Tessa Chenoa Ownbey
“From December to March there are for many of us, three gardens – the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house, and the garden of the mind’s eye.” -Katherine S. White
Dreaming of spring, I wander through my garden, admiring the dead stalks -some still standing straight and firm, others folded over onto the ground like hunched old men – that I left there for the use of native bees. Those stalks I had to pull – the sunflower stalks in the way of the mower, for instance – are laid gently beside my “lazy man” compost pile. I imagine the chance of each stalk being laden with tiny developing native bees, turning over in their sleep, pulling the covers up around their chins against the cold. I wonder if their feet are cold like mine. I curl my collar up around my chin.
The paths through my vegetable beds are straight, all 90 degree angles, beds exactly 8’ x 4’, not including the 2’ beds that run the length of the deer fence, and the beds that are holey and abandoned water troughs, dragged home from wherever I can scavenge them. The cilantro and bunching onions are green and welcoming; the rosemary smells just as sweet as ever as I brush my hand across and through it. I love that smell, and think of planting more of it – maybe a border along the back porch? Then I imagine Olive, my young Labrador pup, yanking each one out of the ground, and decide perhaps to wait another year. I love both animals and plants, and sometimes it is hard to hold space for each – both in the physical and in my heart. They compete so. My chickens, for instance, were banished to Georgette’s house years ago for the sin of plucking every young plant I sowed in the driveway flower bed faster than I could buy them. But the dogs – dogs trump plants today. The rosemary will stay in the garden, and the cottage style backyard of my dreams will wait until this pup matures.
Having walked the vegetable garden and inspected the dead stalks, the bright winter rosettes burgeoning with life, and the herbs and carrots waiting to be harvested, imagining the rotation of crops this spring, I walk the twisting path of my pollinator wildscape, delineated by native limestone I set in place myself, the work back-breaking, but as satisfying as a jigsaw puzzle, each rock edge set neatly against the one next to it, just so. I realize I left the fairy toys lying about the stumpery again this year, and resolve to go get a box and store things away again so winter won’t fade the spots from the fairy giraffe or decay the glue that holds on his fairy wings.
More dead stalks here, of course, and I again think of the bees, then check my bee houses. Last year’s slots are empty, with holes chewed through the packed mud where the bright, new bees emerged to see the sun for the very first time last spring. This year’s slots are still hard packed, the mud smooth and tight. I think again of infant bees, swaddled as we swaddle human babies. I imagine them humming contentedly in their sleep.
Shivering, I walk to my husband’s shop, quickly checking my Meyer lemon tree, overwintering there alongside an antique Radio Flyer full of potted succulents. My house is small, and though I was able to bring in three pots of aloe vera and a fairy garden in a hypertufa pot I made with Bev, these had to take refuge out here, where I hope they will stay warm enough to last until the warmth of spring. Some kind of caterpillar has lunched upon the lemon leaves, but is now long gone – the bitten edges are brown, not newly green. I’m glad I didn’t catch him. I would have had to decide his fate, and who wants that?
Truly cold now, I run back to the house – I knew I should have taken a jacket, but never want to take the time to grab one – there in the kitchen is the fairy garden I was thinking about. It always makes me smile…the little house, just fairy sized; the succulents so carefully chosen; the memories of figuring out hypertufa with Bev and of including in it the marbles left from my sons’ childhood.
The mail is laid on the counter, and I pause. There is my uncle’s catalog – Territorial Seed. I turn and hit the button on the Keurig, grab a notebook, a pen, the catalog, a blanket, and curl up in a corner of the couch to plan my seed order.
Note: Katherine S. White (see quote above) was a writer and the fiction editor of The New Yorker Magazine from 1920-1960. As such, she introduced the world to the writings of Vladimir Nabakov, John Updike, John O’Hara, John Cheever, Ogden Nash, Mary McCarthy, James Thurber, Marianne Moore, and E. B. White, who she later married. She had a passion for the writings of nurserymen and seed catalogs, which she claimed were her favorite reading matter. Inspired by them, she wrote a series of fourteen columns on gardening and gardening history for the magazine. After her death in 1977, her husband, author E.B. White, published these articles as a collection in a book called Onward and Upward in the Garden.