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.



February: Quarter Days

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

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.


January: Seeds

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

January is a suspended month. The poets describe it as forlorn, though one garden writer quips, “there are two seasonal diversions that can ease the bite of any winter. One is the January thaw. The other is seed catalogs.”

I never bought seeds from catalogs until I fell in with garden hobbyists; I met people who would buy hundreds of dollars worth of seeds every year, for their tiny backyard gardens, or tinier community garden plots. There are “seed swaps” where people go to grab up even more. There are people who buy seeds for seed swaps, which seems like buying things so you can donate them to resale. I let myself be sucked into this for a few years, but eventually reverted to saving seeds from the garden, and buying a packet or two of things I need. (Sometimes from Walgreen’s. Sue me.)

01- (1a) JanuaryThe first time I went to a seed swap I was new to the community of gardeners, and as with everything I do vowed to do it the best, in order to make sure that everyone understood that I absolutely know what I’m doing (full disclosure: I have no idea what I am doing, most of the time). This is a pathological compensation for the fact that my father didn’t love me; I’ve spent my entire life trying to live up to the ideals of people who 1. don’t care about me, and 2. are unaware that I am playing this game. It is somehow worse that rather than judging me poorly, they don’t even understand that this is their function.

The seed swap was among a community of bloggers, some of them “internet famous” within the tiny slice of the internet that is garden bloggers. It’s a little bit like a high school class-people drawn together by some external commonality, then ranked by the arcane and impenetrable rules of the in-group.

For my first seed swap, unaware that these rules existed, let alone what they were, I carefully packed up all the seeds I had saved, selecting out the most unusual, and making beautiful packets for them. I was the only one with self-saved seeds. Everyone else had commercial packets, which really seemed like cheating to me.

The other thing that struck me is that you don’t trade packets. You take a few seeds from a packet. I suppose this makes some sense, but seems like gambling, since it’s not unusual for only 1 in 5 of any given seed packet to sprout, especially as a lot of these were expired packets. But as the participants seemed more interested in acquisition than actually 01- (1) Januarygrowing the seeds they acquired, I suppose that didn’t really matter. People were both impressed and puzzled by my handmade, self-saved artistic seeds. I never went to that seed swap again.

The seed swaps I did go to were for a largish community gardening organization, and that can be described in two words: feeding frenzy.

In this January in the new house, I bought no seeds at all, and skipped all the seed swaps.

December: New spaces

4. December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

One of the things that I have found most difficult about living alone for the first time in my life, is how lonely it gets, and how boring it is to be lonely. It’s especially trying in mid-winter, when the days are short, because you really do feel cut off from the world when it’s dark out.

When I was first alone, I spent hours and hours walking. From February 2013 until summer of 2015, I walked.

3 miles, 5 miles, 10? I don’t know. I walked for hours. I walked places that aren’t actually walking distance. I walked in the rain, the heat, the dark, composing haiku in my head. Once I talked a friend into walking along the lakefront in a blizzard, until the stinging blowing sand drove us back inland.

Walking was a way to not be in the empty house, but it turns out that exercise spurs endorphin release, and can help stabilize your mood by raising the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. There are even therapists who use “Walk and Talk” therapy–literally taking the session onto the park path–instead of in an office, or passively on a couch.

But here, getting used to a new house after the clocks changed, it was too dark to walk, too early in the day.

12- (4) DecemberI spent a lot of time sitting in the window, looking at the snowy neighborhood, illuminated by the old-fashioned streetlight. And did what gardeners do: planned the garden for the spring.

Garden planning for new spaces requires an understanding of the space; for instance, I lost plants due to the weight of shoveled snow. I’d planted them right where the snow had to be piled. These are the things that you just don’t know about a new space. I propped one of them up, placing Christmas tree branches under my pile-vulnerable lavender, but the others were broken and didn’t survive.

I mapped out the plants I had brought with me, and staged in random corners. I planned what to buy of those plants I had to leave behind.

I didn’t bring the rosemary from my old garden. Everyone tries to overwinter rosemary indoors, but it never works. Rosemary needs humid air and dry soil, pretty much the exact opposite of a Chicago winter interior. Even the breezeway is likely too cold and dry. I’ve seen overwintered rosemary so I know it can happen, but it seems like asking to be depressed about killing a plant. So just let the winter kill it outside, and start with a baby in the spring, in honor of the god who dies in December and is reborn.

