Sunday, April 09, 2006

Hardening Off

Spring always comes early in Texas, but because we barely had a winter this year it has come particularly early.
So I’ve spent much of Lent getting the garden ready for summer -- which will probably be here the day after Easter.
This entails the usual post-winter cleanup – no small job, because there is an acre-and-a-half of garden. But most of all, it means moving all the plants I wintered over in the greenhouse back outside.
This is a slow process. Plants cared for in the greenhouse all winter have to be “hardened off” gradually.
Plants sheltered in a greenhouse are very different from plants that live outdoors all the time. Outdoor plants have thicker cuticles, a waxy layer in the outer skin of a plant that helps keep the plant from drying out. The thicker it is, the better protection a plant has from dehydration. This is important in a climate as stressful as ours. So greenhouse plants have to be given time to grow thicker skins.
Plants that live outdoors also have more robust stems and are generally sturdier than those babied in a greenhouse. When hothouse babies move outside, they have to be given time to gain strength to withstand the often violence weather of a Texas spring.
Texans joke that if you don’t like weather, wait five minutes and it will change. We’ve already had temperatures as high as the mid-90s and as low as freezing – and that’s just in the last month. It’s not unusual to have a 50-degree separation between the day’s high temperature and the low. So plants have to be able to withstand sudden changes in temperature.
And then there are the winds. Friday we had 50-mile-an-hour winds in Fort Worth. They were carrying so much West Texas dust the sky looked brown. The next morning the whole garden was filled with thousands of brand new baby leaves ripped from the tops of the towering oak and pecan trees on our property. All the plants were covered with a thin layer of dust.
Days like that remind me of why I have to move so slowly and carefully with the plants from the greenhouse. It’s a wonderful Lenten discipline. Eager as I am to have the garden all “done” and looking its best, I know if I go too fast I will end up with a mess. And so I learn patience, moving plants out into the light for longer and longer periods each day over three to four weeks.
In the meantime, I prepare the beds for the plants that will go into the ground, and clean the containers for those that will be potted. This means making dirt.
Yes, making dirt. Our soil is thick red clay that, when dry, has the consistency of concrete. When wet, one could probably throw pots with it.
So I have to add heaps of organic matter – compost -- and lava sand and cotton burr mulch and all manner of other good things to break up the clay and help the plants thrive.
So for me, a gardener, this is my Lent, because while I’m working with my plants I’m also working on myself – hardening myself off to be ready for the Light.
This involves cutting out the spiritual dead wood so new healthy growth can start. It’s preparing the bed of my soul for the possibility of new insights, new blessings. It means cross-pollinating by listening to those with whom I disagree. It’s opening myself to the winds of the Holy Spirit, even though it’s more comfortable to remain safely curled up out of the draft. It means digging deep spiritual wells to be ready for the times of drought.
It’s gathering up the courage to say, once again, “Here am I, Lord, if you need me,” and really meaning it.
Gardening isn’t for wimps.

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