Keeping the Garden on Your Mind in January

Shutting Down
Blizzard prowls the forest,
bends the cedars,
drives lines of snow
across our windows.
Chickadees, (poecile atricapillus)
small fragile balls of feathers,
crowd hollow crevices,
slow down their breathing
and settle into torpor
awaiting sun and seeds.

Inside, green speared paper-whites
bloom on the dining table,
fill the air with April.
On the hearth rug, aging lab and spaniel
chase dream squirrel and rabbit
through summer thicket.
Cat now owns the rocking chair for life.
We settle in with Mozart, merlot,
and Mary Oliver
to wait for sun and silence.
Joan Peronto

Joan Peronto is Marjorie’s mother, and the paper-white narcissus mentioned in her poem, an account of her recent Christmas visit with us, are still flowering. Not far from the wood stove, close to a sunny window, they have been our one effort at winter gardening for the past four weeks. Their days are numbered, however, and before January is out, they will be frozen on the compost pile.
It is hard being a Maine gardener in January. Survival means finding ways to keep the garden on your mind as beds planted to winter rye disappear under the snow.

Seed catalogs, arriving by mail in a steady stream that begins right after Christmas, help keep the garden in your life. They initiate planning for next year, snowy weekend days spent making sketches of the garden beds, trying to remember what was planted in each one to avoid growing the same thing in the same bed two years in a row. Time spent remembering what worked, and what did not, resolution to plant more potatoes, fewer tomatillos. Time spent carefully filling out the order form stapled in the middle of each catalog before placing your orders online. Mail is too slow. You want your seeds now, even though you won’t open the packets until April at the earliest.

Seed catalogs feed the urge to grow something new, always featuring new offerings in the front pages, and no one does it better than the copywriters for The Cook’s Garden catalog ( Their “New for 2011” section includes ‘Green Envy’ tomato, a “glamorous green addition to cherry tomatoes”; winter squash, ‘Amazonka,’ “bold but not brash … behaves decorously in the garden”; and a fennel, ‘Orion,’ that “plays well with others … a compact yet full flavored variety won’t shade out its neighbors.”

Seriously, this is great winter reading! I have a favorite recipe for salmon with fennel and plan on giving ‘Orion’ a try.

While planning your 2011 garden, think about including an insectary — one or more patches of flowering plants that attract the beneficial insects that prey on aphids and other plant-eating bugs. Insectary plants provide the pollen and nectar resources that the beneficials require.

For example, Marjorie and I enjoy nasturtiums and place them in pots about the garden. Aphids like nasturtiums, too, so to make sure that the aphids do not get out of hand we plant patches of cosmos about the garden, a plant favored as a nectar source by the hoverflies and lacewings that eat aphids — and we get to enjoy the colorful cosmos blooms all summer. The predators control the aphids to the point where we seldom notice any plant damage.

Other plants to include in your garden insectary include members of the carrot family, such as fennel, coriander, dill and Queen Anne’s lace; they are used by a variety of predators. Composite flowers, including sunflower, cosmos, yarrows and daisies, will attract lacewings, ladybugs and parasitic wasps, while alyssum, a member of the brassica family, will catch the attention of hoverflies.

Plan your insectary for successive bloom from early spring through fall, providing nectar throughout the season. This will not only satisfy the needs of many beneficial insects, but also provide color in the garden.

Despite the prowling blizzards (another brewing outside my window as I write), there is much a gardener can do to stay connected to the garden in winter, when not involved with Mozart, merlot and Mary Oliver.

And the paper-whites, like the pen of Joan Peronto, continue to bring grace to our lives.

Joan Peronto lives in Pittsfield, Mass. Her poetry has appeared in “Crossing Paths,” an anthology of western New England poets, The Rockford Review, The Berkshire Review and Hummingbird. Her poems for children have appeared in Spider and Ladybug.