My neighbors Roger and Betty Keefe must have wondered what I was doing in my garden a couple of weeks ago. After all, it was still February when the ground is usually as hard as a brick and you’d be sure to wear a hat and gloves.
I had the hat, but I hung my jacket on one of the posts that define the plot that is transformed annually into our version of a vegetable garden. There’s order to it, but not too much. Tomatoes run down one side and zucchinis on the other – a face-off between giant leaves and helter-skelter vines. Sunflowers grow wherever they like. There’s usually at least a half dozen that root with no encouragement. And then there’s the parsley, lettuce and the gladiola at the ends.
The garden gets a lot of attention the first several weeks. Any semblance of a weed doesn’t stand a chance and the tomato plants are guided into their wire cones. There’s order, for a while at least.
By mid summer, once the crab grass has taken hold and the whole thing has overdosed on Miracle Grow, the plot become a miniature jungle primeval. A pith hat and a machete should be standard equipment when harvesting a handful of cherry tomatoes.
After the first frost, I remove the fence and the tomato cages, pull up the sunflower stalks and find giant zukes under all that foliage. When all of that is cleared, I dig a three-foot deep pit. This is where I dump mulched leaves that will make good compost for the following year, in addition to saving me the time of bagging them.
It’s a ritual I’ve followed for years, until last fall.
For starters, there weren’t that many leaves after Tropical Storm Irene. Then fall kept going and going. We had several freezes, but nothing like the two to three weeks of 20 degree weather during the day and the sub zero temperatures at night that I remember.
I wasn’t the only one to notice it.
The parsley did, as well. In early December, it was as green and bushy as it had been in the summer. Carol kept clipping it and we had a glass full of verdant stems on the kitchen counter ready to be sprigs for omelets and sandwiches.
If the parsley made it to December, I figured it might even make it through the winter with some help.
I called Frank Picozzi, who did our replacement windows. I figured he might have a few spare windows which otherwise would go to the landfill. He did, so I had what I needed to make a cold frame.
It wasn’t elaborate. I half buried two of them at each end of the parsley, stretched a curtain rod between them and balanced the four other windows against the rod, to form a mini A-frame. The parsley was ready for its winter run.
Amazingly, it stayed green even after a couple of stone-cold days in January. The panes were frosted and the ground around that section of the garden was as hard as cement but the parsley kept producing. Weekly, I would bring out a bucket and snip a bit to bring inside. In the warmth of late February, the garden ground was cracked and spongy. The season was way ahead of itself, like a clock that lost its regulator.
Why not, I thought, get a jump on spring even though I wouldn’t be racing to buy seed packets and certainly garden centers wouldn’t have neat trays of seedlings to marvel at. The earth was moist and easy to turn. The parsley was not alone. Iris rhizomes had reached into the garden and triangle-shaped shoots from their bulbs poked upward. I dug them up and replanted them elsewhere.
It felt good to heft shovels of dirt, turn it and break it up with a rake. There were a few worms that squirmed sluggishly in slumber. It really wasn’t their time but it wasn’t too soon for me to be in the garden. The air was sweet and my feet sunk into the fresh soil.
I opened the A-frame and worked my fingers around the stems of the parsley breaking up the earth and pulling free grass that had shared this haven. There was a sense of triumph that the parsley had flourished although, frankly, this winter wasn’t much of a challenge.
As I picked up the shovel and rake and headed to put them away I thought that perhaps I had rushed things. We have a tendency to do that, especially when it is spring. But it felt good. It was a replenishing. The lines of my fingers and palms were streaked where they had been caked in dirt. With my grit-filled nails, I pinched off a couple of sprigs of parsley. Who would have thought there would be a harvest in February?