Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
-- Henry D. Thoreau. Faith in a Seed.
I am a gardener. As such, this is typically a hard time of year for me; I get in a funk. I’m impatient to get back outside, churn up soil, count earthworms, and plant things that will, in time, become both beautiful and delicious. It’s late winter; months have passed since the last leaf fell, revealing the tree skeletons stark in their nakedness. Naked trees have always disturbed me, their branches like so many grasping fingers, the dry rattling noise they make when wind shakes the limbs. It’s so unlike the soothing woooshshshsh that wind makes with the leaves; in the Blue Ridge Mountains, wind in the leaves reminds me of the ocean where I grew up. It’s like music.
I miss the colors, too. I miss the distant blue-green haze of high summer in these mountains, so named for the hue that the leaves give to them. I miss the vibrant shades of emerald, chartreuse, pine, colors more distinguishable when standing under the eaves, the golden green quality as you look up through the canopy. I need these things like I need food and air. Everything is a shade of brownish-gray now, even the sky most days.
This late winter season has hit me harder than usual. Normally by now I have seedlings started in the dining room window: sweet basil, Roma tomatoes, Thai chilies. This year, I find myself apathetic. In my heart and in my head, I want to plant seeds. I just haven’t managed it yet, and it’s not that I have been lazy...I’ve accomplished other things (I’m writing a lot more)…but not the planting of seeds.
I’m not really looking forward to my birthday this year either, even though the first day of spring will follow immediately after. Birthdays don’t usually bother me. I always thought that as long as I got wiser, too, I wouldn’t mind so much getting older. But it’s bugging me this year, and I cannot put my finger on all the reasons why. (I am completely clear on some reasons, but I will keep those to myself.) I don’t feel old, but certain undeniable signs suggest I should enjoy that feeling while it lasts. As a younger woman, the sense of – the hope of second chances was easier to conjure. Now, more and more, it’s a sense of urgency to not waste time, not a precious moment of it. All the while, time moves faster and faster. Is it really almost my birthday again? It was just Christmas yesterday, wasn’t it?
I won’t lie. It’s been a rough winter. I am still reeling from the loss of my Aunt Nancy at the end of October. To have her drop dead only ten days into the first round of chemo for what, by all reports, was highly treatable stage 2A breast cancer — it has left me truly shaken. It has caused me to rethink EVERYTHING I think I know about living and dying and breast cancer, and cancer treatment. My take-aways so far are not that comforting: 1) Feel free to live as healthy a life as you can – you can still get breast cancer; 2) Catch the cancer as early as you can – the chemo could still kill you anyway.
A few of these maudlin thoughts were taking root in my brain yesterday after lunch (water and carrots) as I walked past the pepper plants that are hibernating in my two-car garage. And I saw them, the green buds just beginning to push away from the stem, proof that where all is naked and stark, leaves will return.
Last spring I planted Tabasco pepper seeds. My husband found the seeds on the Internet at the Tabasco sauce web site, and we love to grow hot peppers, so he bought a kit. We followed all the directions (a redundancy…I have green thumb). The seeds took FOREVER to germinate -- like six weeks – waaaay longer than “normal” pepper seeds should take. The seedlings that finally emerged were thin, spindly. I was sure they’d sold us bum seeds. (Why wouldn’t they? There’s no profit for them in my ability to make my own Tabasco sauce.)
I nurtured, I fertilized, I gave encouraging pep talks. The seedlings became small plants. The term “failure to thrive” came to mind. I fertilized more, gave more pep talks.
By mid-August, I had four under-sized but healthy pepper plants finally going to flower...that necessary first step that leads to fruit. I put the youngsters in pots large enough to hold the mature plant. By mid-September, the plants had grown much taller, were covered in flowers, and had begun to form perfect little peppers, pale and white, no larger than a pea. By mid-October, the peppers were the length of lima beans, still pale, and I knew we were in trouble. The first freeze was weeks and maybe only days away. I had lots of little Tabasco peppers and no hope that they would ripen before frost killed the plants.
When the first frost warning finally arrived, I returned the plants to the dining room window where they first germinated. I hoped to nurture them long enough to let a few of the peppers fully mature. Three of the four plants did really well, but one plant began losing leaves fast. The absence of dead leaves on the floor around the plant should have been a signal, but it just didn’t register with me. The clods of what looked like potting soil that kept showing up outside the flower pot should also have been a signal, but I blamed it on the cat. Smitty kitty loves to climb in my plants, so I just assumed he had been playing in them and kicked out some dirt.
One afternoon I noticed that the plant, which had been losing leaves, was suddenly completely denuded – nothing but stark, skeletal nakedness, bare limbs of grasping fingers. No baby peppers either. Weirdly, only one very large leaf remained on the plant, and it was bright green.
Then the leaf moved. I bent down to look more closely, and I screamed. What looked like this...
|Photo from http://www.socaldailyphoto.com/tag/tomato-hornworm/|
was actually this...
...a tomato hornworm...in my house. It explained a thing or two, why I never found any dead leaves around the denuded plant for one. And that “potting soil” I kept sweeping off the floor and blaming on the cat? Well, that’s what the digestive track of a tomato hornworm does to a pepper plant leaf after it’s done extracting the nutrients. In other words, worm shit.
I hauled all four plants outside and cleaned the worm shit off the floor. My husband (greatly relieved to learn that the cause for my blood-curdling scream was an insect and not a murderer) dispatched the large worm on the denuded plant using a method I found on the Internet after I finished cleaning the floor (cut the worm in half with scissors then put in a plastic zipper bag...just to be sure). Our closer inspection of the three remaining plants revealed three smaller tomato hornmonsters that we dispatched in like fashion. I put the three surviving plants in the garage on top of an old wooden bookshelf that sits under the window where I expected them to die in the relatively low light. I gave the plants a little water, not too much, knowing as I do that in the relatively low light and cool temps, the plants’ transpiration will diminish, the roots will not take up water from the soil as quickly and that soggy soil would cause the roots to rot. To my surprise, instead of dying and dropping off the stem, one by one, the little peppers turned from pale white to orange, and then, Tabasco sauce red.
(In case you wondered, Tabasco peppers fresh off the plant taste EXACTLY like Tabasco sauce, only MUCH HOTTER.)
Yesterday, when I saw the dozens of tiny leaves pushing out in pairs from the main stem, my funk lifted. Spring is coming (and yes, so is my birthday, but I’ll take growing older to the alternative). Yes, it’s been a rough winter but we’ve survived (in spite of hornworms and other monsters) I and these pepper plants that once failed to thrive. Perhaps the approaching equinox has allowed a little more sunshine into the garage, stimulating the plants to grow. Perhaps all my encouraging pep talks finally got through to the plants, and they are now ready to step up and reach their full potential. I’m delighted by the idea that they appear to be on a fast track to producing more peppers sooner this year. They’re going back outside as soon as it warms up a bit more. I see no need to germinate more Tabasco pepper seeds this year, hope they sprout, beg them to grow. These plants are mature, healthy, and ready to produce. They owe me. They could have been worm shit.
But there are others – sweet basil, Roma tomatoes … spring is coming, I should go plant some seeds.