Monday, April 25, 2011

Southern Transplants

"You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March."  (Robert Frost, "Two Tramps In Mud Time")

Frost would be a neighbor if he were still alive, and he knew our weather well. 

When a friend and I drove almost an hour to the nearest Home Depot a week ago, a cloud had come over the sunlit arch and a wind was raging off the frozen peaks, and it definitely felt like March. 

The nurseries around here don't even open until the beginning of May.  But my friend and I were looking for early vegetable transplants--crops that will withstand almost anything, such as lettuce, broccoli, and kale--and she knew that Home Depot sells these plants before anybody else.

We drove up in a freezing gale and there they were, on the bare parking lot, racks and racks of baby plants.  The cool-season veggies huddled in their plastic pots and did their best to survive.  But the sad legions of young tomatoes, peppers and eggplants drooped and blackened and perished under the sleet.  What were these semi-tropical imports doing in a Vermont near-blizzard?  Even the most novice flatlander knows that you don't even think about putting out tomatoes until Memorial Day.

My friend and I loaded our carts with flats of blizzard-worthy transplants, and rushed shivering inside the store to check out, past banks of orchids and racks of organic seeds.  On the way out to the car, we spread our coats over the little plants to keep them warm.

As soon as the gale ceased, I put my veggies in the ground.  Buttercrunch and red-leaf lettuce, Packman broccoli, curly kale--just your run-of-the-mill cool-season standbys.  As I tucked each fragile plantlet into the wet ground, I mumbled a little valedictory, "Live well and prosper;  root deep and flourish," and so on.  If you were sticking infant plantlets into the half-frozen dirt and leaving them there to try their luck overnight, you'd be whispering encouragements too.

I was halfway through my transplanting when I noticed a label on the seedling containers.  It said "Union Springs, Alabama."  That is where my lettuce, broccoli and kale had come from, a semi-tropical land where spring was old news, mockingbirds were in full cry, dogwoods and azaleas were beginning to brown at the edges, and it was past time to set out peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.

What was Home Depot thinking of?  Do they really have a single date on which, oblivious to local temperatures, they blanket the nation with vegetable transplants, from Florida to Alaska and Maine to California?  Does the hope that somebody in Vermont will buy those dead tomato plants justify the investment in shipping them there?

So much for my "localvore" commitment.  A couple of weeks from now, with every crunch of my early salads I will remember Union Springs, Alabama, a settlement on land extorted from the Creek Indians, a town whose name has nothing to do with the fight against slavery, where vegetables are grown for export to near-arctic zones.

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