A gardener eases out of hibernation

February 3, 2011

The magnolia buds are getting noticeably bigger; not plump yet but certainly rounder than in December. The daffodil shoots are just evident, and the winter jasmine might pop into golden flower with a few days of winter mildness.

Spring is a long way off still, but for the organized gardener, the period of idleness is coming to an end. Mind you, there is much to be said for idleness. My day isn't complete until I've put my feet up and had a good old daydream. I've spent years perfecting the art, and I highly commend it.

But as I say there is a time, fast approaching, when the gardener must stir. This can be done without jolting the system: Edge into action with a seed catalogue. While leafing through its pages, or even viewing it online, you can think about the great garden you're going to have this year. This isn't daydreaming; it's planning. Planning, in turn, morphs into real action, the ordering of seeds and, lo, their sowing indoors under shop lights.

The older I get, the more I'm consumed by vegetable gardening. I've spent hours in idle thought assessing this personal trend, and here are the fruits of my meditation: You get to eat what you grow. How fabulous is that? Also, vegetable gardening is not difficult, but it is methodical: first soil work, then planting and thinning, and continual watering and weeding. The garden requires your presence. The little chores offer more opportunity for woolgathering, and before you know it you have greens for the table.

Vegetable gardening is not like planting an arboretum or a rock garden. Plants come to fruition quickly, and with some advance daydreaming you can have three or four growing seasons in one year. The older you get, the more appealing this is.

Sow lettuce in March, harvest in May and June. Start tomato plants in March, set them out in early May, harvest them in August and September. Sow lima beans in late May, harvest in September and October.

Even if the main season of June to August is a bust - as it was in the dryness and excessive heat of last summer - there's always the fall, or the following year.

My plan

The price for this wonder is attention to timing. We have optimum periods for every vegetable, and starting too soon can be as fruitless as waiting too long. For example, the next couple of weeks is a great period to start leeks and onions from seed. Many gardeners don't fuss with onions or leeks from seed, and you can buy them as little transplants in March, which is fine, except you have much less say in the desired variety.

I am trying two leek varieties: Lincoln , which is a large Dutch hybrid, reputed to mature quickly (for a leek), and Tadorna , valued for waiting patiently in cold autumn soil for when the cook is ready for it. It also has a bluish cast to its leaves, which makes the leek the prettiest of all the onions. I've sown the seed of a little sweet Japanese bunching onion named Fukagawa , which I plan to use as a spring salad scallion, and a classic flat cippolini onion, Borettana.

I am also trying a globe artichoke named Imperial Star ; it's the only variety I know that reliably buds from seed in its first season. I plan to grow it in a bed where I have planted tulips, of all things. The tulips will grow up around the silvery, ground-hugging artichoke leaves and then get pulled in early May. That's the plan, anyway.

My inspiration

I'm inspired to start the onions, leeks and artichokes by Donna Stecker, who was busy sowing these vegetables a year ago at Green Spring Gardens, a public park devoted to horticulture near Annandale. I would go by the backroom seed-starting area weekly to gather material for The Post's All We Can Eat blog but also to luxuriate in the communal ritual of seed starting in winter. Donna would take a dozen two-week-old onion seedlings out of a foam cup, lay them like fragile infants in a soil-mixing bin and then tenderly pot them up in four-inch containers, where they would put on some girth before going into the garden.

She was nurturing new life, which seemed fitting, because I had come to know Donna as an irrepressible life force in the garden: tall, blond, good for a laugh. But she was fighting a cancer that had returned with a vengeance. So to see her taking these delicate threads of onions, so perishable between pots, and devoting herself to their well-being seemed especially meaningful. It would be her last spring - Donna died Dec. 15 - but you wouldn't have known that from her cheerfulness. So with my Donna-inspired seeds this year, there will be something of this wonderful gardener in my garden in 2011.

I remember that after she had put these wisps into their bigger pots, she would grow them on in a cool greenhouse. In late March, when the soil had thawed and the onions were as thick as grass blades, she would plant them. In the greenhouse, "they go crazy," she said. "And by the time you put them out, they're ready to do their thing."

A new season beckons.

A Cook's Garden and How To

Vegetable gardening Barbara Damrosch's A Cook's Garden column will return. Read more about growingyour own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens .

Home improvement Jeanne Huber's How To column will return. Send questions about problems in your hometo localliving@washpost.com. Please put "How To" in the subject line and tell us where you live.

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