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3. April 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

The weather continued dismal. It’s not really that unusual for April temps to hover around 50, but somehow Chicagoans always get it in their heads that it will be in the 60s and 70s. We got a lot of rain, which happens in April.

After the raised beds were filled, and the patio built, I moved on to the next project: getting the city itself to trim the five huge trees in the city easement, and this is where living in a well-off suburb rather than the big city was a revelation. Unlike at least five attempts to get Chicago to trim the damaged tree in front of the old place, here I put in a ticket with the Forestry Service, and a couple weeks later they came and trimmed them in the pouring rain. I brought them some hot, fresh scones.

They chipped the trees on site at my request, and my housemate and I spread it on the Botanic to kill what passed for grass in this area.

Late in the month, after the rain had stopped, my housemate built a 40” tall stand for four rain barrels in the farm against the garage wall. Unless rain barrels are up fairly high, there isn’t enough water pressure to use a hose unless they’re full. Once they empty past about a third full, you have to use watering cans, which is tedious and time consuming.

04- (3) AprilThe stand fits four barrels for a total of 200 gallons capacity, which is enough for about a little more than a week of watering my 7 beds, or about 220 square feet of planting area. They are 40” tall, level, and have storage space underneath. It not only is ecologically sound, since I use almost no municipal water in the Farm, but it’s also necessary because there’s no functioning spigot near this part of the garden. I have to drag a hose from the other side of the house (which I did later in the season when it stopped raining).

Then I moved those patio stones again, to a rough approximation, since I didn’t do a sand substrate or make any attempt to level it. They were going to have to moved a third time.

I had now moved 10 CY of mulch, 6 CY of soil, and 80 granite pavers, twice. Then I did some heavy lifting inside, moving two metal file cabinets to the basement.

Eventually this would come back to haunt me.

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April: Soil

2. April 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

April continued unseasonably cool, which was a boon for my next big move: filling the raised beds. With two of them full from soil scavenged earlier in the year from my friend’s old garden, I ordered bulk soil, a garden mix of top soil, compost, sand, and clay.

There’s no “yard” at the actual back or front of my new house, just a narrow gangway in the back, and the city easement in the front. The house faces sideways on a corner lot. At this point I’d designated my four garden rooms:

  • The Botanic—a shade garden in my north sideyard, which in a way is my backyard, although the city considers it my front, since it faces the street that is my address.
  • The Gangway and Savory—west, where I had put the herb garden in October, and staged a lot of plants.
  • The Breezeway and Front—a patio seating area on the actual east-side front of the house, even though it faces a different street from my address. This is endlessly confusing to delivery people and anyone using GPS to find me.
  • The Farm—my vegetable garden, on the south side of the house, where I had put five 18” raised beds.

Raised beds are essentially giant containers, and they need soil that addresses this. Most raised bed blends will contain some combination of topsoil, compost, sand and possibly some clay to emulate loam, the high-organic loose soil that is ideal for cultivation. Some mixes contain a loosener like vermiculite, but I have found that in large containers this will just float to the top and doesn’t do much to really keep the soil loose. You can loosen a clay-like soil better with gypsum, or simply by planting root crops like carrots or parsnips (really).

There are several ways to “make” good garden soil. I have a friend who went the Hugelkultur route, which works best for large areas. This is a way to build soil from old tree trunks, branches, and massive amounts of leaves. It looks an unholy mess when you start, but breaks down in a couple of years to rich, perfect soil.

There’s permaculture, sometimes referred to as “no dig gardening.” You create your garden beds generally over existing soil by making a shallow border and piling on cardboard, leaves and straw, and planting root crops to break up the existing substrate. Many permaculturists don’t even plant out seedlings year to year, but rely on self-seeding (this does not work well for many crops if you have a growing season under 160 days).

04- (2) AprilAs long as you test your existing soil for heavy metals and other contaminants it’s fine to plant in the ground. But I was thinking forward to when I’d get too old and stiff to be wanting to garden at ground level, so I built the high beds, which has the added benefit of mitigating any rabbit problem (rabbits really need three foot walls to really keep them out, but this should at least discourage them).

