Spring has irrevocably arrived at our house. I am certain of this, despite some pretty strong evidence to the contrary. The compost heap is frozen. The wood stove is still eating logs at a pretty fair clip. And Harry, our neighborhood groundhog, fled back to his hole after seeing the shadow of an 18-wheeler bearing down on him.
Nonetheless, the seasons have changed. I can even cite time and place. Spring arrived at 9:14 p.m. last Friday, in a cozy lighted niche of my basement between the furnace and the oil tank. That's where I start my spring seedlings, which is what I was doing that night.
What a coincidence.
Winter vanishes forever when I open that first packet of seeds. The type of seed is irrelevant. The seeds could be pansies. They could even be brussels sprouts. In this case, they were cabbages. What's important is that these are seeds of hope, and sentinels of spring.
Opening the first packet of seeds produces such a heady rush that I raise it up and sniff the escaping air, as if all of last summer's scents were somehow trapped there. Silly me. The packet has no aroma, and if it did, am I also prepared to breathe the funky smells of summer, like rotten tomatoes and sweaty garden T-shirts?
I tilt the packet gently. A half-dozen cabbage seeds tumble out, tiny pellets of vegetative power waiting to be energized. "Wake up, guys," I coax them. (People talk to plants, why not seeds?) Briefly, I consider playing reveille on a rusty old trombone parked nearby. But the family is asleep, save for the cat who is having a rollicking good time playing hockey with a pile of flat, white cucumber seeds.
I drop what I'm doing and fall to the floor. One ripped packet tells the story. Two-thirds of the cucumber seeds are gone, scattered across the cement by a cat who thinks he's Wayne Gretzky.
Twenty minutes into the gardening season, I am already in a pickle.
On hands and knees, I search for the seeds. Enter Katydid the dog, who, being on all fours herself, finds this great fun. She sniffs and snorts awhile, then raises her head. Three cucumber seeds are stuck to her nose. I peel them off and add them to my collection. Together, we retrieve most of the errant seeds. Hooray! The crop is saved, barring a summer drought.
Since it is too early to plant cucumbers indoors, I place the seeds in an airtight bag. Most flower and vegetable seeds will remain viable for several years when stored this way.
At 10 p.m., I return to the "nursery," which consists of a 4-foot fluorescent plant light suspended over a redwood table. On the table is a row of 3-inch peat pots filled with vermiculite, a sterile, soilless medium and one of the best mixes in which to grow seedlings. None of these products is terribly expensive -- they can be had for $15 total, minus the table, which can easily be made of scrap lumber.
(My initial attempt at raising seedlings ended in fiasco. I planted the seeds in egg cartons filled with potting soil, and placed them on the window ledge for light. All I grew that year was mold.)
I drop a cabbage seed into the first peat pot and am bathed again in a state of euphoric bliss. Planting that first seed is akin to throwing out the first baseball of spring. This is no less an important event because the seed is sown indoors. After all, how many major-league ballparks are domed?
I continue planting cabbages until there are 12 of them nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sauerkraut dance in my head: Last year's crop produced several 6-pound cabbages. Then I cover each seed with a pinch of vermiculite, in much the same way as one would dust a sundae with chocolate sprinkles.
Then I hide the leftover bag of vermiculite in a very safe place, like the attic, because the cats like to sit in it and do their business.
Finally, I water the pots and cover the tray with a clear plastic bag, to help retain moisture, and place it beneath the Gro-Lites. The bag will come off when the seedlings emerge. Right now, however, my handiwork resembles a turkey basting in the oven.
It's 11 p.m. Time to quit. I'm exhausted. For some reason, I'm also quite hungry.