Down to earth – It’s dream time

Originally published on January 23, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life

Insulted stipa
Insulted stipa

I know it’s too soon to be wishing for spring but when our first snowfall parked on my garden like a Mack truck and flattened everything standing, I suddenly lost patience with winter. Most of the seedheads that might have poked prettily out of the snow topped with hungry birds, crashed to the ground. Others are leaning like drunks. Now that the icy snow has melted off the golden tresses of the Miscanthus and Stipa grasses that I grow mainly for their winter looks, they remind me of a bad hair day after a really rough night. I guess I understand now why some people cut everything back in the fall. Why not if it isn’t going to be interesting over the winter after all?

I don’t really mean that. I’m just a little bitter. My garden, disheveled though it is, is still a bird magnet with plenty for them to eat. And if I squint, it’s winter-interesting enough. Certainly as much as a garden with naturalistic pretenses should be. It might look like it’s molting, but the light still stretches all the way across it to cast abstract-painting shadows. Frost still glitters like the holidays on stems, twigs and sideways seedheads. And it still pulls me outside when the weather isn’t awful [to smell the witch hazel if nothing else], which is a good thing because I need reminding that I have some serious dreaming to do before spring.

This is truly the only chance all year that we gardeners get to think long and hard about what we want to do differently in the garden without the danger of rashly trying to tackle those projects. And to do the kind of hard-core imagining that’s necessary, we need a great quantity of quality time to sit staring out of windows at a mind’s eye ideal vision of the garden, with books and magazines on our laps and a notebook by our sides. And we need to let loose. This is the time to dream big, as if money, labor and time weren’t obstacles. Reality comes later.

Every year I dream again about growing my own vegetables. This year feels a little different, though, because my chef is giving me cooking lessons and I have finally and fully embraced the awesomeness of kale. (The trick is to squeeze a tasty oily dressing into the raw leaves like wringing out a dishrag — no cooking involved. If it’s “massaging,” it’s the Swedish kind.) So I’m picturing a raised bed, slightly out of reach of the groundhog (who has previously killed my enthusiasm by eating my brassicas to nubs), planted with all my favorite veggies: leafy greens, Swiss chard, carrots and beets. I can picture a hoop frame over it covered in chicken wire to thwart the critters, and then what the British call “fleece” (we call it remay, which sounds less cozy) to keep mid-winter harvests from freezing.

One of my dream gardens on the cover of the August issue

I have gleaned other ideas (besides a more romantic vocabulary) from the pages of Gardens Illustrated. It’s a monthly British publication and by far the prettiest magazine in my lap stack. According to their wide-angle shots, wildly loose and thickly planted gardens like mine, which are not so rare in Europe, seem to benefit from a little crispness for contrast. And since I’m unlikely to faithfully maintain clipped topiary (a dream for another winter), I see my garden beds tidily edged against the lawn in flat stone wide enough (a good 18 to 24 inches would do) so that the plants can flop without getting under the wheels of the lawn mower. As luck would have it I’ve been allowed to lay claim to otherwise unwanted patio slates, which can potentially keep my garden from bleeding onto whatever’s left of the lawn — if I don’t use them up creating a gracious entry landing instead.

For the time being, while my garden is at its unloveliest, I’ll allow myself the luxury of imagining both and the raised vegetable bed, too. As long as the weather is too muddy, frigid, or foul for work, we gardeners should use the time wisely to ponder over our wish list instead and enjoy the thought that at least one of our garden dreams might rise to reality come spring.

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