Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quiet Month

After a few years of growing a fall garden in Austin, I came to think of the month from late December, around the time of the winter solstice, to late January, around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as the quiet month.  Plant growth slows, few weeds germinate, and garden projects – harvesting, watering, weeding, and raking leaves – seem to sit still and wait for another day.  I used to think that the timing of this quiet month had to do with day length, that the more-distant sun simply didn't shine brightly enough for enough hours to promote plant growth around the first of the year.  But in truth we receive over ten hours of daylight on even the shortest day of the year, and, after seeing the freeze data for our region, I realized that what I call the quiet month is actually the freeze month, the short window of time during which our climate approximates winter.

Quiet in the garden does not translate to quiet in the kitchen.  In fact, January is actually the peak production month for a cool-season garden in Austin.  The lettuces are full size, with the Black Seeded Simpson heads threatening to bolt between freezes.  Large-leafed cooking greens like kale and chard begin to look like small shrubs, while the bok choy and tatsoi rosettes grow denser as their holey outer leaves host an assortment of nutrition-conscious insects.  Broccoli and cauliflower heads reach maturity.  The winter herbs, parsley, cilantro, sorrel, fenugreek, and fennel, are bushy enough to be regularly trimmed for salads, soups, and pesto.  Last weekend I even discovered that I have full-sized carrots growing quietly beneath the mulch, adding another homegrown ingredient to our salads.

I wish that I could say that the quiet is a state of mind, but the quiet of January feels more like the calm before the storm.  Garden projects will wait in these weeks, but only temporarily, because, as early as February, weeds will begin germinating in earnest and the garden greens will respond to longer, warmer days by bolting and flowering.  A few short weeks after that, dormant Bermuda grass will recover from winter freezes as the spring planting window for tomatoes, peppers, and other hot-season plants approaches.  And the spring-planting window, unlike the leisurely, long fall planting window, is as unforgiving as the heat of the impending summer.  This quiet time is actually the time to plan and to prepare and to eat those greens.

Still, despite the fact that every summer I set an intention to get so many garden projects done during the coolest month of the year, I can't help but move more slowly along with the plants.  It took me weeks to finish raking the backyard this year, partly because I started the project then decided that I'd rather wait until the leaves were fully off the trees, and partly because raking was an satisfying task that I found myself saving, the same way that I eat a chocolate bar three squares at a time, saving some of what I like for tomorrow.  First I raked enough leaves to mulch the front-yard garden, next I raked the leaves under the cedar elm and used those leaves to mulch the strip along the side of the yard, and then I raked enough leaves to mulch the backyard garden.

Finally, on a sunny morning after the rains had dropped the last of the leaves off the post oak, I raked the rest of the backyard into a big pile of leaves.  Which reminded me that, before spring-planting time, I planned to use those leaves for mulching the future garden space for tomatoes along the south wall of the house.  Which reminded me that, in order to create that garden space, I needed to remove the roots of the shrubs that once grew there, build retaining walls to level the ground, and amend the soil.  So maybe I took my time raking the leaves because I didn't want to be reminded that time, measured in plant growth, was about to speed up once again.  Instead, for that sunny, cool morning, I sat in the backyard with Benji, enjoying the quiet between freezes, between rain storms, and between growing seasons.

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