On Garden Time: Signs of the Seasons

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To get intimate with a deeper calendar, take off your watch and go out into the garden.

Mud season, the harvest moon, or when the frost is on the pumpkin. We’re all familiar with such time measurements: the kind far removed from calculated accuracy. Not the precise (and aloof) paper calendar, but an earthy one with cycles of life, death, and change. Flexible but constant. Spring always comes, and it always comes after winter. It just retains the privilege of choosing which day it arrives.

Gardeners know this. Sweat and ripe sweet corn are increments of summer. The bowed brown heads of sunflower feeders gauge the progression of fall. Still, our garden calendars are only privately useful, not universally synchronized. March 15 is March 15 everywhere. Such exact standards facilitate human interaction. But when I write my friend in Wisconsin to say how good it felt to dig a bed and get the peas in, I know I’ll strike a chord of envy as she walks back from the mailbox in snow boots and woolen scarf. She can relate. Oh, how she can relate. It’s just not her turn to flip the page to spring quite yet.

I thought I’d show you some of the pages in my own seasonal timepiece, even if it is like cornering you with photos of the kids:

It’s winter when: the mailbox has a mouthful of seed catalogs day after day, its jaws so full the mailman just leaves the flap hanging down like a huge silver tongue…no one bothers to shut the garden gate against dogs, goats, pigs, and ten-year-olds on bicycles…boots sit by the fire to keep them supple…the toolshed (a converted outhouse) blows over in a good north wind…I can’t see my toes. Well, women gardeners have to time these things, you know. (Not tonight, honey: Nine months from now I’ll be in a double-digging frenzy.) We have winter babies. That way, between putting in the fall garlic and the spring peas, we can start real labor.

It’s spring when: last year’s tennis shoes look like blown-out retreads…muddy boots stand on the porch like armatures half covered in clay…the wooden tool handles are still slick from their winter coat of oil…a few toys begin sprouting in the nearby sandbox…requests for seed-starting advice make the phone jingle every day…the post office calls at 6:30 A.M. to tell us the little peepers have arrived for our yearly chicken moat, the one that borders our plot in hopes of reducing insects, supplying meat, and keeping weeds back…it’s hard to dig a bed, what with having to wave to all the neighbors driving by. As long as the branches on our treelined border remain bare, we’re honked at from dawn to dusk. This season for hat-in-the-air salutations runs from October to nearly May, when those tardy walnuts (the predominant species) finally leaf out. Sometimes when we’re not outside, the scarecrow takes up the slack and, its arms flapping in the wind, seems to wave for us.

It’s summer when: abandoned boots and shoes lie strewn in the paths for days…cukes arrive in choking abundance from a retired couple who have “scaled down” their enthusiasm to a 50-foot row…I can see my toes once again–except in the shower where the water that runs off my body looks like chocolate syrup…toys and children have come into full bloom both in the sandbox and the garden proper…the slick of the tool handles comes not from oil, but from human use…a blind friend feels the increase in textural relief on my hands and makes a game of guessing just which chore was the most pressing last week.

It’s fall (or nearly so) when: the sight of the farm silage wagons and the sound of the chopper become a daily event…there’s less need to start the irrigation pump–a chore that elicits much energy, colorful language, and very little water when I attempt it on my own…there’s more need to start the tiller for cover-cropping the field areas–a spectator’s sport I greatly enjoy. My husband cranks, adjusts, cranks, checks gas, cranks, and readjusts ’til his patience is exhausted. He places hands on hips, then slaps his head in remembrance. Reaching into the depths of the device, he pulls out a mouse nest (the third one this week) and curses me under his breath for never having the heart to kill any of the blind and hairless baby mice I find.

Well, that’s a small glimpse of seasons in the Sides garden. Surprisingly, I’ve even found it possible to hone in on what day of the week it is by the community activity around the place. (Kids line up at the landlord’s for piano lessons on Tuesdays, the farm truck carries cattle to market on Thursdays, etc.)

Come to think of it, even the time of day is palpable: When frantic barking down the road signals morning feeding time at the local kennel, it’s nearly 8:00…a sudden air of quiet as the compressor at the dairy barn two miles away cuts off (give or take a few minutes depending on how many they’re milking this week), and it’s 9:00–almost time to check the mail and break for a snack…I head in for my 12:30 meal when the sight of lunchtime joggers seconds the growling suspicion in my stomach…escapees racing down the driveway, just released from the maw of the yellow and black school bus, signal 3:30. Any moment now my son should be waking from his nap. Soon he and Dad will join me.

Whether you inherited it as an heirloom from your grandparents or took possession only last week, a garden is an amazing, living, breathing timepiece. You can forget the second hand, though. Gardens just weren’t meant to have one.

Taken from a great new quarterly, GreenPrints, which provides the “inspiration that goes with the perspiration.” For more, see The Soul of Gardening.

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