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Life and Vegetables

springtime in Eau Claire is for get-up-and-growing

Hope Greene, illustrated by Serena Wagner

My children both sing more in the winter than they do in the spring. Spring seems to be for screaming; that shrieky life-shout swirling in a bubbly sound-stew out of the playground. If plants made a sound when greening I think it’d be that playground sound. Instead, plants have a smell. When spring arrives, trees spread leaves, grass greens in sheets, bulbs pierce the surface, and altogether they make a smell that hits you in the brain like a polar plunge; electric and unavoidably alive. Getting a pre-smell of that is a reason to start seeds. So is a wish for your own tomatoes in Wisconsin, or the yearly February thirst for unfrozen dirt.

Each year since we moved to Eau Claire with its slow, cold spring heave, we’ve started seeds in the kids’ bright bedrooms. When we began here, our yard was almost bare; since then we’ve planted thousands of plants and that means seeds – lots of them. This particular year the first and most difficult step in seed-starting has been to pry my children from their screens; in the winter they latch onto screens like lampreys. I find a liberal application of potting soil to their heads is usually enough to separate them from whatever ghastly candy-colored creature is pretending to teach them something at that moment.

When spring arrives, trees spread leaves, grass greens in sheets, bulbs pierce the surface, and altogether they make a smell that hits you in the brain like a polar plunge; electric and unavoidably alive.

Then, wetting the seed-starting mix into a mushy mess, it is unavoidably, smearily dirty – a thing easy to forget over the winter. It’s not crumply-Christmas-wrappings dirty, or overturned-vat-of-scattered-Legos dirty. Not even your overfull-laundry-baskets dirty. We are talking dirt dirty – in the hands of winter-bored children. The kind that takes your soapy water, laughs, and hits you back with soapy mud. The kind of dirty that the entire unfrozen world is made of. This is about when the kids start to show a real interest in the project.
The next thing is to create a little spring in your house, with a fan for the wind, central heating for the sun’s nearing, and twice-daily water for the rains. And then the seeds wake up. That is the most exciting day of all the seed-starting days, the day where the thready little sprouts pop out. First, the one thin line of green, then more and more until it’s a little nursery of green fuzz made up of almost invisible filaments. The muddy life-smell explodes inside the house while the solid yard is bone-frozen just outside the glass. My girl – who can only really remember this happening once, maybe twice in her entire life – is incandescent with excitement. She names every seedling.

Mommy blogs keep telling me that if my children plant and grow vegetables, they will eat vegetables. I find instead that if my children plant and grow vegetables, they will adopt vegetables. She refuses to pick a zucchini until it is well past muskrat sized, saying, “He doesn’t want to leave his friends.” Or he yanks a “family” of strawberries out from under my knife with searing accusation, “Did you take those from the store or from their home?!” My husband remembered eating the radishes he planted when he was five. So we planted radishes. My children did not eat the radishes. They carved little faces into the radishes and coddled and cooed over them until the radish imp heads turned all wrinkly and dry and received solemn burials in our increasingly robust compost pile.

If spring is rebirth, our compost heap is redemption. Into its messy depths goes every failure and every hollow rind. It takes little “Seedy,” “Two-leaf,” “Trundle Bean,” and all the other seedlings that fell to the damping-off disease. It takes the elaborate potting mix mudscape collected from the kitchen floor, the unused seeds, the fallen apples. No guilt necessary, the compost heap recycles and the game will begin again. Next year the wrinkly radish imps will feed us all.

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