Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the dead of winter

A repost.

The rare sunshine at this time of year always sends Beloved tearing out to the garden to put in peas. We have two gardens, actually: mine is the big one in heavy clay down in the cold gloomy bottoms north of the kitchen window; hers is the small one in sandy loam on the high sunny south side of the house, next to the duck barn. Peas planted in her garden in February will not rot, as they will in "my" garden. (Or maybe it's just that she can grow things I can't.) She climbs into her overalls, ties a bandana over her hair, grabs a "retired" pillow from the greenhouse, plunks it on the ground in front of the row, and goes to work.

The neighbor, a tidy retired man who gardens from June to August religiously, finds this behavior distinctly odd. So he comes out to investigate. Not wanting to be obvious about this, he begins on the far side of the pasture, and inspects his fence around into the apple orchard, then, after what he deems to be a decent interval, stops right by the little garden.

"What the devil are you at in the dead of winter?" he asks politely.

"Peas! Aren't they lovely?" she extends a grubby palm, with a dozen wrinkled seeds.

"You don't expect them to come up, do you?" He peers down at the strange-looking, to him, thick straw mulch that has been pulled back to reveal the brown earth.

"No, I never expect them to come up, but I always hope they will; and I get some nice surprises. Sometimes." She grins, and picks up her trowel.

"Huh! well, good luck to you! I see Mary; I better get inside or she'll think I'm out here courting'!" He ambles off, shaking his head at the improvidence of the Bear clan.

We buy a lot of our seeds at the end of summer, from racks of remaindered packets that are made available by our local hardware stores for five to ten cents a packet. A dime is not too much to spend on enjoying a brief spell of winter sun. Some of these year-old seeds, especially of flowers, seem to lose a bit of vitality and planting them can be like doing your thinning in advance; but regardless of what she says, Beloved's peas seem to always come up.

Peas are legumes. We much prefer them to beans, as the whole family has a sweet tooth. We like the climbing varieties more than bush, and prefer sugar snap to the shell-'em-out varieties.

When the season is at its height, relatively little food preparation goes on hereabouts, as we are all to be found at all hours simply sitting by the pea vines stuffing ourselves.

Those that we pick and bring in are not as good after about two hours, though we use them in salads and stir fries, and freeze the rest. If it does threaten to rain too much on the rows or beds soon after planting, cover with a plastic tarp for two days, then pull it off for a day, etc. as needed. As soon as the plants are up, pull the mulch up around them close, and renew it throughout the life of the plants, to keep the roots cool. I stake them out by making tripods of cuttings from ash, willow, and hazel. They hate to be planted in the same spot two years in a row, so think rotation.

After the crop is gone, I feed the vines to the ducks, geese, and rabbits, who think highly of them.

I see in garden magazines much talk of varieties: endless list-making and discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of all the latest hybrids or oldest heirlooms. I know that by going to the hardware store I'm taking whatever they have to offer, and missing a shot at the "best" of this or the "best" of that; and I greatly admire the work of seed-saver exchanges and heirloom nurseries. One of the country's finest seedsmen is just down the road about twenty miles, too, and we in the valley are very proud of their product.

But Beloved and I both work full time, and we have a strict budget to meet. The garden must pay for its share; we can put a little work into it but not much money.

We plant whatever comes to hand, and some years we say, "Well, this is not as good as what we had last year," or "Whoa! Now this is better than what we had last time!"

There is an element of surprise.

And it's all relative. This is organically grown, home-grown, fresh produce; all of it is better than anything we can get in the stores. That's why, even though our lives are busier than Broadway, we make time to get out there and plant, even in February. These seeds, if no one will buy them, will be thrown away. I can relate; I'm middle-aged and trying to build a second career. I have hope that, with a little care, I'll bear fruit yet. A lot to think about while putting a few peas in the ground.

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