Sunday, March 9, 2003

It's been a real winter this year--consistently cold and snow-covered--taking us by surprise after last year, when a hot, dry summer was followed by the warmest winter on record, and we thought that global warming had kicked in even sooner than expected. It's March at last! Winter is slowing despite evidence to the contrary. Spring is beginning its wild dance of fluctuating temperatures and subtle signs.

A break in the weather brought me outside to check the garden. There's already a lot to do. The early surprise onslaught of winter with no break prevented me from completing fall clean-up. So it turns into spring clean-up. The ground is still frozen, so I can't yet yank out the fall plants-- broccoli, kale, collards, and cauliflower. I am casting about for plants to pull for more reason than tidying up. The bird's nest bin is in need of more wall material. Every week or two throughout the winter, I've come out to dump the contents of the 5-gallon kitchen compost bucket, so the interior of the bin is getting as high as the sides. Not much decomposition is taking place in the cold, so the compost doesn't shrink as it does in the warm times. Fortunately there's asparagus stalks, asters, and goldenrod all beaten down, that can be cut down, and added to build up the walls. Some dead sweet alyssum is available for more bulk, and then, oh yes, it's time to prune the fruit trees, and the agressively-spreading forsythia can always withstand the loss of a number of branches.

Circling around each fruit tree--peach, plum, cherry, serviceberry, and crabapple--eyeing the individual branches, their placement on the tree, how they intersect, envisioning the branches covered with leaves and heavy with fruit, I cut off the branches that were crowding each other, and the dead and withered ones. A few I bring inside, along with long branches of forsythia, to try to force into bloom for some early spring cheer. I hammer the ends of each branch so they take up water better, immerse them in lukewarm water in the bathtub for a while, then put into a 5-gallon bucket with a few inches of water on the bottom and a cotton ball soaked in ammonia. Other times I've just added bleach and a teaspoon of sugar to the water. Cover the whole thing with a big plastic garbage bag and leave in a cool room til the buds swell and open. It usually happens in six days to two weeks for the forsythia. I've haven't had as much luck with the fruit trees branches in the past, but the effort is minimal and the possible rewards are great.

Inside, preparations for the garden are beginning as well. Cilantro and sweet onion seedlings started in late January are already up and running down in the cool basement under flourescent shop lights. Geraniums in big pots accompany them. They like it cool and bright in the winter and don't do so well even by the south-facing window in the winter because the heater vent is too nearby.

Upstairs where it's a bit warmer, coleus, lobelia, impatiens, tobacco, and a small-leafed basil are thriving. When those little teeny plants first sprout, you have to be very careful watering them. They probably need water every day as they don't have the root system to survive much drought. But carelessly poured water could easily knock one of these babies over. I find a water bottle with a nozzle, like those that bicyclists carry, work really well to drip the water in around the precious seedlings without disturbing them.

Early in March is the time to start eggplants and peppers inside. They are slow-growing and do require a lot of warmth. Later in March, I will start tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli, cauliflower, and some flowers indoors.

It remains to be seen if spring is on schedule this year. Every year for the past 15 years that I've been keeping records, there's been a mild spell here in Ithaca, New York (Zone 6 in the flats), later in March or early in April, when the ground has thawed and is dry enough to work, and that is when I sow seeds of peas, carrots, green onions, parsley, lettuces, spinach, carrots, radishes, mustard greens, fava beans, and arugula. Will this year be different?