I filled the bottoms of the beds with leaves, tree branches, and even some sand from the tree planting. Two beds were then completed with soil from a friend’s garden, but the rest I had to buy. The soil I got turned out to be too heavy in topsoil (essentially construction debris, seriously) and clay and too low in sand and organics. When it didn’t rain for most of the time I was slowly filling the beds, it dried into concrete. I spent a lot of time and energy smashing basketball sized clumps of the stuff, and then had to heavily amend with compost.

So here’s the gardening advice: I believe in bulk soil, but I think gardeners should take the extra cautionary step of mixing it themselves. Go to the yard and have them show you their stock. Bulk order 3 parts planting soil, 2 parts compost, 1 part sand and mix it yourself. You can do this by putting that recipe of each (i.e. 3:2:1) in the middle of an old shower curtain or blanket, then shift it corner by corner until it’s mixed. This is easiest with 3 friends to hold up the other corners. You can also purchase pre-mixed raised bed soil in 2 cubic foot bags, but this will be expensive.

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April: Sun

1. April 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

April starts outdoor gardening season in Chicago.

Mostly this means finally getting to walk around outside without wearing 50 pounds of outer clothing. But the walkabouts can be useful, too, especially in a new garden, as you get a feel for the space and the light.

One of the things you need to know about your garden, before you plan it, is where the sun is.

There are different ways to plot the sun. To really do it right, make a detailed matrix with a spreadsheet, designating minute portions of the garden down the X axis, and times of day across the Y, and plot in when there is full sun, or mark down the type/amount of sun in each cell. Of course, you’ll need to do this for each month, or each week, starting in April and going through October (in Illinois anyway), to really get accurate data.

04- (1) AprilLess accurately, but also less time-consuming, you can walk outside a few times a day every month or so and write it down. You can make a nice drawing of this too (or, again, several drawings, depending on the month and the time of day).

The main point for any of these is to know which parts of your garden get 6 hours minimum of full sun, and which do not. I wouldn’t obsess about it too much. If you’re growing tomatoes, you need six to eight hours. If you’re growing prairie natives, you probably need 6 hours, but can get away with less. For most other plants, unless it’s deep shade, they’ll probably do just fine.

The spring of 2017 was reluctant. It wasn’t that unusual a spring, with temps hovering around normal for the time of year (low 50s). We got a lot of rain, which happens in April (and made me wish my rain barrels were set up). The difference was that this was more or less the weather we’d been having for months. I felt like it had been reluctant spring since January, and I just wanted it to be done. We never had true cold, or much snow, just this endless niggling not-quite-winter. I like winter, when we have winter.

Now I needed sun, and warmth.

The daffodils were also not down with this. They finally bloomed, taking forever to emerge, and then another couple of weeks to form buds; they didn’t open until mid month.

April ended cold and drizzly and dark.

I had four garden areas to deal with: what I thought was a full shade side yard, but which turned out to be a hybrid site, not enough sun to be considered full sun, not enough shade to make a shade garden. It’s going to take a few years to sort it out. Meantime, it’s a staging area for all those scavenged plants.

The Farm was part shade until I turned it into full sun by removing the junk trees. With the exception of some morning shade from a large tree in the parkway, every part of the area gets at least 8 hours of sun, with the added benefit of the warm brick garage wall for potted plants.

I took the 80 granite street pavers that I’d liberated from the old place and made a little patio in the Breezeway. After laying it out I realized I should have put it in the corner away from the noisy air conditioner, but what the heck—moving 15-lb pavers is practically my religion. It turned out there were ground-dwelling bees in the mulch, too. They were not happy with all the activity. At one point they were actually flinging themselves against the breezeway windows. I felt like I was in a scene from The Birds. They’re not aggressive, but if you don’t like bees, this was not the place for you. They settled down again, at least until I moved the pavers again a couple months on (sorry, bees!).

The Breezeway gets full sun until the parkway trees fill out, after which it’s part sun, with shade from the trees to the east in the morning, and from the house to the west in the afternoon. Midday, the noon sun beats down, warming the granite of the patio, the prairie plants, and whoever is lucky enough to be sitting there.

