I was ambling along the back roads that crisscross the Mason-Dixon line the other day and chanced on an alluring mom-and-pop garden center on the Pennsylvania side. I needed a bag of soil mix for seeding, so in I went.
But I left with more than the bag of soil. My cache included four bags of onion bulbs — maybe 800 in all — three pounds of a seed potato named Katahdin and another three-pound bag of French fingerling potatoes.
I don’t know where these would go — my veggie plot is too small to turn into a potato field — but when I go into a garden center in early spring, I cannot be responsible for my actions. My mind is controlled by plant fairies. They have a way, the fairies, of knowing my weaknesses and positioning delectations strategically in view. These may be seed packets or bags of potatoes or raspberry canes. Their mischief knows no bounds.
As someone who has railed against impulse-purchasing, this is a hypocritical lapse, I know. But the fairies have a way of bringing rationality to the behavior.
The potatoes were unbelievably inexpensive: $2.10 for the Katahdin and $11 for the fingerlings. From a fancy seed catalogue, you might pay $14 for such a quantity of Katahdin, a classic, late-season storage spud, and $47 for gourmet fingerlings. Then add to the catalogue order the shipping, not to mention the handling.
Also, the nice woman behind the counter must have sensed my inner turmoil because she said that if I didn’t have room to plant the potatoes, I could eat them. Who could say fairer than that?
The potato- and onion-buying impulse is just a part of it. A couple of weeks ago, I bought some gladiolus bulbs with the vague thought that they might end up in a container somewhere. I also bought some parsnip seeds even though I’d already got some a month earlier. While I was buying more parsnip seeds, I acquired some sunflower seeds. The only bed I might have for sunflower seeds is reserved for dahlias. Soon I will make my annual pilgrimage to an herb nursery. The plant fairies have marked the date.
Fortunately, this mind-bending seems to occur only in the early spring, and it is tied up with an irrational exuberance at seeing the natural world come to life, the moment captured by the poet John Clare: “The happy time of singing birds is come.”
An apple tree in April that has just hatched its first leaf is somehow more powerful than in May, when the foliage is fully grown. Gardeners in early spring are wired to see the drama of a breaking bud, just as they are willing to yield to mysterious impulses before the seed rack.
This has to do with the idea that all the disasters of prior years are somehow forgotten in early April, when everything is pristine and everything is possible. No matter how many seasons the gardener has seen come and go, this is the time when young life chases away everything that is past or moribund.
This year’s fresh start is amplified by the misery of the last growing season, when a cold, wet spring was capped with a flood followed by a drought. In my garden, the only redeemed part of the year was in the fall, with a late sowing of kale, collards and hardy greens.
The consensus among gardeners in the community plot is that this year will not be a repeat of last, because last year was so singularly awful. The pea shoots and tiny lettuce seedlings breaking through the soil are testaments to the future. But winter dies slowly.
This week’s cold nights are a reminder that although it’s all right to listen to the spring fairies when it comes to buying, it’s not for planting. Just because certain veggies and flowers are available for sale at garden centers and mass merchandisers, it’s not fine to plant them. To see tender basil and tomato transplants on the retail racks while the calendar still says March is a bit much. If you have bought them, keep them in a sheltered spot until the end of the month, and bring them indoors when nights go below 50 degrees.
Even cool-season transplants such as broccoli, cabbages and cauliflowers need to be eased into the exposures of the garden, and you can’t count on them being garden-ready when you buy them.
Four elements conspire to do them in, or at least set them back: the wind, the sun, and, paradoxically, the heat and the cold. They should be placed outdoors in a shaded, sheltered spot for at least a week, covered at night when it gets cold (newspapers are fine) and kept watered. It is best to plant them on a gray or rainy day, or at least late in the day. This is a chore you must do yourself, because when it comes to actual work, the spring fairies are nowhere to be seen.