Tuesday, 20 Apr 2021

Opinion | I Will Not Rest Until This Garden Grows

NASHVILLE — I recently started my garden in the middle of an ice storm. Sleet and snow poured down while I trudged out to the toolshed to fetch the seeds I’d saved from last year’s pollinator patch. Still, it was time.

Light is brightening the sky earlier every morning, and lingering longer every afternoon, and the songbirds are already pairing off. The winter flock of neighborhood bluebirds has dispersed, leaving just one male and one female at the mealworm feeder each morning. All around the yard the downy woodpeckers and the Carolina wrens and the tufted titmice are traveling from branch to branch, two by two. They are just getting to know each other, I think. It’s a little too early yet for actual nest-building.

It’s also too early to plant seeds in the garden, but I don’t sow these seeds in the actual soil. I start them in trays and store our trays in the refrigerator. For the next eight weeks, the seeds will lie dormant in an artificial winter.

This isn’t always a necessary step. In the bright days of April, just as the ruby-throated hummingbirds are arriving here from their wintering grounds, I’ll plant the cosmos and marigold and zinnia seeds straight into the flower beds. They will grow with hardly any effort on my part, almost regardless of the weather. A marigold seed will set down roots in turned soil even if all you do is spit on it.

But some seeds need to endure a certain amount of cold before they can germinate, and our winters are getting warmer, random ice storms notwithstanding. I let my flowers go to seed to feed the birds, which are half the reason I planted this pollinator garden in the first place. But I always collect a few seeds from each variety to store in our toolshed. In late February, I bring the cold-dependent ones indoors to enjoy the steady coolness of our refrigerator, just to be safe.

The Deep South, where I grew up, has never had particularly cold winters, but the Upper South is different. Here, our growing seasons are tuned to both the heat of Southern summers and the cold of Midwestern winters.

During my first January in Nashville, more than 30 years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to brightness and thought it was morning. When I looked out the window, the trees were sweatered in white, sending a pale light into the room. I thought I’d moved to the most magical place in the world. Magnolias, just like at home in Alabama, and snow too!

Back then we could count on several snows every winter. What we get now is less predictable and often the worst of both worlds: unseasonable mild spells that trick the songbirds into pairing off too soon, that trick the sap into rising in the trees and the woody shrubs and the perennial flowers, but also brutal cold spells that can wipe out many of my plantings — and many songbirds, too — in one 9-degree night.

In most matters of coexistence with the natural world, letting nature take its course is the right thing to do. If I see a rat snake climbing the cherry laurel, I’m obliged to let the snake go on its way, knowing it will eat the baby redbirds hidden in a nest deep in the greenery. If a red wasp is eating the Gulf fritillary caterpillars on the passionflower vines that I planted just for them, there is nothing to be done about it. Nature’s wisdom is still wise, even if it’s painful to watch.

It’s another matter altogether when a natural system encounters an unnatural hitch. I’ve installed snake baffles below all my nest boxes because a birdhouse doesn’t have the camouflage of a nest hole in a dead tree. I owe it to the birds I’ve invited into my yard to protect them from the predators I know are here.

But the difference between what is part of a natural system and what is a human-introduced disruption is becoming less and less clear.

I put up these nest boxes in the first place because developers keep cutting down trees to make room for bigger houses, and every year there are fewer nesting places for the wild creatures that were here first. I planted this pollinator garden because the weedy flowers that once grew in the unkempt yards and rough margins between the houses of this formerly working-class neighborhood no longer have any place in the manicured yards of what my neighborhood has become.

Improving the survival odds of wildflower seeds by letting them winter in my refrigerator, unnatural as that may seem, is my way of responding personally to an unstable climate. It comforts me to know that I’ll be able to replenish the milkweed stands I’ve planted for the monarch butterflies, even if the recent storms have decimated my flower beds.

Nature did not design milkweed to be planted by human hands. Once the seedpods burst open, the seeds enter the world on their own tiny parachutes to be wafted away on the wind. In commercial packages, milkweed seeds come denuded of their flight gear, but the seeds I save from my own flowers still have the gossamer filaments nature gave them, and they escape into my kitchen on the slightest breath.

I grieve what is happening to the natural world, and I understand perfectly well that my own efforts to help are far from enough. But when I watch a bluebird introducing his mate to the nest box I’ve installed for them, it’s impossible to give up. When the tiny hummingbirds make it back from far across the Gulf of Mexico, it’s impossible to give up.

And a seedling muscling through the soil, carrying its old, sleeping self into the light, never fails to give me hope. It never, never, never, never fails.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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