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March: Seeds again

3. March 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Even cold March days have a very mild spring-like feel with the month’s longer days and higher sun. Bad winter weather happens in March and even April, but it doesn’t last long as a rule (as if there are still rules), and 2016 was off-the-charts.

I like to joke that we seem to now be Kentucky, but without the good booze and horses. (I ate these words the following year, when 2017’s April placed us squarely in Hudson Bay.)

As at the old place, I set up a seed station in the basement, starting herbs and dragon’s claw millet as they tend to be slow starters, but they came up fast, in less than a week. I thought the Breezeway would be too cold for seed starting. Ideally the temperature needs to be no lower than 55 even with the heat mats, but in subsequent years I learned the Breezeway is good for seed starting, if you wait until April (even a cold April like we had the following year). Because of the bright sun in the room, what I lost in temperature, I gained in light.

03- (3) MarchSeed-starting is critical for production-level vegetable gardening like mine. When you grow 20 tomato plants it is unsustainably expensive to purchase nursery seedlings at $5 to $10 each, so I learned to propagate and save seeds for everything I grow. People find vegetable gardens expensive when they commodotize them–you don’t need more than seeds, soil, a trowel, and some sticks, really. No need for all the attrative tools and tchotchkies in the garden center.

Some seeds are easy to collect; for instance for beans and corn the seeds are the part you eat. Just leave them on the plant until they dry, and you have seeds. Tomatoes have to be mildly processed (leave the seeds, goop and all, in a jar until, essentially, they start to mold, then clean and dry them). Leave peppers and eggplants on the plant until they’re a ways past edible. Lettuce, other greens, some annual herbs, and some root vegetables will “bolt;” that is, they start a flowering stalk. Leave them all season and they’ll reseed themselves, although this also takes up space in the beds. Doing this, you discover that lettuce plants create an astonishingly beautiful flower stalk. You don’t have to leave it, unless you have space for the self-seeding option; you can collect the tiny seeds if you need to open up the space for a new planting.

Some seeds can’t be saved without special steps to protect them from cross-pollination. There are wild carrots that will make inedible carrot hybrids; dill will mate with fennel. Squash will cross-pollinate with unpredictable results. If your corn is within a quarter mile of a different breed, even the ones you just planted won’t necessarily come out the way you think they will. If your plants are what they call F1 hybrids (it will say on the packet), it means they aren’t “stable”–the next generation plant may or may not have the same characteristics regardless of pollination; those will need to be purchased from a commercial grower. I grow the same F1 “Provider” beans every year, because they’re so good. But my tomatoes are all “heirloom” varieties, that is, they are stable hybrids, and will reliably create the same thing year after year.

I haven’t bought tomato seeds in 20 years. It’s fun, and it’s satisfying to take your food production the full cycle from seed to seed.

My other March task—filling the raised beds—was definitely made easier by the unseasonal weather. With the soil already unfrozen (I’m not sure it ever froze that year at all), I hauled about 2 cubic yards in 15-gallon storage tubs from a friend’s yard; enough to fill one large and one small bed. My housemate provided enough for another 1/3 bed from pots under the porch at their old place. This took five trips and was the start of a season of hauling heavy things. Since I ended up (a couple months of hauling down the road) with a badly sprained wrist, I think it’s safe to say my days of massive hauling projects probably need to be behind me.

03- (3b) MarchRight at the end of the month, the tulips I had planted in the fall started peaking through. I had a garden.

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March: Snowstorm

2. March 2017

Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

The unusually warm 2017 spring ensured that all the plants thrived both in the breezeway and outside next to the house; I retrieved the diaspora plants, and all of the shrubs started sprouting, although the new redbud kept us biting our nails well into May.

March in Chicago is “extended season” time. A lot of people go through all kinds of hoops (literally–they build hoop houses) to eek out an extra few weeks of planting time. In my experience, for home gardeners this gives you maybe an additional week’s worth of growth: the plants do grow earlier, but slowly because it’s cold even in a hoop house this time of year, and there’s just not enough sunlight. If you plant in a hoop house in March, you’ll have great looking peas by June 1. However, if you plant in the open bed the first week of May, you’ll have great looking peas by June 1.

