In the Midsummer Garden

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” –Gertrude Jekyll
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Summer in the Midwest is fleeting. Here it is, July 25, 2016, and though we’ve been suffering in the heat and humidity (though not as much as you Southerners!), we will soon bundle ourselves in woolen sweaters and goose down to fend off the cold. This spell of warm weather with the humidity induced mists over the fields will be but a memory. That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite parts of my gardens, my favorite place to be this time of year.

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When we moved into our house, we had no gardens at all, only sandy dirt and rocks. Over the course of the last ten years, Bruce and I have worked to create gardens all around our house. I cut out pictures from magazines of what I liked. With his own artistic vision and the muscles to help me realize my own, Bruce and I have nearly “finished” our landscaping. Here is the vegetable garden. Two years ago we decided to take up square foot gardening. It has been a qualified success. We don’t get quite as much produce as we once did from approximately the same area, but the garden itself looks beautiful, I think.

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The picture above shows our vegetable garden where we grow all our vegetables in raised beds, except our tomatoes. This year we’ve experimented with growing tomatoes in pots. I’m not sure I like that as well–lots of hand watering–but they have not been afflicted with the diseases they were plagued with before. We’ll see how they taste this year. My hubby is the muscles and brain behind the design of this garden. He’s a landscaping artist! In this area we are growing carrots, parsnips, collards, ground cherries, kale, peas, basil, eggplant, bell peppers, pole beans, cucumbers, mustard greens, arugula, radishes, mesclun mix, raspberries, and just out of the frame, rhubarb and some herbs.

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In the rest of the yard so many flowers are in bloom or have just finished blooming. I love all the natives and the easy growing flowers like purple cone flowers and liatris. I’ve said since I moved here that I won’t have a flower that is not tough enough to withstand a sub-zero winter. If it wants to be in my garden, it has to be tough. I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve tried out that just didn’t have what it takes to withstand the cold and less than hospitable conditions here. I think there is a metaphor in there somewhere….

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One Day

Southerners have an identity. They are the land they grew up on. Heat and gnats and flowers and rain live in them. Place defines them. It is as much a part of them as their DNA. They are connected to the land like Scarlet O’Hara was. My own family is the same. We have called the same area of Georgia home since the 1700’s, but we are scattered now. No longer do people remain, as their grandparents did before them, in the places where they are raised, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

When I went home in March, I knew I knew the Sandersville of my memory was different than the Sandersville I would encounter, but what I hadn’t counted on was feeling like the Prodigal son, someone who had squandered the fortune I had inherited, in this case my heritage. I was an outsider after a five year absence. Of course, I’ve been gone longer than that, but for five years I had not been home even for a visit. The recession and unemployment hit my immediate family pretty hard. I wanted to return, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t justify spending the money when I was just homesick.

People from the South are born there, live their lives there, and raise families there. Rarely does anyone decide to move away and make their home elsewhere, but I did. When I went back to my hometown, I knew both people and places had changed. What I hadn’t counted on though was how much I have changed. I’m proud of having left and made something of myself in a place where no one knew me, but I miss my people, my family and relatives and my friends and their families.

Sandersville has changed, but that’s no surprise. What I’m most concerned about is that at some point my “home,” the place where I grew up, the place that molded me into who I am today will no longer be home. What if I stay away so long that my friends don’t recognize me, that I’ll be an outlander, an alien in a familiar place?

I have vowed to return home one day, but one day seems farther away than ever before. One day I will walk again in the footsteps of my ancestors, drink in the soft air of a southern spring, feel the thunder rumble beneath my feet as a summer thunderstorm brings sweet relief from the heat of the day, and feel the mists of winter rise over the hay fields at the end of the day. One day.

A Southerner’s Guide to Surviving Midwestern Winters

We moved to Wisconsin in early November with the agreement between Bruce and me that I would never have to shovel snow or use the snow blower, an agreement that still stands, by the way. Less than a week after we moved in, it snowed for the first time. Only a couple of days after that first snow, my daddy called. The conversation went something like this:

“What’s your favorite color?” he asked when I said hello.

“I don’t know, Daddy. Blue?”

“Well, you can have blue, green, or burgundy. Which one you want?”

“Blue, I guess. Why?”

“I’m sending you a parka from L. L. Bean.”

Daddy didn’t want me to freeze to death, and I might have. When we moved here from Pensacola, Florida, I didn’t own a winter coat. I had a jacket, but nothing warm, and I was to find out that Wisconsin winters required just such a parka as my daddy sent.

