… the showyflowers are over, retreatedinto the earth. It simply
means what it is:Neither beginningnor fin de siècle
regardless of the way it feels.—Laura Kasischke, “Happy Meal”
Here in the Pennsylvania deep freeze of January, a month with single-digit temperature days and nights, my youngest daughter and I while on a walk through snowy woods talk about the garden we’ll have this summer. She wants her own patch for sunflowers and cucumbers and peas, and I know what she sees in her summer future because I see it, too: a self crouched at the edge of the raised beds, examining the yellow trumpet blossoms of cucumbers. A straw basket she’s filling with cherry tomatoes and purple beans. The damp morning soil and the clear evening air, all without mosquitoes or slugs or wasps. And not any weeds twining the stems of her plants. As we walk through the snowy woods, my daughter and I, we talk together with the same hope and awe in our voices about the garden at its best, which is us at our best, and here in January, that is what we must hope for.
My gardens are never as ambitious or tidy or fruitful as the gardens in my mind. Something always happens. Once I planted too much in a small space and by June had a welter of lettuce, nasturtiums, peas, and scraggly tomatoes. [End Page 41] Another time I had too many seedlings and threw most of them to the compost pile. One year a hurricane. And then there is the issue of cost. My garden requires money in addition to sunshine and rain. Some years, the sun and rain are the easy part, and I find myself investing an obscene number of dollars in fish emulsion, tomato cages, stakes, wire fencing for the peas, bird netting for strawberries, not to mention all manner of contraptions to keep out the deer.
I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot. After all, looking at the last harvest does us no good. Some of it has long passed through our bellies, some is still in freezers or canning jars. That past is what we know for sure. Maybe the past, the recent past anyway, with the evidence of its successes or failures still before us, is the only thing we can be certain of. It’s the next season and its surprises—the good and the bad—that interest us. And so I look at the seed catalogs.
Only one of them, Jung Seeds and Plants, is in full, glossy color. The cover is tomato red around the edges, the lettering large and sunflower yellow. The center bears photos of the most succulent possibilities: asparagus and strawberries. Peach-colored roses, a riot of zinnias, artisan tomatoes of oblong shapes and strange colors—yellow, burgundy, plum, striped pale gold, and green and pink. My god, how could anyone not look ahead? At the same time, fast-forwarding my attention four months allows no appreciation for winter, the here and now, as my aging gray and white cat settles himself on the Jung catalog. I run my hand over his neck and spine. This cat knows how to get what he wants, even in the season of cold. I should not let him settle like this on the kitchen table. We both know this. But I like his company, the soft dog breathing, the heater blowing and chuffing. In no other season would I have all of these things in hand, in ear, in sight. Still, the seed catalogs call...