03- (2) MarchThen, just as we had decided it was spring, and planted out a few things, it decided it actually was winter after all, and dumped a load of snow and a week of unseasonal cold. Chicago didn’t get as slammed as the east coast, but we still ended up with more than 8 inches of snow in two very lovely falls over two days. Not too cold, and the streets were cleared pretty fast, although oddly, even though seriously this was not a bad storm, traffic shut down.

Plants adapted to a Northern Illinois winter actually need the snow. While I don’t think we had a precipitation deficit, because it came down as rain, snow can act as winter “mulch,” protecting roots. Winter rain also doesn’t do much to hydrate the ground—because the ground is mostly frozen, it just runs off. Snow, which melts more slowly than rain comes down, has a chance to seep into the soil, keeping roots and seeds moist.

It was the most snow-free winter in more than 100 years, with not a single snowflake from Christmas to this March storm. Can’t really complain after a winter like this. (Don’t worry, complaints coming for the most miserable April and May in years.) Since I hadn’t actually gotten to see my garden in the snow, because there was no snow in January and February, this was kind of nice. And since in March you know it’s only going to last a few days, especially March in a warm year, I figured this was it (although the joke was on me).


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March: Diaspora

1. March 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

I had an interview with a landscape designer. Not to design my landscape, but to work for her as a designer. Knowledge of plants + gardening background + art degree apparently can equal landscape designer. In talking to her, one of the things I learned was that a garden like mine would probably cost upwards of “not affordable,” with design, plant purchase, installation, and hardscaping.

But I’ll do this garden the way I did the last one: by myself, with some labor from the kids, and a whole lot of scavenged plants and blocks and pavers and pots.

Starting in March, the housemate I’d acquired (that’s a different tale) started bringing me plant orphans, pavers and flagstones from various landscaping sites and stashes: strawberries, a currant bush, some gooseberries (in addition to the one I brought from the old place), and a lot of prairie plants. They kept it up all summer, in fact, bringing discarded plants from job sites and alleyways: everything from weedy spiderwort to an ornamental cherry tree.

I also had my own plant immigrants, and my “diaspora” plants—ones I’d divided and staged in various friends’ yards as soon as I knew that I had to move, four years ago. There was nothing worth saving already at the new place except a couple of hostas and two peonies. The people I bought from were emphatically not gardeners. Neighbors constantly stopped on their way by to tell me how grateful they are that I was putting in these beautiful gardens.

03- (1a) MarchWith my blank slate before me, I started with the big projects to get the various garden “rooms” ready for plants. This meant navigating a new regulatory system. Chicago is pretty much “ask forgiveness, not permission.” My new town seems to have ordinances, fees, and permits for everything, and they apparently drive around looking to catch you. If they do, the fines are burdensome. It’s easy to fly under the radar in Chicago; even though each ward and even neighborhood is a town unto itself, the regulatory regime just doesn’t care all that much about what you do in your front yard, much less the back.

But Evanston requires notifications and permits.

03- (1) MarchNevertheless, not wanting to be told “no” or have to pay a fee, I took a chance and contracted with a tree company without bothering the mention it to anyone to remove all the junk trees along the alley so that the Farm would have full sunlight. Their method was a cliché “Tim-berrrrr!” – notching the trees and then pushing them over. They managed, through skill and luck, to avoid the power lines under which they were growing, as well as the cars both parked and driving down my street. The biggest tree was probably 40 feet tall, so this was fairly terrifying. The same day they were doing this, workers in a nearby suburb died when a tree they were removing fell on a power line.

I had them chip it on the spot; originally I estimated the wood chips pile left at 5 cubic yards, but after seeing the soil dump a couple of weeks later (which I knew to be 4 CY), I think it was probably closer to 10.

