DENVER, Colorado—“I’m having a Martha Stewart weekend” has become a popular expression among my friends. It means that one of us is tackling a wonderful, ambitious project or two (or three or four). It means that we’re up to something rather than sitting around on a Saturday morning watching drag racing, cooking shows, or bull riding.
I admire people who get things done even though I’ve made a few wisecracks about Martha. My days aren’t nearly as glamorous as Martha’s, especially since I spend the entire winter in sweatpants, nor are my projects as photogenic as hers.
Some novice gardeners think that they need a lovely setting in which to grow things. I’d like one, too. Someday I’ll build a picturesque Victorian greenhouse, where I can scoop soil from antique wooden bins and sow seeds in handmade wooden flats while I hum along to Vivaldi.
In the meantime, though, I spread an old sheet on the living-room floor. I use a coffee can to fill my recycled plastic six-packs with store-bought seed-starter mix, stacking the trays as I go. If I’m distracted by an old movie, I fall asleep on the couch. Later, refreshed from my nap, I make labels for each packet of seeds before I sow them. I learned years ago that it’s all too easy to get the seedlings mixed up. I turn the heat way down so that my hands won’t sweat as I handle the seeds between my thumb and forefinger. It’s a thrilling afternoon all the way around, punctuated by my timeless renditions of “Strangers in the Night” and “Guantanamera”. (Because I don’t know the words, I just sing, “Guantanamera, da da da guantanamera,” over and over.)
I water the flats in the kitchen and haul them down to the basement. I lower the fluorescent shop lights that hang on chains from the ceiling beams. I adjust them to hang just above the clear plastic domes that cover the flats. I set the timer to turn on at 6 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. The setup isn’t pretty, but it works.
When the seeds sprout, I remove the covers. Down in the plant room, the temperature is about 60°F, which promotes slow, stocky growth. If I’m lucky, more than one seedling emerges in each cell. I thin them with tweezers or my fingernails. Sometimes I use a pickle fork to transplant a few if I have space for them or if there’s a blank cell in a six-pack. Other times, I eat the extra basil plants on the spot.
Everybody eventually works out his or her own system, and we learn from our mistakes. If I start basil, parsley, or nasturtium too early, they get leggy and rootbound. Lavender, Salvia farinacea, and golden feverfew, on the other hand, need a longer period of growth to get up to a decent size for transplanting.
The meter reader seems wary of going into the plant room on her monthly visits. She risks life and limb negotiating the stairs past pots, buckets, and boxes of seeds. (“Store in a cool, dry, dark place,” the packets always advise. What better place than on the stairs?) Downstairs, she faces a tangle of extension cords, timers, and flats of seedlings ranged on tables made of doors propped on sawhorses.
Perhaps if she saw something—anything—that she could recognize, like an African violet, it might put her mind at ease, but why ruin it for her? I can imagine her stories down where her fellow meter readers hang out: “This guy is always in the same gray sweatpants, and there are filthy sheets all over the living room floor. He hasn’t cleaned that basement since the dawn of time, and I have no idea what he’s growing down in his laboratory. And when I left the house, I could hear him singing “La Bamba”! He’s supposed to be some kind of writer or something, but I’m tellin’ ya—this guy is a taco short of a combination platter.”