Winter Survival & History & Stuff

Harry Drabik

Winter planting in wet winter (a.k.a. gardening in June) calls for special cultivation techniques. One good thing about soldiering on with the attempt to coax blooms in an environment as likely to promote flowers as the inside of a walk-in cooler with a leaky ice maker is the relative shortage of black flies. That bonus alone almost balances out the feeling of frostbite nipping at stiff fingers in coats of black wet mulch. Insulated kneeling pads truly come into their own in hypothermic gardening, where the human knee requires protection from the chilling penetrations of Arthur Ritis and his sibling Rue Mat Roid, an offshoot of the same pesky family. Once either of them gets into your knee, you may get down, but can you get back up?
Another need for wintry June bloom cultivation is external heat. I have tried a number of things and pass along results. After the purchase of several dozen heating pads, I dug up my struggling flowers in order to place heat below them before replanting. Unfortunately this shocks them into sadness, as does the shorting out of heating pad controls when it rains. My planting bed turned basically into a floral electric chair, at no small cost to my runaway utility bill. I do NOT recommend or advise use of heating pads for gardening.
Use of blankets to protect buds from chill winds follows the formula of the more protection you provide, the flatter your plants end up, until after kissing the earth long enough they give up and take the final dive. Another route makes use of the thinnest plastic as a wind barrier not likely to overburden a bloom until a stiff frigid breeze puts several tons of weight on it and accomplishes as much or more flattening as a pile of down comforters. On the other hand, the light plastic is best at blowing off and flapping away like an insanely winged cloud that will give amusement by its antics and hours of exercise chasing it down. In terms of garden protection, perhaps the best is to dig up the garden, put it in the garage, turn up the heat, and invest in banks of Grow Lights while waiting for next summer growing season to unthaw.
Another tactic that showed initial promise was breathing warmth on my flowers. This has a promise of breath-of-life in the direct passage of warmth along with one’s fervent wishes immediately on the shivering little veggie. Even the cool, tolerant geranium seems responsive to a bath in the breath-of-life, though how much they benefit from or enjoy this is difficult to measure without use of little calipers. (Warm them before use, as their application is as shocking to them as a colon-scope fresh from the refrigerator is to you or me.)
The major downside to breathing warmth and life into blooms is the toll it takes on the one doing it. Stop if you grow faint. Your body lying on the ground might go unnoticed for days and in this weather remain quite unspoiled, as if you’d tumbled into the refrigerator for a nap. Another disadvantage is having to adopt a Neanderthal diet based on meat-meat-meat. Vegetarian hints on the breath shiver and shrivel plants with cannibalistic fears that do nothing to improve growth and add only pale, mortal dread to their colors. And for heaven’s sake, never never ever have garlic on your breath. That not only gives plants the cannibal dread but adds to it a gas attack that curls leaves and causes petals to fight back with toxic hues hit for the sort of compost one grows on mystery foods forgotten for months at the back corner of the refrigerator, where they turn into liquid surprise with patches that appear radioactive.
I had limited success fashioning tiny hats and mitts to aid blossoms in their struggle against the cold. But blossoms are careless as children about keeping them on or knowing where they are, so all in all it was not rewarding on the aggravation ground. Blossoms are as well notorious in their fussiness. If a chapeau is not exactly to their liking in style or color, they fall into a molt as fatal as a ballerina’s death spiral. You need a wardrobe equal to Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection to suit the whims of flowers. I gave up. I’ve not yet decided it’s The Last Roundup for my half-dead garden, but the thought is tempting.

Shifting toward July, where our summer may be waiting, I am reminded of a Col. Colvill known for his leadership of the 1st Minnesota in the Civil War. At Gettysburg the colonel was ordered to use his force (under 300) to slow the advance of Alabamans outnumbering him by a good 4 to 1. In some respects, the colonel was given an order for him and his men to commit suicide. Eighty percent of the regiment made that sacrifice. Colvill was himself wounded three times that second day at Gettysburg, but holding his ground he gave time for reinforcements to arrive and end the threat of being overrun in the Wheatfield engagement. The colonel recovered from his wounds, though afterward required a cane to walk. He died in 1906.
I talk about the colonel because though born in the east and having associations with Red Wing, Cannon Falls, and Duluth, he also had a large homestead a short distance along the North Shore from me in the area that bears his Colvill name. I ask you to think back. Minnesota was not a slave state and was far from the action of the day, but enough of its citizens felt the worth of Union and abolition of enough value (in their cases, of supreme value) to die not for their own sakes but for the futures of others as yet unborn. It is as easy to overlook or forget the sacrifice of others as it is to neglect the value of a clean shirt placed in your drawer. It is said that when General Hancock ordered Colvill to hold the line with his force, he never hesitated. That, reader, is the soul and spirit we call Duty. Have a Happy 4th!