Late Winter Rituals

By Mimi Hedl

Daffodils in the pawpaw grove

On this gray, dreary, rainy St. Patrick’s Day, the abundant daffodils remind me that spring sits waiting. Our Lady in Waiting. March always dumps a good bit of ugliness, mixed with mud and treacherous winds, bringing down branches and creating a mess for the head gardener. She is no jovial spirit at these times. Why doesn’t she see the daffodils smiling at her, I say. And she says I’m just an old fool. Hmm, I say. She claims my frequent naps give me my edge. I tell her, follow nature’s cues, when it’s gray and gloomy, rain pounding the tin roof, your eyes closing, Mother N. says to nap. It’s that simple. She goes off in a huff.

Honey bee on Ice Follies Daffodil

At the beginning of March, I took out my collection of tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds, about 20 varieties of each, all members of the Solanaceae family (for you plant geeks). We’ve been saving seed since 1983 when we became members of the Seed Savers Exchange.  In their 2021 catalog, I see we’re among the original 24 people in the organization. Only 24 of us left. That tells its own story.

These tomatoes and peppers come from all parts of the country, often with a history. When I come to the “O’s” in my tomato bag, I see Oxheart and remember I requested seed of that tomato for Mom, as she said that as a girl it had been her favorite tomato. When she was in her 80’s, I was able to travel back to Boulder with these Oxheart’s and surprise Mom with an heirloom. What a delight for her ─ she was transported.

As I looked through the seed collection, I took note of the year I saved seed of each variety. Every seed has an average viability time. These heirlooms have to be grown every few years to insure they’ll sprout. So I consider the age of the seeds and also what I MUST grow, my favorites. I riffle through and pull out the packets that I’ll use, then organize my labels and wet cloth scraps to pre-sprout the seed.

I fold the cloth for each variety with the slow care of an origami artist, after all, I’m looking into the making of life. Each variety of tomato, pepper and eggplant has its own piece of cloth, a label, the lot folded up into a silent, secure, damp chamber, waiting for magic to arrive and bring the seed out of dormancy, into life.

After a few days, I sit down with my bundles of seed and look for signs of sprouting. It feels a bit like Christmas as every sprouted seed brings a smile and a shout of joy, something much needed on these dreary late winter days. The Serrano pepper seed from 2003 sprouted after 5 days. Amazing to see that seed burst into life. I credit the cool, dry storage of these seeds, but still, that’s a long time to keep a seed waiting.

 Once I’ve collected fresh seed of this pepper, I could compost the old Serrano seed. But I’ve learned from failures that sometimes the new seed isn’t viable. A sad moment. Now I hold on to the old seed until I’ve successfully germinated the new seed. I wish I could pass on the older seed, but like so many parts of life in this digital age, the logistics become staggering. Old seed doesn’t have value, when, like my friend Clayton says, “Seed’s so cheap.”  I say that’s not the point, he brushes me off, laughs and moves on. I feel a bit like a fuddy duddy. Ok, I am one and like so many fuddy duddies, I play the role with pride.

I did have to cruelly chuckle last spring when he called and wanted to know where he could order seed ─ he couldn’t find seed, anywhere. I gave him what I could of my collection, names of seed companies, but he was too impatient and drove miles to find what he wanted. He also pooh-poohs saving seed as a hassle and doesn’t listen to me waxing poetic about my late winter ritual.

The sprouted seed goes in a flat, carefully labeled, and upstairs to a covered tray, where I wait for the seed to pop through the soil. As soon as the cotyledon bursts through, the flat goes under the LED fixture and the seedlings begin to grow luxuriantly with 16 hours of light a day. Once they have their first true leaves, I transplant each into its own container with compost instead of potting soil. I’m priming them for the big wide world. There’s no longer a danger of damping off, a fungal disease that affects newly sprouted seeds and seedlings, so real soil comes into play.

Once each plant has settled in, looks firmly rooted, and all danger of frost has passed, they’ll go out to the cold frame where they’ll feel sun and wind and begin to have an idea of what awaits them. They’ll be with the asparagus seedlings, the onions, the celery and cabbages; though these older transplants will soon find their way into the earth and learn many a lesson about survival. The real world and the cold frame run on different rules; the training wheels come off when the plants go into the garden.

 For someone who works the earth, these are great adventures, equal to exploring the Amazon and deep sea diving. I’ve entrusted a once tiny seed into a mosaic of life, hoping, with my help, it figures out how to grow and prosper. I count on many helpers. Sadly, the polar vortex took 28 of our most beautiful workers, bluebirds. When I went to clean out their houses, after the cold weather passed, I found 19 crammed in one nest box. I nearly fainted with shock and disbelief.

Bittersweet seeds and bluebirds

After I recovered my equilibrium at such a sight, I called a friend at our Conservation Department. I’d sent her a photograph. She too was shocked but had heard from other Missourians about finding dead bluebirds in their yards. The cold was extreme. The bluebirds eat worms or berries and they couldn’t find either. The rest of the bird population ate suet and sunflower seed as never before and I kept them in fresh water as well as I could. The sub-zero temps stayed with us too long. The bluebirds faced a disaster of huge proportions.

I mourned for several days and when I found 9 more bluebirds packed in another bird house, I quietly buried them and moved on, shaking my head as I dug the holes. What more can we do? It will be a quiet spring without these lovely workers. I only hope they can reproduce in other parts of the state and slowly move back to this area.

This all shows the precariousness of life. March has a bad reputation in gardening books and lore. It’s looked upon as fickle and uncertain when really it’s we who haven’t learned that March is a time of transition. We need to move slowly and carefully and not expect spring to appear because we feel so ready. Hence the naps.

I like to think of March as the last hurrah before the intensity of the growing season. I still may have to cover the cold frame if frost arrives. The peach blossoms may get coaxed out too early and suffer an untimely loss and a few times the lilacs have also complained about the cold.  Transitions invite stress, an inevitable part of life. We learn how to move with the changes and celebrate small victories, like this blooming spice bush and the electric blue squill.  (I saw the head gardener bending down to admire them.)

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