Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gardeners' holidays

As those who follow the big weather stories will already know, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous marmot, has declared that he did not see his shadow this morning and that we can therefore expect an early spring. The meteorologists at the Weather Channel, however, beg to differ, predicting snow for tonight and into tomorrow afternoon, with more to come later in the week. Given that Phil predicted a long winter last year and we actually got a balmy February and March, I'm more inclined to listen to the human prognosticators.

The real question, though, is why I, or anyone else, pays any attention at all to the behavior of a woodchuck in some little town in Pennsylvania. Why, in an age when we have weather apps right on our phones, do we continue to engage in this bizarre theriomantic ritual? I think it's because, as I've observed before on this blog, we humans have an innate tendency to observe and mark the changing of the seasons. After all, such a trait would probably have helped our earliest ancestors survive: those who paid attention to the changes in the earth and sky would know when to start gathering extra food for winter, when new growth would appear in spring, and later, when it was time to start planting and harvesting. As a result, traditional holidays in many different religions and cultures are tied to the cycle of the year. Groundhog Day is actually the secular descendant of one such holiday, known variously as Imbolc, Oimelc, Candlemas, or St. Brigid's Day. It's one of a series of eight evenly spaced holidays in the pagan calendar that mark off the spokes on the "wheel of the year," celebrated at the quarter days (solstices and equinoxes) and cross-quarter days (the midpoints in between). Other holidays in this series are better known, such as Yule, the winter solstice celebration (which has good-naturedly lent so many of its traditions to Christmas), and Beltane, or May Day.

I like these holidays because they appeal to my admittedly somewhat airy-fairy ideas of living in harmony with nature, and also because their even spacing throughout the calendar means that you never have to go longer than about six weeks without a celebration of some kind. The problem with them, though, is that they originated in Britain, and so the seasonal cycle on which they're based isn't quite the same as ours. Britain is quite a bit farther north than we are, and so changes in the level of light throughout the year are far more noticeable. Changes in temperature, by contrast, are much less extreme thanks to the tempering effects of the North Atlantic Current. All of this makes Britain's climate and cycle of growth very different from ours, and so the traditions surrounding these British holidays don't always make sense on our side of the pond. Harvest festivals, like Lammas, are easy enough to grasp, and Yule is easy to understand as a transition from darkness to light as the daylight hours start growing longer. But today's holiday, Imbolc, is generally described as having something to do with lactation in ewes, and I must confess, I've always had trouble trying to relate that to anything in my life.

So I've decided to establish my own set of traditions for celebrating the quarter and cross-quarter days, one that won't be tied to any particular religious tradition. My new festivals may borrow from the older British holidays, but they'll be based on the climate in this area, and in particular, on what's growing in my garden at each point during the year. I'm thinking of them as gardeners' holidays: celebrations of the cycle of planting, tending, and harvesting, and the changes in the weather that go along with it. I'll announce each holiday as it rolls around, and you're welcome to adopt them yourself—or adapt them to suit the climate and growing season in your own area.

Thus, by the power vested in me by...well, just innately vested in me, I declare today to be the Festival of Seeds. It marks the very beginning of the gardening season, the point at which mail-order seeds are arriving, garden beds being plotted out, and possibly even a few slow-to-germinate seeds being started early for spring transplanting. It's a time of limitless potential, a time when this year's garden exists only in our imagination and can be as lush and plentiful and weed-free as we dream it to be. As the year progresses, of course, real life will intrude; rain or late frosts will interfere with scheduled planing dates; the pressure of work and family obligations will interfere with gardening chores; the solutions we planned to last year's pest and disease problems may not work, and new problems may crop up for which we haven't even begun to think of solutions. But all that is far in the future; right now, there is nothing to do but dream and plan.

So to celebrate the Festival of Seeds, I'm sharing with you all my garden plan for 2013. This is the layout that I'm envisioning for our 96 square feet of raised garden beds (not counting the asparagus and rhubarb, which have their own permanent plots). Right now, this garden exists only in my mind—but I've already begun the first steps toward bringing it into the real world. My veggie varieties have all been chosen, and my seed order has arrived (all except for the parsley, which was already sold out by the time I placed my order in early January and had to be bought from the supermarket). And already, my very first seeds—the parsley—are nestled all snug in their seed-starting trays. As more seeds are started and germinate or fail to germinate, and transplants survive or fail to survive, and new plants get brought in from outside sources, my garden beds may not end up looking much like the tidy little diagram below. But for now, there's nothing to say that they won't, either.

So, a toast: to possibilities. To the possibility of healthy plants and bountiful harvests. To salads, salsa, and stews yet to be eaten. To the first lettuce leaf of spring, the first tomato of summer. To all that the 2013 gardening season has in store for us. L'chaim!

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