I’m a northern girl by heritage but not, it turns out, by disposition. I was raised in the frigid winter climate of Northwestern Ontario and the deep snow of northern British Columbia, then migrated to the somewhat milder Anchorage, Alaska. Every year since I was old enough to take notice, I’ve hated the long, dark winters of the north more and more. After the excitement of the winter’s first flakes and drifts, snow is just one more way for my feet to get wet and cold. Watching the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon as I wave goodbye to my students. shivering, is not my idea of enjoying the majesty of Alaska’s nature. Searching for a dry, snow-free spot to sit at the end-of-school picnic in May brings me no joy. No, beautiful as Alaska is, it’s not the place for me.
About seven years ago, my husband and I formulated a “five-year plan.” We would keep our new Anchorage condo until we had built up enough equity to make money selling it. That would be our ticket out of Alaska. We would move to a place where you didn’t have to use a flashlight to navigate to your car at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, where the highway wasn’t littered with traffic accidents every time fall turns to winter. Every. Single. Time. Lifelong Alaskans forget how to drive in snow, each and every winter. We dreamed of finding a place where people grew crops like melons and tomatoes right outside in their yards, no greenhouses and heaters needed. A place where summer was summer, and fall was a riot of color. A place where there was no snow to shovel. In other words: paradise.
A year and a half ago, we packed up our belongings and son, and, with the help of my best friend who helped me stay sane on the long drive to Juneau, Alaska so that we could take the ferry to the state of Washington, we left the place that had been home for Aaron for thirty-one years (only fourteen for me).
Now we’ve been in our “forever home,” a low brown house on two acres, built in 1979, for one summer, after renting for a year while house hunting. And it is paradise. Here it is, the end of October, and the slight chill of the last few rainy days feels like a rainy day at the height of Alaskan summer. Friends and family in my former homes of Ontario and Alaska are already shoveling driveways and bundling up for the walk from front door to car. Today I was out shopping in a cardigan over a thin summer shirt, and was perfectly comfortable.
But the comfort of a moderate climate is small compared to the sense of amazement I find as I garden here. A couple of weeks ago I saw shoots coming up near our pond, where last spring grape hyacinths had bloomed. I went to the omniscient Google and discovered that these amazing little bulbs sprout in the fall. Plants that come up in October? I had no idea plants did that!
That same weekend, I did some fall planting of bulbs that will provide bright springtime color next year. Planting in the fall! Now, I know people in Anchorage must have done this too, because I have seen with my own eyes crocuses pushing up through snow in late April and early May. But I have never myself done fall gardening. It’s a mind-boggling and delightful concept for someone to whom October means the first snowfall of the year.
Things just grow on their own here, with no help from human hands. In the soil half of my compost bin (that is, the half that is done decomposing and is now rich garden dirt, as opposed to the half that is freshly discarded leaves and kitchen scraps), I just discovered five young tomato plants and a large patch of parsley, joining a melon plant that has an almost-ripe melon that we’ll pick soon. In fact, this isn’t good, not from a gardening perspective. It’s a sign that the compost pile isn’t decomposing properly, killing seeds with internal heat as it ought to. But I can’t bring myself to uproot these miracle plants. Young parsley and tomatoes sprouting in October, as if no one told them they’re supposed to be curling up and dying under a layer of snow, rigid inside a foot of frozen earth. Incredible.
But, oddly, the plant that has solidified this sense of magical fall growth has been garlic. Researching this summer, I discovered that garlic is best planted either in fall, for a late-winter/early spring crop, or in late winter for an early summer crop. So said, again, the all-knowing Google. But I didn’t truly believe it. What northern gardener would put plants into the ground in October and expect to harvest in winter? I planted anyway, obedient to the wisdom of search engines, shaking my head at the crazy idea of a January harvest.
And then. And then. Last weekend I strolled past the garden bed where I’d planted the garlic. And – NO WAY! Seven fresh green sprouts against the dark brown earth. Sprouts in October, promising a winter crop, a frail green proof of paradise.
Oregon. My own paradise, found.