THERE IS NO PERENNIAL virgin like an inveterate gardener in February. Year after year, we foresee glories of the earth to come: luxuriant blooms, groaning harvests. Who among us in February remembers the brilliant mistakes of the past?
Take last year. The entire onion crop in my 30-by-30-foot home garden failed. Most years I get enough mature globes to braid with baling twine and hang in the kitchen for bragging rights. Whenever I need an onion, which is often, I just lop off the bottom-most one (and sweep up the chaff of dried skins that fall to the floor). But last year’s summer was persistently dry. It followed an unusually wet spring. Possibly there were sunspots or planetary misalignments to blame as well. More likely, I set them out too soon, before the slender stalks sprouted from seeds I started indoors had been hardened off properly.
Most respectable home farmers buy onion sets that need only to be stuffed into place once the ground unfreezes. But special onions—my beloved ‘Ailsa Craigs’, for instance—aren’t to be found in sets. Most people are content with hothouse veggie plants of tomatoes and peppers, broccoli and cabbage. But not me. Who wants to forgo the challenge of raising your own from seed? It’s like achieving handsome, charming, well-mannered children and sending them off to an Ivy League school—all in one season. Admittedly, there are some failures.
Growing useful organic vegetables is certainly one part narcissism. (The remaining two parts are gluttony and pride.) But since my garden is environmentally sound, my pride is at least somewhat mitigated by civic responsibility. And then there’s the soul-crying need to outface winter just as the solstice turns. The days are getting longer, yes; but—an old New England saying—“When the days begin to lengthen/Then the cold begins to strengthen.” This year, I promised myself, I would get a decent head start.
And I did, patiently twitching seeds into place during a raging nor’easter. A few weeks later and our house is full of makeshift shelves supporting microscopic greenery thrusting toward fluorescent lights, like a vegetative neonatal ward. But this year it’s not just edibles. “You have to watch out for these perennial campanulas,” the local nurseryman told me when I windowshopped along his hothouse rows last fall. “They take over your whole garden.”
That was just what I longed for. A carpet of bellflowers surrounding our dying willow tree! Blue bellflowers running riot down the slope, pouring across into the sheep pasture! But the campanula seeds I sent for last December— seeds that proved so tiny they asked to be planted one by one at the end of a moistened toothpick—are now only half an inch high. At least I have learned new respect for the horticulturists who raise perennials professionally, cosseting them to maturity by the million.
To everything its season. The hardy onions, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and cabbages that are currently crowding us out of the house will emigrate to the glassed-in, south-facing porch as soon as the nights stay above freezing. In mid-April they’ll go into the garden, long before it’s time to even think about starting corn.
Corn! Home-grown corn! The crop that exacts the most labor and on an annual yield basis gives the least. But—pride, gluttony—it’s worth it. Presprouting seeds on the cozy sun porch thwarts the crows who otherwise will steal every single one as soon as it’s planted. Last year, on a distinctly chilly May 15—outside temperature 48°F—I inserted 84 seeds into potting soil and covered the cells with plastic. Over the next seven to ten days, 78 seedlings emerged, poking out of their kernels like half-fledged chicks. I kept them moist. To take advantage of their heliotropic nature, I turned the trays around daily. I prayed over them a lot, too, hoping to coax some sign of life from the six duds, but to no avail.
By the sixth of June, the stalwarts were four to six inches tall. Cautiously popping them out of their containers, cupping their stringy roots like strands of pearls, I set them out in the garden. We ate our first ears on August 9; they were ambrosial. But who knows what this year will bring? Bellflowers, perhaps.
Poet, novelist, and essayist Maxine Kumin looks at the pleasures (and frustrations) of starting seeds