A friend of mine who lives Down South exercised his bragging rights the other day with a phone call that left me scanning the calendar, hoping tomorrow would be spring.
"The citrus is really coming on right now," he taunted. "Lemons so sweet you can eat 'em like oranges."
People who move to The North from far flung places like Florida or Jamaica don't understand what Cabin Fever is all about until they face February. Though the days are getting longer by minutes each day (we're told), time is relative. The trees have been bare for a quarter of a year and they have another quarter to go. February is the month when the sun scrapes along at treetop level, and you linger at magazine ads of beaches lined with palm trees; a month when nothing grows but dust bunnies or whatever's inside that odd jar in the back of the fridge.
Folks that live above the 47th parallel understand these things. You've started ordering seeds, even though it's a little early to start them. You've trained binoculars toward the garden spots where you planted daffodils last fall so you can catch that first, brave shoot, and you've posted clippings from seed catalogs all over your bedroom walls to help remind you that there's life beyond white snow and brown ground. February might be the shortest month of the year, but it's the longest one to wait out.
Fortunately there are a few things you can do to bide the time and get out of the Cabin Fever blues. The following garden-related activities have been selected because they require little preparation and accommodate attention spans as short as two minutes. Something for everyone, regardless or age or thumb color. Take your pick.
1) Remember the alfalfa sprout craze of the 70's? Well, alfalfa sprouts are back, big time. Since sprouts have recently been heralded as the ultimate health food, they have lots of company these days in the form of broccoli, bean, cabbage, mustard, onion, radish and wheat sprouts. Cactus Flats carries seeds for sprouting and handy perforated lids that fit on canning jars. It couldn't be easier. Preparation time: 2 minutes. Results in 10 to 14 days.
2) If garage sales or your attic haven't yielded a collection of neat, antique bottles, line up a few empty soda or beer bottles. Fill each one with water and plug the opening with a large garlic clove. Within a couple days, roots will begin sprouting. They are more fun to watch than sleeping cats. When the green tips reach 4 to 6 inches, snip them off and add them to salads or soups. Preparation time: 1 minute. Waiting time: a few days.
3) Organize a seed swap with your other Cabin Fever friends, if any, to bring over last year's seeds. Swap away. Preparation time: depends on how much house cleaning you need to do before they come over.
4) Before inviting anyone over for a seed swap, test your old seeds. Dampen a square of paper towel, put ten seeds from an old packet on one side and fold over the other side. Keep the towel damp for a several days (the seed packet will tell you average number of days to expect before germination). Check daily and remoisten the towel as needed. It's a good idea to check germination before buying any seeds. Lettuce and onion seeds don't last long; broccoli and cabbage seeds are viable for several years. When you think that no more will sprout, count the ones that did and multiply by 10. This is the percentage of viable seed that you can expect. Label the packets so you don't forget the results.
5) If you're really desparate, put some potting soil under your fingernails.
6) Grow some herbs indoors, or if you know someone who's already growing herbs in their house, call them up and ask permission to sit by them for while with your eyes closed. Inhale deeply to get their essence. Leave a tip at the door when you leave, or bring cookies next time.
7) Pull on some old gardening clothes (preferably with some of last season's dirt still rubbed into the fabric) and go about your errands, or if you're daring, show up at work in costume. If a handkerchief or trowel handle is sticking out of a pocket, even better. Pay attention to the reactions you get.
A gardener in Denver, Colorado learned his lesson about garden attire while running some errands after a long stint working the the garden. He stopped for lunch at a fast-food restaurant in one of the seedier parts of the city. When he got to counter and checked his wallet , he found only two dollar bills. So he ordered a "single" burger and a glass of water.
The young lady probably saw that his wallet wasn't exactly bulging, and given his grubby clothes and several days' worth of five o'clock shadow, concluded that he was down on my luck. When she gave him his order, he figured she'd made a mistake: the hamburger was a double, the drink was a large cola, and there was an enormous order of fries. He started to say something, but she pushed the tray towards him, saying, "that was a single and a glass of water, right?" with a smile. Feeling guilty and grateful at the same time, he managed an embarrassed "Thank you".
8) Forget proper timing and grow a real garden anyway. Fill a flat with potting soil and plant last year's seeds. Herbs, lettuce, broccoli, it doesn't matter. Sow them thickly. Grow a little forest. Make little row markers or a mini scarecrow. Make rain with a spray bottle. As the seedlings grow, create a neighborhood. Add houses and hotels from a Monopoly game, bamboo skewer fences, aluminum foil streets. Don't do this activity when other adults are present.
I haven't had it with winter yet, I'm just looking forward to making it through February. By then my seed orders will have arrived and I can set up my lights and soil-filled trays for starting pansies, celery, lobelia and poppies. Preparation time: 1 hour. Satisfaction time: endless.
"Over the Hedge":
"What a desolate place would be a world without flowers?--It would be a face without a smile; a feast without a welcome.--Are not flowers the stars of the earth? And are not our stars the flowers of heaven?"--Clara L. Balfour