Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Vegetable Garden Swooned Over by Painted Ladies

Spring isn’t spring for me until I have planted my vegetables. As the earth stirs and robins and jays jostle in the backyard and orange and cherry blossoms attract honeybees and hummingbirds, my thoughts turn to my vegetable patch. It is a 20x30 feet of earth along the northern boundary of my home that I try to renew every year with compost and hope and some serious supplications.

My only success after years of trying to raise a variety of vegetables has been with tomatoes. The others – corn, chili, cucumber, corn, eggplant - succumbed either to snails or simply refused to sprout. No one has ever accused me of having a green thumb but I am not daunted. One day I know I will catch a break (isn’t that the promise of spring?) and my patch will become the envy of my neighbors and the living symbol of possibilities.

Rain hasn’t been plentiful this year but I am grateful for what fell at the end of February and the beginning of March. Few days ago I cleared the patch and raked and manured it to prepare for planting.

On a warm Saturday, a week after the calendar announced the first day of spring, the vernal equinox (Friday, May 20, although it was on Monday, March 16, that the sun rose at 7:16 AM and set at 7:16 PM, with exactly twelve hours of daylight), I plant squash, chili, radish, carrot, potato and, of course, the Old Faithful, grape and cherry tomatoes. I use seeds for radish and carrot and bury pieces of red potatoes here and there, hoping that random distribution will somehow increase my harvest in June. That there may no potato at all does not cloud my mind in the least.

Interest in home gardening has increased not only because of the current economic crisis but also because it has dawned on many Americans that growing one’s own organic food is a commitment toward healthy living. What has also sparked enthusiasm is Michelle Obama’s decision to convert a 1,100 square feet patch on the south lawn of the White House into a kitchen garden. The first lady, with help from local fifth-graders and a few sturdier hands, has planted 55 varieties of vegetables, including lettuce, chard, spinach, basil, cilantro, hot peppers, arugula and kale. Way to go, Michelle!

The sprinkling, burying and planting takes about four hours. I could do it in half the time or less but I am spellbound by the orange, painted lady butterflies streaming across the backyard. For the sheer pleasure of it, I count seventy in about ten minutes. They alight on the cherry and orange blossoms and gorge on the nectar.

Hatched from eggs laid in the deserts of southern California and northern Mexico, these small wonders are migrating north toward Oregon and Washington. I am not the only witness to their ancient journey; Sofia, the cat, watches transfixed too. What a marvel and mystery migration is! In August, a new generation of painted ladies, sprung from the ones I am now watching, will retrace the flight south toward their ancestral winter abode in the desert of Southern California. And the cycle will repeat, generation after generation.

I water the seeds and the plants and issue silent, stern warnings to any lurking snail that will dare defile my garden. A breeze begins to blow. The stream of painted ladies has thinned. A profound satisfaction floods my heart: in this backyard, some of the winged ones found food as they traveled across Santa Clara County and, thus fortified, continued their flight along the Pacific coast toward their destiny.

All in all, a sublime day to plant vegetables.

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