Summer is right around the corner, although people have been saying that for weeks, and I’m beginning to wonder just how far away this corner is. But in the blind belief that warm weather – and an actual growing season – will be here soon, I’ve begun my annual routine of purchasing packets of seeds and planting them in tiny flower pots inside the house. The theory, I’m told every year, is that you get the seeds sprouting, and by the time they’re big and strong and ready for transplanting, the ground outside will have heated and softened enough to provide a new home, where the seedlings can flourish.
I don’t really buy it. I’ve been through this too many times, always getting my hopes up and imagining a crop that matches the lushness of the pictures on the seed packets, only to be disappointed again by flowers and vegetables that are pale, sickly, and have no identifiable will to live. And those are the ones that manage to poke their heads out of the soil. Most remain forever buried in a limbo of nitrogen-rich, well-aerated, moisture-controlled hibernation.
Plants, I now suspect, don’t even come from seeds. But there are seed companies out there printing up glitzy four-color catalogs, and they need to sell something to cover their expenses. They slip a bunch of tiny, dry, flowery things into envelopes and we buy them, because we want to feel that we’re a part of nature. And because we never learn.
But I’m an optimist, so I keep trying. (Actually, I’m an idealist who’s been beaten into submission. Optimism is just where I hit the floor.)
Three weeks ago, I bought one of those seed-starter kits. It had a plastic tray with seventy-two little compartments, and an equal number of flat peat moss disks. Adding water caused the disks to puff up like you wouldn’t believe, and when they were completely puffed, I added various kinds of seeds – basil, tomatoes, cilantro, and some flowers, too. Even though I was sure nothing would happen, I put the tray onto a level surface where it would be warm, but not in direct sunlight, because that’s what it said in the directions. Keep out of direct sunlight!
The seeds were under the dirt. How would they know what kind of sunlight they were in? But I followed the instructions, because I’m not a botanist, and any kind of vegetation is too biologically-complex for me. I remember the complicated procedure my mother would go through to keep a poinsettia alive after Christmas:
Keep the soil moist, not wet. Prune the branches every six weeks. Put the plant in the closet for fourteen hours a day. Take it out at three o’clock and let it watch All My Children, then set it on the windowsill, where it likes to wait for the mailman. After a low-sodium dinner and a non-dairy dessert, place the plant near a stereo so it can listen to the soundtrack from My Fair Lady, then return it to complete darkness for a restful night’s sleep. Remember that poinsettias can be upset by loud noises, violent shaking, or plaid shirts.
Now I’m the one responsible for these delicate living things, so when it was time to start the seeds, I did what I was told. A few days later, I saw tiny things sprouting from the peat moss puffs. Nearly all of the compartments had something growing!
The next day, the seedlings were twice as numerous, and much taller, and twenty-four hours later the tray resembled a small jungle. Meanwhile, outside, a thick layer of frost covered the lawn and the car’s windshield, as overnight temperatures continued to hover around the freezing mark. It would be at least two weeks before the little plants could be put into the ground.
What happened next is what always happens. The baby plants, once reaching with vigor toward the ceiling and toward a future filled with salsa and spaghetti sauce, began to change from a soft, healthy green to a jaundiced yellow. Their thin stems became almost transparent and their budding leaves, once spreading like fingers, now seemed to change their minds and began to shrink. Then, as if bowing to some unseen authority, or despairing at the thought of a life spent under my ignorant care, most of them swooned and fell, face-first into the swollen peat moss from which they had emerged.
Most, but not all.
A few of the plants, especially the basil, were still stubbornly deluding themselves into thinking it might be possible to elude death. In the middle of what looked to be a mass suicide, five or six young seedlings were still vertical, and green.
I filled a half dozen of the larger pots with fresh soil and moved the survivors into them. I gave them a spray of water, enough to dampen the soil, and positioned them below the window, where light from the sun would find them only after bouncing off the opposite wall.
Three of those basil plants made it through the night, and are still upright. They don’t look vigorous, exactly, but they’re alive. With any luck, they may one day claim a spot of their own in the garden behind the house, a special place where the ground has heated and softened enough to welcome and nourish them, and encourage their roots to drive deeper, even as their stems and leaves brave the direct sunlight and reach for the sky.
It could happen. At least that’s what it says in the seed catalog. And I didn’t have to scrape ice off the windshield this morning. Maybe summer is right around the corner, after all.