a “green thumb”, although I’ve also had my share of mistakes.

When I was seven years old, my mom’s cousin Dale Hollenbeck brought me all the spindly, sickly plants on his shelves to try to bring back to life. By some mystery, it turned out that I could actually keep them alive. I may not have brought them back to vigor, but I could at least give them a fighting chance at a couple more years.

I didn’t know a lot about gardening, as was evidenced by the time I planted a kidney bean in a peanut butter jar in the pure clay soil of our backyard. By some miracle, the bean came up — well, the stem came up, but the bean itself with its seed leaves remained in the clay. I was left with a botanical mystery — the headless chicken of the plant world, which persisted in its barely animate form.

Perhaps the most important childhood moment for me as a gardener was the discussion I had at age 14 with my neighbor and almost-grandfather, Johnny Belletini. Johnny taught me a small but extremely important lesson — all plants had names, even weeds, and even the weeds could be useful. Most importantly, he taught me about dandelion wine. This led to a very enthusiastic me running back to my house with a dandelion wine recipe in hand and forbidding my parents from mowing the lawn until I picked all the dandelion flowers for wine. (Note: there is nothing forbidding a fourteen-year-old from making dandelion wine in US statute. They just can’t drink it.) My parents and I spent four good years making wine as a result, until I left for college. But I digress.

I didn’t get back into growing plants (or winemaking, for that matter) until after I got my Ph.D., mostly because I had neither the time nor the place to garden. I dabbled in landscaping my wee rental house in Oneonta NY with shade plants because that’s all I had to work with. When I moved to Maryville and bought a house, however, my dreams of gardening blossomed (ahem) again. My taste in gardening developed.

At my first house, I had no basement, no sunny windowsills — and a taste for cottage flowers that would frame my cute little acquisition. I couldn’t find the plants I wanted at the local greenhouse. My father and I built me the world’s smallest greenhouse out of four wooden-framed storm windows, and I started seeds there every year for a while., running a cord out the back door to the chicken house heater that kept it warm. If the electricity went out, an entire crop could be ruined, and that happened at least once.

I live in a bigger house now with my husband, and this house has a full basement. In the room that used to be the coal room, the previous owner fitted it with shelves. We fitted it with shop fluorescents and grow bulbs, and I now have a grow room big enough to handle 12 seed flats.

The gardening theme at this house: Everything I plant needs to have something edible about it except for the moon garden, whose plants tend to be white-flowered, strongly scented, and toxic. Right now, I have the seed flats waiting for seeds at the right planting time. I have some seeds cold-stratifying in the basement refrigerator with some roots that I will plant in the spring. I have a piece of ginger which I hope will sprout so I can plant it for a bigger yield later this year.

As always, I have big plans for the garden as it slumbers in its February torpor.

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