Winter pause gives gardener chance to dream

When I awoke the other morning my husband cheerfully announced that the weather forecast for Tuesday called for a high temperature near 60 degrees. My first thought was that this might be a good opportunity to run the tiller through my vegetable garden.

As it turns out, I'm not the only gardener who battles the midwinter itch. On Friday, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," the morning news program, featured the first installment in a monthlong series about this very problem. Ketzel Levine, a frequent contributor on matters green and growing, met with several Portland, Ore., gardeners in a bookstore to discuss what they're reading, as well as their struggles with what she termed "gardener's dementia."

It is a condition I know well.

While normal people are content to spend their winter leisure hours curled up by the fire with a good book, gardeners are fast-forwarding into the next season. To survive the bleak winter months, when the landscape is brown and desolate and grocery store produce has all the charm of cardboard, gardeners indulge in a rich fantasy life that transports them to a happier time.

You may think you a have gardener's undivided attention during a winter conversation, but you're wrong.

At the first twinge of boredom, a gardener can summon the smells of freshly tilled, slightly damp earth in early spring and feel it sliding through her fingers. Or taste the mix of perspiration and dust that forms on the upper lip on a June afternoon of weeding and watering. Or feel the slight ache in the shoulders that comes in July from bending over rows of beans and carrying 5-gallon buckets of ripe, red tomatoes back to the house.

A gardener knows she's in the acute stages of off-season gardening lust when she catches herself sitting in Allen Fieldhouse with the Jayhawks up by fewer than 10 points, trying to recall the name of that streaked French bean she grew a few years ago. (It was Dragon Langerie, or Dragon's Tongue, by the way: a very prolific bean that turns out long, flat purple and white pods and is good for freezing. I looked it up in the Vermont Bean Seed catalog when I got home from the game.)

If you could monitor a gardener's winter brain activity, you'd see something like a computerized grid � a garden plan � on which various vegetables keep moving around and the configurations change on a whim. In this virtual garden, tomatoes are planted in rows one minute, scattered throughout the garden the next and then moved into neat square blocks a moment later. The weather can be adjusted with the flip of a mental switch, winds rise and die down, and shadows are cast and disappear as the sun moves from east to west with lightning speed.

As you glimpsed inside the mind of the gardener, you'd also see a darker, diabolical side. This mental activity, a series of plots and executions, plays out sort of like a video game in which the mighty gardener outwits and subdues a series of vegetable-destroying villains: deer, squash bugs, soldier beetles, more deer, flea beetles and Roscoe the gardening dog, who occasionally sits on a plant. This is an action-packed fantasy in which the gardener gets bonus points for using organic controls but loses points for every mangled vegetable or fresh hoof print that turns up in the garden.

For all the imposed misery of the winter months, this is a highly beneficial time on the gardener's calendar. It gives us an opportunity to plan and leaf through the seed catalogs that have been arriving since Thanksgiving, and the anticipation engendered by the wait makes the eventual arrival of gardening season that much sweeter.

The garden fantasy also makes life in winter tolerable in unexpected ways. I found myself standing on a ladder the other day, painting a wall, and was suddenly struck by the pleasant familiarity of what I was doing. I dabbed the brush in the paint, stroked the brush a few times along the trim, and dabbed the brush in the paint again. After repeating the series of movements a few times, I suddenly thought, "You know, this isn't half bad. It reminds me of weeding."

� When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.


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