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Faith in Vermont: Planting Panic

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Posted on May 23, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Next year, I tell myself, I’ll know better.

Next year, I will commit to very little between April and June, and I will clear our family’s schedule for an entire month beginning two weeks before Memorial Day. No signing up for preschool snacks. No dinner or birthday parties. No expectation that dishes will be washed, laundry folded, or floors swept. No newspaper columns!

I knew that gardening and poultry raising would be a lot of work. I expected labor. What I didn’t expect was the massive to-do list that seems to regenerate endlessly within my brain: chop off some tasks and, like an earthworm, it just grows more. I didn’t expect to track the weather forecast like a day trader tracks the stock market, my heart dropping with every raincloud icon that threatens to keep me out of the yard (yes, I know the rain is good for the plants.) I didn’t expect to feel intense frustration whenever I’m not outside digging or dumping or planting -- the sense that all life not involving dirt is somehow wasting my precious time. I didn’t expect to rush off to so many meetings with dirty fingernails, muddy knees, and hat-head hair. I didn’t expect to keep finding myself outside, staring at a patch of dirt, until my husband or children call me in to dinner.

And I certainly didn’t expect the moments of time-crunch panic. Gardening always struck me as a lot of work, but slow work: work spread out over a season.

It started off slowly enough, when the seed catalogues I’d requested arrived in February. With snow still blanketing the ground, it felt like we had all the time in the world to dream and sketch out garden plans. Even after seeds and plants were ordered, there were still long months of waiting ahead. Most seed companies ship orders by climate zone. We are in Zone 5, which has an average last frost date of May 15, although local conventional wisdom holds that it’s usually safer to wait until Memorial Day to plant most things.

Memorial Day seemed a long way off in February.

There are two ways to order plants: You can order little paper packets of seeds, or you can order plants that have been started in some way. Started plants are usually rootstock, and arrive looking like a sad pile of twigs, or a rumpled ball of dirty roots.

Seeds take a little more time and effort to nurture into plants; they conform to the slow version of gardening that I’d envisioned. Beginning in April, I started several flats of seeds next to our sunny bedroom window; over the next couple of months I watched them sprout, putting out two leaves, then four. I’m now “hardening” them by setting the tiny plants outside during the day and bringing them in at night to tuck into bed. They’ll go into the ground at last on Memorial Day weekend.

The biggest challenge with seeds, in my opinion, is an organizational one: Some need to be started indoors, some don’t. Although Memorial Day weekend is my planting ground zero, the reality is that there are a wide variety of ideal times for planting different types of seeds on either side of the last expected frost, from two weeks before to two weeks after. I need to keep a spreadsheet of planting dates and notes for every type of seed I plan to put in the ground.

The benefit of rootstock is that it’s already started: Instead of growing an apple tree from an apple seed, for instance, you get the already-established roots and twiggy trunk of a baby apple tree. The challenge is that once rootstock arrives, it has to be put in the ground as soon as possible, ideally 24-48 hours after it arrives on your doorstep.

The apple trees were my first taste of gardening time-crunch panic. In late March, I received an email that a UPS shipment was on its way. I didn’t even open the email, assuming it was something non-urgent that somebody in our family had ordered and I’d know what it was when it arrived. But one morning in early April, out of curiosity, I clicked open the email. My husband leapt out of bed at the volume of my squawk.

“What?!? What?!?” he asked.

“The apple trees! They’re being delivered TODAY!” I shrieked.

If you’ve ever planted an apple tree, then you know that they need to be planted in pretty large hole – a hole with a diameter of 3-4 feet. I had one day to dig five of these holes in the barely thawed clay of our yard.

We got it done. Working flat out and with all hands on deck, we got those five apple trees (and two blueberry bushes that came with them) in the ground in under 48 hours.

And a month later, when another rootstock order arrived without warning, we got 25 strawberries, three raspberries, two rose bushes, and assorted flowers panic-planted as well.

The ducklings came in early May: adorable, day-old little fluff balls that were supposed to live in a brooder box in our garage for the first four weeks of their lives. Those four weeks were key, because they enabled my husband to finish his teaching semester and have ample time to complete the duck coop and fence he was gradually putting together.

By the second week of their lives, I swear those ducklings were sprouting facial hair. Now in their third week, they get bigger whenever our backs are turned.

Also, we have ten chickens arriving in five days.

For several days now, my husband has entered the house only to shower, eat, and go to bed. The time-crunch panic is on: The duck coop is nearly complete, and we rented an auger for one day so that my husband and his father could put 31 fence posts into the ground in 90-degree heat.

In one week, the Memorial Day weekend planting frenzy begins.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re having a wonderful time. The sense of accomplishment and time spent outside in nature are more than adequate rewards. And many of these tasks are startup work, to be repeated rarely or never.

But next year, don’t call me in May; next year, I’ll know better.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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