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Sunday, May 12, 2002

Potting on

The tomatoes didn't pan out. I hovered over them with the mister till they keeled over, no doubt with damping-off. I shall have to go to the garden store and surreptitiously acquire replacements.

I put out peas and then got sick and couldn't cover them during the heavy rains, and they rotted.

I put out corn -- I know, it's early, some people never learn -- and it's been snowing up at the pass all day and hailing and pouring half-frozen rain here, and I'm sick again and didn't go out and cover the corn beds, and now I can hear the seeds drowning even as I write.

Gardeners are a masochistic lot -- or sadistic, depending on whether you consider their feelings or those of their seeds and transplants.

I looked out the window at the already tall grass that would be choking the irises if it hadn't been lodged by the constant wind and rain, and howled, or rather croaked: "my seeds are rotting! My garden is drowning!"

Beloved looked up from her easy chair, smiled beneficently, and replied ever so sweetly. "My garden is in the greenhouse, safe and snug."

It's true; that's where her whole garden is, including the pumpkin patch and the sunflowers, waiting for the real spring, which as anyone around here knows, starts sometime between June 1 and the 4th of July. She can do this because she's mastered the art of repotting.

Even in this weather, the greenhouse, which is nothing more than three sliding glass door panels mounted on frame lumber along the south side of the potting shed, is cozy during the day.

She kneels on her feedsack-pillow, trowel in hand, and repots from two-inch pots to four-inch, from four to eight, as needed, while her garden grows. I always manage to wait too late to do this; eventually I'll unpot a veggie only to find that the roots have grown about sixty feet long, or maybe a mile and a half, winding round-and-round the soil plug like thread on a spool. The effect on the growth of the plant is not unlike that of creating a bonsai tree by removing its taproot. I can produce little teeny tomato plants and little teeny zinnias this way, and probably should enter them in the County Fair -- in the contest about how not to garden.

Take a tip from Beloved and repot early.

She takes up, say, a flat of broccoli, thirty-two of them in two-inch pots, and makes sure she has nearby not two but four (try the math!) unoccupied flats and thirty-two four inch pots. A sack of potting mix rests close by, that has been mixed in a wheelbarrow at the rate of three sacks potting soil to one of steer manure and a bit of powdered limestone, and resting on the soil there is a number ten tomato can, which makes a fine cheap scoop.

She scoops up a canful of mix, slings some into the bottom of the first four-inch pot, turns a broccoli upside down, taps two sides of the two-inch pot, lifts it gently off the soil plug, rights the plant into the four-inch pot, shakes mix in on all four sides, tamps it down a bit for a snug fit (roots abhor two things: air and light) so that the top of the soil meets the root collar of the broccoli and is between 1/4 and 1/2 inch from the top edge of the pot, sets it in the new flat, and on to the next one.

This is much faster and simpler, really than the description, and the rhythm of it all is quite relaxing. I prefer doing this with Mozart or Bach in the background. She's more a Golden Oldies girl, but I've never heard Herman and the Hermits in the greenhouse; only the chuffing of the tomato can hitting the rich brown surface of the mix.

Abner, our White China gander, watches her angrily through the "lights" as she works, and when she reaches for the pots nearest him, tries to nip her through the glass, with a thump that's kind of pleasing to hear if you've ever been bitten by a goose.

The glass is stout enough to resist anything that Abner might contemplate, but there are situations that it was not built for. George, a sheep that lived with us for awhile, made this point very clear by escaping from his pasture one fine day. We got him surrounded, and he retreated into the greenhouse, from whence we thought to lead him on a bit of rope. He had other ideas, and sailed through the double-paned safety glass as if it wasn't there, scattering rainbow shards twenty feet in all directions.

Not a scratch on him, either.

And all this time the greenhouse had faced into the pasture. Made me think long and hard about which animals to put where. (The freezer, for example, turned out to be the best place for George.)

Working in the greenhouse pays dividends, though, in opportunities to watch the critters that we own and some we don't own. I've looked up from potting to see a mallard drake and his mate looking in on me from the goose pen, and I enjoy watching the swallows zipping up under the eaves to their nests not three feet from my head. And beyond, in the yard full of dandelions, there are the goldfinches.

Many people in our area prefer the word "lawn" to "yard" and every year they wallop the dandelions with a herbicide-laced fertilizer. So we're a kind of dandelion island in a sea of miniature golf courses. Goldfinches seem to love dandelion seeds above all else at this time of year, so we get to have all the goldfinches as our guests.

They descend upon the yard in troops of twenty, fifty, a hundred, eating, arguing, making love. A goldfinch will land on the seed stalk of a dandelion, barely bending it, and sweep the head clean of the tiny white parasol seeds in moments, then on to the next one. The males are dazzling, and I find myself moving from window to window to get a view of their plumage from a few feet away, empty pot in one hand, a naked plug of soil with a chard seedling held forgotten in the other.

It's a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it really is.


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