Chicks are not all I’m dreaming about right now. With snow covering my garden, I began thinking ahead to my spring planting and what I want the garden to look like this year. Every year I tell myself that I’m cutting back and every year, before I know it the spring bug bites me and I sow seeds and plant and transplant until that garden bursts at the seams, all the while delighting my honey bees and native bees, birds and bats, and other appreciative wildlife (well, the ones I allow). My garden doesn’t just sustains us but also the quieter world around us and that feels good.
While tomatoes tend to be the mainstay of American gardens, I have been cutting back on them each year. They are space hogs and I end up with so many that need attention seemingly all at once. I’ve decided “less is more” and plan on half a dozen to be carefully selected from my seed stock pile. I certainly enjoy those juicy summer tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil and we all love to walk past a cherry tomato plant and pluck off a bunch for an unplanned snack while working outside. I appreciate having parboiled tomatoes on the coldest of winter days to use in soups and stews and a homemade sauce makes me swoon when it comes together with garlic, onion and herbs that I’ve grown as well. Ok, so maybe eight plants, but I digress. It’s too early for me to start tomatoes here so I’m focusing on cool weather plants since they will be first up.
Over the years I’ve learned to grow what we like, the emphasis being on “we”, and to grow what we’ll eat, not what I can accommodate. I love kale and Swiss chard, but I’m alone with that fondness so I’ve learned to cut back instead of trying to force them onto my family. They’ll eventually come around but sneaking kale into smoothies and chocolate chip cookies is just not the way for this family (and yes, I did those things rather unsuccessfully). These sneaky attempts sabotauge other whole food eating efforts and leads to comments from my son like, “be suspicious of anything green in your food. Mommy just came in the house with a lot of kale.” This was uttered not just to my daughter, but to my congenial husband as well. The nice thing about growing produce is that the family naturally gravitates towards it since we’re doing the growing so I no longer try to be tricky and I stick with what we like.
Lettuces have long been one of my favorite things to grow. They are easy to grow and so very gratifying as sowing seeds goes. I start them inside in late winter, scattering a variety of seeds onto moist Promix, my seed starter of choice but any will do, covering them with a clear lid to keep the moisture inside and assist them with sprouting. While I have grow lights that my husband made for me, I like to leave the lettuce starts on the counter under the lights beneath our kitchen cabinets. This way, my children can easily help spritz them at will and they feel a sense of accomplishment when within a few days, they begin to sprout and grow. There’s plenty of time for grow lights for my later starts, but for now I like to keep the lettuce seeds close in sight and marvel over the way we plant a seed, give it light and water and watch it grow before our very eyes. Today I use a seed starting container that has good drainage and a fitted lid, but I’ve used old takeout containers and punched holes in the bottoms and they work just as well.
I like to label what I’m growing, twice. I label the container and then I also write it in a notebook that I use to keep track of what is planted where, particularly as it relates to seeds because once everything gets going, it’s easy to forget, particularly if you can’t see anything yet. Here, I have a row each of Bibb lettuce, Romaine, Black Seeded Simpson and then half a row of arugula and Bloomsdale spinach. These are just some of my favorites. As lettuces go, I have grown many and I like having variety in my salad bowl. I have many more packs for when I sow outside, this is just the beginning.
Once they are growing, I will transplant them to my garden, initially in my window boxes so I can protect them from evening temperatures that dip below freezing. I keep a thermometer in my soil and once the soil warms which happens quicker with raised beds, I will simply sow the seeds directly into the soil along with some other favorite cool weather seeds: beets, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, radish and a family favorite- sugar snap peas. There are even more options for cool season plants but again, I’m focused on growing what we like. And alas, my little garden can only accommodate so much.
That first batch of lettuce leaves make the most satisfying salad, eaten plain or with balsamic oil just barely drizzled upon the leaves. My children even eat them this way, dispensing of the heavy Ranch dressings to savor the crisp, flavorful lettuce they helped grow. And there’s the hook! It gets me every year. That first taste and then the sowing and planting and transplanting begin in earnst. So let the fun begin!
The snow lies under the woods
and February is ending.
Far off, another way, he hears
the flute of spring,
an old-style traveler,
wandering through the trees.
- – Wendell Berry, Window Poems