12- (4a) December

December: Growing

3. December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

The deep midwinter, with its snow and bitter cold, came early this year. I fussed with the placement of the houseplants, moving furniture so that the Red Star, geranium and bay laurel could get more sun.

Heavy snow hit mid-month and stayed on the ground through Christmas, then disappeared for pretty much the rest of the winter. A couple of bushes planted too close to the driveway got crushed under its shoveled weight—you just don’t know a new garden well enough to judge where to put things. The plants will suffer for it. (A metaphor, forsooth!)

On the other hand, halfway into the winter, the houseplants were thriving.

Houseplants are generally tropical and semi-tropical understory plants (as well as cacti and succulents). They work indoors because they tolerate low light, dry air, overwatering, and poor soil. They’ll tolerate a certain level of neglect, but usually when people kill houseplants it’s less because of neglect than of inconsistent care. Thinking that, since they haven’t watered in two weeks (oops), the solution is to now give the plant constant water several times a day. People alternately starve and drown the poor things. (Protip—under watering is better than overwatering, and watering from the base—by filling from the undertray—is best, as the plant won’t take up water it doesn’t need.)

I used to attempt to bring huge swaths of the garden inside for the winter, potting up not just tender exotics, but even annuals and some of my perennials. I’m pretty sure I ended up on the houseplants’ Most Wanted List, as the vast bulk of them would die before spring. Now I just bring in a couple of proven favorites (proven by not dying), and accept that there are plant-free months in my life.

Most of the houseplants from the old place survived the move. My inchplants just took off in the old garden last year, and retained their lushness indoors, although one of them didn’t survive the move back out in the spring. These plants like low light, which helps, although they also like really wet feet, usually the kiss of death for houseplants.

I cut back my geranium and rooted the stems, creating three plants. If you read ahead a few chapters (once I write them anyway), you’ll see me pot them up together in one of the larger ceramic pots. Once outside in the summer, it bloomed continuously for months, which it hadn’t done in the past.

The 10-year old cordyline Red Star (which sadly ended up dying in the unseasonal early summer heat) put on new growth through the winter, which is unusual for this plant. It’s usually pretty dormant inside. The bay laurel started bright and healthy, but not growing, and eventually dried out. I pinched it way back and brought it back to life. I think it needs more light than it gets inside here, though.

I need a greenhouse window in the kitchen, like in the old place.

December: Waiting

2. December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening

The series starts here

December passes in frustrating boredom for northern tier gardeners. Even in the warmest years the sun will sink, the air will chill, and the ground will freeze solid. You have to come in from the cold. Not even climate change can fight planetary motion.

As the winter wears on, one’s gardening chops get itchy, and you start to think about things like winter sowing, a seductive waste of time that involves making tiny greenhouses out of old milk cartons or pop bottles. Supposedly a season-extender, I’ve found that seeds planted this way just sprout when they would have sprouted in the ground. I think northern Illinois winter and spring are just too variable for winter sowing.

Almost ten years ago, I learned of a tradition called “Solstice Sowing.” It’s a midwinter planting to honor different aspects of your life—seeds for Remembrance, Faith, Life, and a tree seed for longevity. In past years, for remembrance I’ve planted Columbine (Aquilegia) and Angelonia. Columbine, because of its whimsical, star-shaped bloom, is sometimes associated with innocence and jest, but also with faith and remembrance. Also known as “Mary’s Shoes” they supposedly sprung from the fallen shoes of the Virgin upon her visit to Elizabeth.

I’ve planted Angelonia, a flower related to lavender. It really has nothing to do with remembrance, but I like the flower, and I had the seeds.

For faith I’ve planted mustard, of course, and other greens. They have the advantage of being useful, as well, and are seedlings that can be put out as soon as the ground is friable.

I planted anemone one year on the death of my aunt-by-marriage. Anemones are the flowers that some say spring from the blood of the dead god, and others from the tears of the goddess who mourns him.

Seeds for Life have been Chinese Lanterns as well as sunflowers. The Chinese Lanterns never come up, not a very good omen. But sunflowers are a wonderful symbol of the life-giving sun that they are named for.

Some years I do plant tree seeds—I tried paw-paws one year, and a cutting from my Magnolia (which sadly didn’t make it—I wish I had that now). This first year in the new house instead of planting a tree, I put up a Christmas tree for the first time in years—the breezeway fairly screams for one, so I decided to honor the call. It stayed up only for the 12 Days, but I left lighted garlands on the windows all the way to the Equinox.

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