Illustration by artist Alix Martin
By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
I waited for Hope, Georgia, and Henry to arrive home from school. Today was the day! Only February, but it was time to plant. Our Pontiac was filled with bags of soil and peat, and we’d been saving milk and juice jugs for weeks. There was a bit of snow on the ground, and Henry had just started tapping our sugar maple. Spring was almost here, and we were about to welcome it with an industrious hug.
Looking through the window at our porch, Christmas lights still twisted through grapevine, I thought about this unusual preparedness. Usually you can find me in June, worriedly hurrying through the East Aurora Farmers Market, hoping to scrounge up a few pepper and cucumber plants for our humble garden. Not this year. Thanks to Kristen Przybyla, who offered to teach our 4-H club about winter sowing, Heart Rock Farm is growing its own hardy little plants. This year, we’re a season ahead. And we can keep winter sowing through April, as long as the nights are chilly enough to keep us wearing wool.
“Have some popcorn, and then let’s get out there!” I said, thumping a spaghetti pot full of popcorn on the table. The children started to eat as I brought out the clear jugs, lots of clear jugs. Hope, Georgia, and Henry crunched their snack as I cut each plastic container into a clamshell. The jugs looked, as Georgia said, “like mouths.” Soon we had a table full of eyeless plastic puppets.
Working as an assembly line for a bit and then on the same jobs together, we punched holes in jugs, chose seeds, mixed peat and soil, and scooped dirt with mugs used for coffee and tea the day before. An article I read recommended sowing several containers each week–spreading out the joy of working in dirt. We each chose a seed to sow for this first day.
I chose basil, thinking back to every summer’s bounty of fat green plants. For no matter how remiss I am in garden planning, we always have basil. We always have pesto. Sprinkling seeds atop soil, I remembered 2005 when I taught 7-year-old Hope to use the food processor. We still refer to that year as “The Bloody Pesto Year”.
Hope chose parsley, something she’ll safely snip all season long. We’ll put it in soups, cut little bouquets for visitors. Parsley is the everything-herb, and now we will be prepared for everything.
Georgia chose lavender, and as she planted, I thought about buying more lavender seeds: lavender for sachets and lavender to place in small vases, lavender to make our yard violet and lavender to tuck into favorite poetry books. Note to self: drink more orange juice and milk. We need containers!
Henry chose cilantro, perhaps dreaming of salsa and guacamole. And in our few extra containers, he planted hollyhocks, a favorite around here for its height and for the sweet hollyhock dolls we like to make.
As our hands grew colder and colder, we helped each other twist wire through the holes, closing each container, marking two mystery jugs with question marks. Looking at Georgia’s pink cheeks, I thought about these freezing temperatures, about the pinpricks of life we were about to leave in snow, as we kept warm by wood fire. But I knew that what I read was true. Seeds that grow outside are hardier because they grow through harsh conditions.
I explained this to my children, “These seeds will grow well in the same way that people grow best. They will be strong because life will not come easy to them. They will be tested.” In my heart, I recommitted to not make life too easy for Hope, Georgia, and Henry. I vowed to allow that bit of cold, bit of difficulty, to toughen them up for all weathers of life.
In the weeks to come, we will plant more seeds. Tomatoes will be last, because we always have tomatoes. Mark’s dad is an organized planter, a man with a basement and lights and wonderful varieties of tomato that he generously shares with us each year. We can count on tomatoes. Perhaps this year we will share with him: small eggplants or sunflowers, Brussels sprouts or petunias.
Once the seeds were tucked safely into their dirt beds, we nestled each jug into fading snow. Our two dogs bounded around the tiny greenhouses, roughhousing in the brightness of almost-spring-sunshine, making us laugh. As Sage and Cali tumbled into each other, I thought about growing: growing seeds, growing puppies, growing children, and growing me.
Will all of our seeds grow? Probably not, we are new at this. But we will water, and we will move jugs around, caring for the basil and lavender and pumpkins as if they were little pets. We will feed these seeds now. And these seeds will feed us in the months to come.
Slideshow photos provided by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.
For More Information About Winter Sowing:
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writer and writing teacher living at Heart Rock Farm in Holland, NY. Her first children’s poetry book, Forest Has a Song, will be published by Clarion (2013) and her second book, Reading Time, will be published by WordSong. You can read more of Amy’s work at her blog, www.poemfarm.amylv.com.