ERROL CASTENS: The most wonderful time of the year

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Some of us are too old to be enthralled with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, but drop a good seed catalog (or website) in our view, and we can get downright giddy.
In the shortest and grayest days of the year, those pages absolutely tantalize: The gardens they engender between the ears are fruitful and flowerful, there’s always a cooling breeze with every ray of warming sunshine, the rain comes gently and generously, and every bug, blight and blade of grass is banished.
Even beyond the browsing and planning and jotting and plotting, Mississippi vegetables gardeners just don’t have time for the traditional post-holiday depression.
For one, we’re actually gardening. Green onions will laugh at any winter we’ve ever had. Collards bravely stand through most winters. Kale will hunker down through all but the worst weather.
Add a “hoophouse” – a simple unheated greenhouse – and even the January table can see lettuce, arugula and other daily delights.
Inside one’s home, right after Christmas, it’s time to start broccoli and cabbage under lights to be planted directly in the garden and to start asparagus from seeds for transplant after the soil is warmer.
Despite the three-figure prices some supply houses put on specialized grow lights, plain old fluorescent shop light fixtures work quite well for most plants. Just don’t starve your starts: Too many plants under too few light tubes means the plants will literally stretch for light, making them thin and weak.
That aforementioned “hoophouse” or “high tunnel” also means starting a few bush tomatoes from seed in mid-January for planting in the ground in mid-March. It’s not exactly like watching toddlers grow, but there’s a great satisfaction in seeing seeds sprout and then celebrating the first false leaves and soon after the first real leaves before watching them crowd each other, demanding to be transplanted to roomier quarters. Just taking in the fragrance of a tray of tomato starts in early February transports a gardener to summer for a few minutes.
If you only start a modest number of transplants, you may want to use the extra space under the lights for growing several basil plants.
When it’s too cold and rainy to be outside, plan a few raised beds to make your gardening easier and maybe even more attractive. On tolerable days, we can be framing raised beds, covering them with the leaves that some cities make available, and shoveling wood chips into the paths between them.
Surrounded as we are by short, often-gray days and the occasional biting cold, every little bit of gardening we can accomplish is a reminder that spring always comes.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at errol.castens@journalinc.com.