Once my garden finally comes to life in the spring, it seems so utterly groggy for so many weeks, I finally feel like poking it with a big stick. More than once have I smashed shoots just emerging from the ground, milling about where I had no business. One foolishly warm day in March turns the old blood over, as Theodore Roethke would say, and I am out there searching for any sign of life. The next day is inevitably wintry. I am admirably able go on to my clients about the proper time for this or that, but frankly I am not any better at waiting than the next gardener. My landscape is a study in static the end of January. Every day is just about as dreary as the next. The sky I can see, which surely must be thousands of square miles, is the same sullen shade of bleak from edge to edge, and top to bottom. A relentlessly uniform tour de force, if you will. Michigan is known for for its astonishing number of sun-free winter days, should anyone be interested in that. How annoying -to be waiting for the weather to change.
Every walking surface is an icy and bumpy history of the footsteps of those few who venture out. The mail man has his signature bootprint. There are the corgi paws, the Fex Ex man, whose boots are distinctly different than the UPS man, and the meter reader prints. The arrival of the mail truck ranks as an event. Friends in the neighborhood honk the horn as they drive by; they are waiting for spring too. Still stubbornly wearing tennis shoes, I slide all over the terrain. Playing ball with the corgis in the drive is more about keeping my balance than watching them. They slide around, slip up and flip over- with gusto. They draw no distinction between a balmy spring day and today’s plate of frozen mush. Milo manages to find yet one more fresh deep patch of snow in which to bury his ball, and them triumphantly dives and retrieves it, as if he had never before had so much fun. He has better than an instinct to survive the waiting; he lives for that triumphant moment when can burst through the door, and be outdoors. Why can’t I do this? I man that door for him as if it were the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. (Waiting does strange things to people.) I may wait 15 seconds before I fling the door open-he is spot on at full speed the moment I make my move. He is halfway down the drive, and already circling back to see if I am there; I assure you I am not through the door yet. We may do this a dozen times a day, or better.
The seed and nursery catalogues come in droves in January. They can furnish me with no small amount of diversion, entertainment, and serious interest, while I am waiting. I even study the descriptions of the vegetable seeds-though I grow none. Sorting through 500 tomato varieties, both heirloom and new, is better than a walk through my neighborhood. The packages are alluring, all the varieties worth pondering. I have been known to buy packets of seeds of plants I have no intention to grow. It’s enough to just look at them. A nursery on the West Coast grows espaliered lindens, and sells them large enough to plant free standing-how intriguing is this? The growers from Lake County in Ohio are many; the land there is rich and productive. Herman Losely and Sons, Bluestone Perennials, Lake County Nursery-they all grow great plants; reading their catalogues often inspires design ideas. Sunny Border Nursery-I could order a semi-truck load of rock plants and hens and chicks from them on a day like today. I have a stack of those catalogues measuring 23 inches tall. My stack of magazines, all relating to design in some way or another is probably 4 feet tall. I do not have the time to really read during the gardening season. Cote Sud, Cote Ouest, the English version of Country Living- I stack them up for the winter when I can concentrate, and cut out images I do not wish to part with. I do have a stash of magazine pages I go through on occasion, some dating back a long time. Sitting in the waiting room of the garden, all of these materials provide a little hope for the future. I winter-read, with the exception of Garden Illustrated; for this publication, I can’t wait. When it comes, I read.
I have a collection of antique seed catalogues, dating back to the turn of the century. Suttons Seeds from England, Marshall’s Seeds from New York City in 1927, Dreer’s from Philadelphia-I love the old ones. The engravings are beautiful, but more, I appreciate the earnest notes of those gardeners, caught in the stranglehold of January, favoring this variety or that. No matter where these catalogues came from, and no matter where I find them, gardeners are mumbling to themselves about what they will do once the starting gate swings open. These notes are invariably in pencil. Any note in pencil can easily be changed, updated, altered, or tuned up, right? Shall I buy one packet of 25 seeds, or are three packets, at a better price, what I really need? Wait-would this variety be better? Things are underlined; the margins are full of scribbles. Gardeners all over are writing about what seeds they will be growing, waiting for that time when they can stop writing and start growing. I would begrudgingly admit this time of year may be about waiting, but it should be about planning, and anticipation.
Wait one moment please-am I really thinking I am tired of again trying to find perennials that will mature properly short enough in front of my boxwood? Or should I move that boxwood two feet forward, and plant the taller plants of my dreams behind it? Whatever decision I make, there will be better than several winter months in which to consider that decision. No need for any ink yet. A garden is big work-this makes the planning all the more important. Taking one’s winter to plan is a sterling idea; it is even a better idea to take your eyes off the skies, and put them to use elsewhere. I would be the better for taking my own advice. Once I take the time to sort through what has been in my garden, I will be waiting for my big box of seeds, in beautifully rendered packages clearly marked 2010, to finally arrive.