Here is the list of plants we had scavenged by the end of June:

  • Angelonia
  • Aster and boltonia
  • Astilbe
  • “1/5th of an azalea”
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Blue eyed grass
  • Blue Rush (Junca)
  • Boltonia/Aster
  • Cherry tree*
  • Clove currant bush
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Elderberry
  • False strawberry
  • Ferns (3 varieties)
  • Fleabane
  • Foam flower
  • Ground sedum
  • Hosta (several types)
  • Hydrangea, shrub
  • Hydrangea, climbing
  • Hydrophyllum*
  • Iris
  • Jewelweed
  • Lamiastrum
  • Lamium
  • Liatris
  • Lily (Asiatic)
  • Limelight sedum
  • Lysmachia
  • Milkweed*
  • Monarda
  • Ornamental Cherry
  • Peony
  • Potentilla (maybe. We’re not sure)
  • Redbud
  • Red Twig dogwood
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Spiderwort
  • Sunflower
  • Sylphium
  • Wiegela
  • Wild Garlic
  • Wild Ginger
  • Witch Hazel tree
  • Wood Poppy
  • Yarrow*
  • Yucca

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3. February 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Gardeners still follow the Quarter Days, from Imbolc to Lady Day to Beltaine and Midsummer, each observance marking a task—planning to seed starting to planting to the first harvest.

02- (3) FebruaryMidsummer Day is the first Quarter Day of the harvest season—the summer Solstice, when the sun lined up with the temple doors, and farmers sold the yearling foals and colts. Greens and peas are done, and the beans and fall squash can be planted. It’s followed by the August 1 cross quarter day, Lammas, Lughnasadha, or the Loaf Mass, when the first wheat harvest is sent to the mill, and the abundance of the garden becomes almost oppressive as the goddess is at her most ascendant. In the U.S. Lammas is celebrated as Labor Day. It wasn’t moved there from May Day to honor the farmers at the heart of our mythos, but it’s appropriate all the same. The ancient holidays have an inescapable wisdom.

Michaelmas near the end of September marks the fall Equinox, when you plant the bulbs and winter cover crops, and the Michaelmas daisies (chrysanthemums) bloom. It marks the Archangel’s triumph of the Light over the Dark, just as the days get short and the nights long.

02- (3a) FebruaryThen All Hallows and All Saints, Samhain, the ancient celebration of the New Year. There’s a holiday that still celebrates the end of fall as the new year – Rosh Hashana. The Jews celebrate the new year, then atone for their transgressions. Christians honor those passed and appease them with sweets, celebrating the mass for the dead; but those who celebrate Samhain know that this is when the veil is thinnest and the dead try to insist they are still part of the world. Just ask Buffy. Bring in the final harvest, preserve the last of the squash, tomatoes, herbs, fall fruits, and cucumbers, plant your winter cover crops and give a feast of thanks with family.

At All Hallows, farmers allow the itinerant to glean the fields, clearing them for the spring planting to come. This story makes it into the Bible, when Ruth gleans Boaz’s fields to catch his eye. Twenty generations later, the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, brought about amid the gleaning, leads to the marriage of their descendent Mary to Joseph, and the final quarter day in late December.

Marked by the Winter Solstice, the Christ-mass celebrates the pre-Christian tale of the god’s return to earth to save humankind, while the goddess freezes it in mourning for the loss of her daughter. We hang branches to remind us of the god’s journey, of the green that stands for the god that never dies, and put lights on it to remind of us of the warm sun that always comes back.

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2. February 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

02- (2a) FebruaryLike all Christian holidays, the quarter days and cross quarter days have their roots in our magical past, when the gods and spirits of the natural world lived close to waking reality.

After Candlemas, the first true quarter day is Lady Day, the Assumption, the return of the goddess from the underworld. Occurring near the March Equinox, it signals the beginning of market season. In middle climes, bulbs and onions can be planted, but in the cold north we plant them at the other equinox in the fall. Either way they get harvested at the midsummer solstice. This is how I remember garlic: it grows from the Equinox, whichever one has the friable soil, to the Summer Solstice. In our new reality of changing climate, you no longer need to plant the garlic in the fall; in fact it comes up too soon now when you plant it in the fall. Also at Lady Day you can start your warm weather seeds indoors, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Following Lady Day is another cross quarter: May Day, Beltaine, when the lambs are born and the babies are made. (Everybody fucks at Beltaine. It’s kind of the point, and leads to babies at the year’s final quarter day or the winter Solstice.) Plant out your cool-weather starts in Zone 5, and start seeds indoors for fall crops like squash so that they’re ready to plant after Midsummer’s Day, when the moths that lay eggs in them have died.