Learning about winter and how things are done here took a while for me, a Southerner moved north. When I was little, it snowed in Georgia, but not often. I remember only having a couple of inches on the ground and looking for anything that was slick so we could somehow manage to slide down a hill. That meant cardboard, Formica veneer, and even one of those round Coca-Cola signs that antiquers would kill for to slide down Evergreen Circle before it was part of our subdivision. Once, when I was in third grade we even had fifteen inches of snow and were out of school for what seemed like a week!

The thing was it snowed so seldom we didn’t have the proper clothes to wear to play in it. We just wore our regular clothes and when we were cold and wet, we came in, threw our clothes in the dryer and waited for them to dry while we sat by the fireplace sipping hot chocolate. Later we donned the same clothes and went back out to play again.

When Erik, my oldest son, started school here in first grade, cold weather was well advanced. There was snow on the ground and on the playground at school. He came home from school one afternoon and told me his teacher said he needed snow pants and boots to play outside. I was indignant but also wondered, what in the heck are snow pants? I didn’t have friends here yet to ask about said snow pants and had no idea where to buy such an item, so I sent him back to school the following day without any. He came home that afternoon and told me his teacher wouldn’t let him play outside anymore until he had snow pants.

When Bruce got home that day, I confronted him with what Erik had told me. “Can you believe she isn’t going to let him play outside without them? They are only out for about twenty minutes.”

Calmly Bruce reinforced the teacher’s decree. I found Erik some snow pants at The Family Center here in town, and Erik was able to play outside from then on. I soon found out how to survive winter here in the Midwest and learned the season is not something to take lightly. Winter here, like summer in the South, is deadly if not respected, but it can be surprising. Southerners pay attention; Midwesterners, try not to laugh too hard at what I have learned about surviving winter in the Midwest.

  • For instance, in below zero temperatures the little hairs in your nose freeze, a particularly strange sensation.
  • In winter in the Midwest, your nose runs in wild disproportion to how cold it is especially if you are exercising. Finding myself without a Kleenex on occasion, I have deemed it necessary to use the gym teacher’s handkerchief, known in Wisconsin—according to author Michael Perry—as the farmer’s snort. (I hope my mama never reads this.)
  • Hats in below zero temperatures are not optional and usually not fashionable, so if you spent all morning on the perfect hairdo, don’t count on keeping it. Learn to love a hood on a coat instead.
  • In winter conditions fashion must, at times, be sacrificed for warmth. You know those lovely coats we Southerners like to wear, the wool ones with the perfect cut of fabric and beautiful stitching? Midwesterners wear those, but not transplanted Southerners. We need Gore-Tex and down and end up looking like stuffed sausages next to our sleek northern friends who are impervious to the cold.
  • Snow doesn’t mean you get to stay home cozy by the fire and wait for it to melt. People here actually drive in blizzards! Snow days only happen if the blizzard occurs at the time the busses start their route. Otherwise, if the roads are passable, kids go to school and parents go to work.
  • Snowstorms don’t usually bring everybody and their brother to the grocery stores to stock up on staples and batteries. Who knew?
  • There are different kinds of snow, packing snow, dry snow, grainy snow. I never knew that before I lived here. And despite the old wives’ tales in the South, it never gets too cold to snow.
  • When the temperature stays below zero for a few days, snow actually evaporates rather than melts. Now that’s cold!
  • Below zero temperatures actually can make your window sills look like a scene from Tolstoy’s Dr. Zhivago.

I’ve learned a lot in my seventeen years of living in Wisconsin. I have, under duress and out of necessity, learned to live with winter. It lasts about six months here. I’ve even become a cross-country skier and walk with my dog on days temperatures are mild, (that’s anywhere above 20 degrees) but I’ve never learned to embrace the cold. When Bruce and I first married, I told him I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me, so I believe him. My adventurous nature got the better of me, however, and I have made my home here for now.

Each winter come January, however, I think about my friend Rebecca, a native Texan whom I worked with at Stevens Point Area Senior High School when I first began teaching. She has since come to her senses and moved back to Texas, but I remember what she told me one summer. She said she stayed outside in summer as long as possible so she could remember how it felt to be warm come January. Amen, Rebecca.

Winter is long in Wisconsin, but I’ve learned to cope. I’m certainly not a fashion icon in the winter months. My daddy saw to that with his gift of a very warm and serviceable, but unattractive parka that I still have. I have added to the coat collection now with two more down coats that fluff me out like the Michelin man. I even have a pretty wool coat that gets use in late September and early to middle October. Come winter, my nose hairs freeze and my hair is flat under my hat. But I’m warm!