January is for dancing. Or it is for slowing way down—and I mean Sigur Rós down—and doing some necessary but mundane task. Painting a hallway. Ripping down someone else’s choice of wallpaper. January is for getting a haircut or a new pair of boots, anything to make one feel shiny. January is for making soup.
Crunching through January ice to enter a warm and welcoming greenhouse should be fun. It should be uplifting. But if you’re used to the cheery growth rate of spring lettuce, the happy balance of plant-juice-sucking insects and well-fed carnivores, the satisfyingly speedy April transformation of a handful of arugula seeds to a dark green salad, it isn’t. Fun, that is. It’s work. As the lettuce seeds I planted two months ago struggle to reach the salad bowl, my spirits sink into their sluggish rhythm. Whiteflies suck our vital juices. We wait. For the sun.
I need a dance. Or a haircut.
The rate of photosynthesis is dependent on the amount of sunlight. Today, December 30th, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, we were graced by only about 9 hours and 19 minutes of that precious commodity. Tomorrow, we will get an additional 38 seconds. By the end of January the days will be increasing by a full 2 minutes each day, so that on January 28th the day will be 10 hours long, the same as it was on November 12th. Ten, according to Eliot Coleman, is the magic number when it comes to lettuce and other greens. Ten is the number that sets us on the path to normalcy and good spirits.
In October I planted three full beds of head lettuce in the cooler of the two greenhouses. Even without the supplemental warmth (heated water circulates beneath the soil) they would be doing an admirable job of soldiering though these short days. I harvested the tall romaines first, fearing for their vulnerable tips, and then the splaying ‘Two Star’ heads. ‘Magenta’ is still staged prettily in rows, waiting its turn. Or waiting for the little sap-sucking insects to discover its sweet juices. Which they undoubtedly will. Any day now.
|Flowering stem on Dec 30 2012|
Spinach is a little more immune to winter bugs. As I cut the leaves I can feel the calcium oxalate crystals on their backs. In fact, I feel them more now, in January, than I do in May—possibly because of their lethargic growth rate. These indigestible crystals cost us the benefits of the calcium, but they profit the plant in some way, either as a repository of calcium, insurance for lean times, or as a defense against chewing insects. Turnip greens have the calcium without the crystals. They also have the bugs. Leaves start out promising and perky but succumb to winter malaise. Two out of three of their ping-pong ball roots turn ugly. Where’s the fun in that?
But look! Phalaenopsis is sending up its lanky stem, its flower buds already visible. I will move it to the kitchen window, where I can watch its progress while making soup and counting, very very slowly, to 10.