Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This morning's heinous low
            Southeastern North Carolina has been in the grip of an unconscionably early, ridiculously prolonged and completely unnecessary cold snap for the past few weeks. I mean, it’s not like Minneapolis, where a mere 17 inches of wind-whipped snow collapsed the inflatable roof of the VikingDome (or whatever they call it), but it’s freakin’ bad enough for those of us who work outside. Sunny South, says who?

            Last week, for example, Tim and I had ten hayracks, six 16-inch pots and about 40 feet of bed space to fill with winter plants for our dentists’ office. This is how that unfolded.
Monday, the sky was overcast, the thermometer refused to rise out of the thirties and the north wind never took a break. We “left the ladder” (an insider term for a contractor’s visual implied notice of intent) by disposing of the sad and slimy remnants of summer’s display and building a pyramid of 15 bags of potting soil. We also delivered 30 flats of pansies and violas, sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), snapdragons, dead nettle (Lamium maculatum 'White Nancy'), kale and Swiss chard, all of which we prudently covered with Remay against the predicted nighttime low of 20°F. Chilled to the bone, we called it a day.

Good-bye, summer glories

 On Tuesday, we awoke to brilliant sunshine, the only meteorological difference from the day before. Well, maybe the wind had ramped up a bit. Looking like Michelin men in our many layers, we decided to wait another day to plant as the local weather guys predicted an even more frigid night. For four hours, Tim filled pots and hayracks with soil while I cleared weeds from the beds. My feet slowly solidified into single-toed blocks of ice. The ceaselessly whipping wind created a little maelstrom in my sinuses, resulting in a three-ibuprofen headache, even though I kept my sweatshirt hood pulled up and one of those skier’s ear-cover bands in place. (I learned long ago that one’s appearance to casual passersby ranks at the stony bottom of gardeners’ concerns.) At 3:30, as the angle of the sun declined, Tim pulled me away from the patch of Florida betony I was waging war on. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the fan motor on our HVAC jolted us awake as it screamed through its metal-on-metal death throes. Not as horrific as it could have been—after his trip out into the darkness, Tim reported that, bad as the noise was from inside the house, outside it truly impressed—the heater guy told us to switch the thermostat to the “Emergency” setting, allowing the astronomically expensive electric back-up heat to kick in. Fortunately, we were not without heat. Unfortunately, the heater guy also said that the part for our 13-year-old unit would take a few days to arrive.

The phase “adding insult to injury” came to mind.

By Wednesday morning, the wind moderated to a mere zephyr. By 11 o’clock, I had shed the ear-warmer, the outermost sweatshirt and the scarf. Primed to plant, we moved our poor, sad-looking flats into bright sunshine to facilitate thawing. The plants had lots of time to bask because the potting soil Tim distributed the day before had frozen nearly solid. We attacked it with trowels, but gently: cold terra cotta is fragile and breakage-prone, and, if one were to address one’s task too vigorously, the hayracks might fall off the fence onto one’s still-icy feet, causing said feet to shatter into trillions of tiny pieces.

I have a thing about the fragility of cold feet. When I lived in upstate New York, I took up cross-country skiing because one had to do something to get outside occasionally from December to April, preferably something not involving a snow-shovel and/or a roof-rake. The park at the end of our street groomed spotlighted trails for after-dinner practice runs. Whenever I encountered a hill of any size, the same vision would pop into my head with heart-stopping clarity: I fall hard as I pick up speed down the hill, and my feet break off at the ankles, whereat the skis and my feet continue on without me. I can still see it happening, clear as day—the tumble, the reverberating SNAP, the skis with my lowest extremities still in the boots gliding away into the forest, me on the ground looking at the strangely bloodless stumps and knowing the imminence of death by hypothermia. Needless to say, I never became one of the world’s most enthusiastic cross-country skiers. But I digress.  
Pansy popsicles, planted

Once the soil was workable, we stirred in fertilizer (the standard mix of six 16-ounce cupfuls Holly-Tone to one 16-ouncer of kelp meal to a 32-quart bag of potting soil). Then we started planting our 514 pansy-popsicles. The going was slow, given the lumpy media in the pots and the wooden consistency of the rootballs. Nonetheless, by late afternoon, the deed was done.

The plants won’t be beautiful until this unwarranted cold lifts, but they should survive it. Pansies, violas, snapdragons, dianthus, lamium and Brassicas like kale and chard are tough little buggers. (See the November 10th post for more on winter containers.)
What a cool-season hayrack
is supposed to look like

 Mercifully, Tim had a doctor appointment on Thursday, after which we drove to Wilmington for another batch of cool-weather plants. These activities required minimal time outside. Friday was even better: we stayed home to wait for the HVAC repair guy, who'd assured us he'd be around to install our new fan and motor "sometime between eight and six." Ah, the perqs of self-employment! Good as his word, the new motor and fan were up and running by 4:30 that afternoon.
My toes finally became ten separate units again along about Sunday afternoon. I’m more than ready for our regular, mild-mannered winter to resume, but the weather guys say to count on continued cold and blustery northwest winds the rest of this week, at least. Where’s global warming when you need it? (Remind me I said that come next summer.)

Well, the untouched boxes of Christmas cards on my desk are staring at me accusingly. Plus there’s the wrapping and package-mailing to see to before Thursday to ensure timely arrivals. Since everything happens for a reason, maybe this atrocious weather has an up-side after all.

Thanks for dropping by. Stay warm, and don’t let the frost-bugs bite.



  1. I see that you talk about lots of items in a garden. But what about when the garden is done? Do you recomend some wind chimes to soothe the ears to add the relacation and the smells that the garden provides?

  2. Dear Wind Chime,
    A garden is never really "done" (so many plants, so little time and space!), but windchimes are welcome whereever there's a breeze. When Tim and I designed and installed new-construction landscapes, or particularly elaborate gardens, we gave the clients windchimes as "parting gifts." I particularly love the ones that sound like temple bells, as they bring back some of my nicer adventures in Southeast Asia.