In most of the world May Day is also Labor Day, or International Workers’ Day, chosen because of the unrelated confluence of the existing, ancient spring rite and the Chicago Haymarket Riots. The conservative U.S., always more hostile to the needs (as opposed to the romance) of actual workers, moved Labor Day to September to sever the association with the actual labor movement.

02- (2) FebruaryIn Zone 5 the “frost date” falls between May Day and Midsummer, and northern gardeners mark it by planting out the tomato and pepper seedlings they’ve been growing inside. I suppose it’s a cross-cross quarter day.

As I wrote this in the deep midwinter, a friend who was moving brought me currant and gooseberry bushes to stage in the Breezeway, and I started lettuce seeds in my basement, with heating mats and grow lights.

A little bit of May Day in the house.


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1: February 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

When society was agrarian “quarter day” meant payday, servants hired, school starts, rent due.

The first such calendar marker is February 2, although it is actually a “cross quarter” day, or the day midway between quarter days. It marks the slow return to Spring. The servants and the children would get a new dress or trousers and a pair of shoes, and the farm manager planned out the year’s planting and harvest, and hired his workers. In the Church the second of February is Candlemas and the Feast of St. Brigid; among the standing stones Imbolc, also dedicated to the goddess Brigid. The secular society calls it Groundhog Day, but the impulse is the same: to bless the light and look for signs of spring; to honor the lower-case gods of late winter. It’s the earliest day for starting seeds indoors—cool weather crops and summer flowers.

In my new house, I marked the day by gathering my scavenged plants in unseasonal warmth, staging them in the Breezeway. We went into the month with the longest snow-free stretch since they started keeping records. Despite the spring-like warmth, the plants stayed dormant, an uncomfortable disconnect. It looked like winter, but it felt like spring. At the end of the month we had 8 days in a row with temperatures 20 to 40 degrees above normal. I went out one evening around 8 in a t-shirt with no sweater, which I’d taken off because I was walking and I got hot. In February. In Chicago.

My November-planted crocus bulbs did not emerge. This marker of imminent spring is important, not just to gardeners, but to anyone walking past a garden. We know intellectually that spring is coming, just ask the groundhog, but viscerally northerners always think (don’t deny it) that this is the winter that will not end after all. The crocuses and the snow drops tell us, “don’t be silly.”

But this year, they stayed where they were, mistrusting the mixed up signals of winter sun and April warmth.

02- (1) February

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January: Waiting

2. January 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

When I was a young mother I used to wait for my children to sleep so I could get…something…done. Then I waited for them to start school so I could get back to work. I waited for my husband’s career to take off so I could be an artist again. While I was waiting, the children grew up and my husband got tired of waiting and fell in love with someone else.

This first year in the new house all of Chicago was, oddly, waiting for winter to resume,01- (2) January because it had decided not to hang around much after such a snowy December. The shrubs stopped waiting and started to bud. I bought myself a wine red amaryllis for my birthday, and timed the potting to bloom on the day. It missed by not quite 2 weeks, but close enough. Amaryllis (amaryllii?) are one of those reliable houseplants that are easy to grow and hard to get wrong.

Gardeners and cooks spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for the spring, for the sprout, for the fruit, for the harvest. Waiting for the bread to rise, the water to boil, the butter to soften. Waiting for the dishes to be washed or the table set.

In January I wait each day for the sun to hang around a little longer than the day before, as imperceptible and inevitable as the growth of a child. I wait for the days until I can pull out the seed starting mix and plant the early crops, and then the tomatoes. But I won’t be satisfied after I’ve gotten there and done that; I’ll just start waiting again, to be able to take them outside and harden them off, and then to plant, and then to grow until the cycle comes around another time, with me, still waiting.

As I write this, I’m waiting for a cake to bake. Getting impatient, I whipped the left over egg whites for meringue cookies, not thinking that they would need to sit for an hour while the cake finished, and then another hour while the oven cooled down. In the meantime, they slumped, and then separated, and I had to throw them out.

I guess I should have waited.


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