Carl Wernicke: Welcome to Spring on the Gulf Coast

Mar 21, 2019

Credit IHMC

One blessing of living in Northwest Florida is that while we enjoy the change of seasons, we don’t suffer from real winter weather. Watching Midwesterners experience sub-zero temperatures and tree-top height snowfall makes that clear.

Another benefit of our mild weather is that winter has become my favorite season for gardening. You can grow a wide array of crops, especially lettuce and other greens, and you mostly don’t have to fight insects, weeds, humidity or broiling heat. Still, we also get a true spring. And there is nothing like hands-on gardening to get you a close-up view. Spring is a basic function of nature, and like all basic functions, its apparent simplicity hides the complexity underneath.  On the surface, spring can seem benign, almost a lark. When our citrus trees began blooming, I knew spring was coming.

For a week or two, I watched the blooms carefully but never observed any pollinators at work. Then one day the first bumblebee appeared. Then more. A few days later came the first honeybee. That’s the pretty side of spring. A few days later I got a look at a different side. It’s hidden, but it showcases just how desperate the fight for life can be. To suppress weeds (defined here as just about anything we didn’t plant ourselves), we use an increasingly popular method a friend taught us. You lay down cardboard and cover it with mulch — leaves, pine straw, hay or wood chips. It takes a lot of cardboard, but it’s amazing what you can find in dumpsters, especially at furniture stores. This method also helps regulate soil temperature and preserve moisture. It’s a lot of work upfront but saves a lot of labor later. Anyway, a few hardy plants refuse to be suppressed. Perhaps our chief offender is commonly known as wild garlic or onion. You can harvest them for cooking or salads, but it takes a lot. Of course, unchecked they spread like crazy; mowing them unleashes an unmistakable aroma. 

Last week, I was making walkways through the garden by raking back the pine straw to replace it with wood chips. At the same time, I was digging up the wild garlic for kitchen use. What struck me was the sheer genius of these persistent little plants. I noticed again and again that their method of survival is to locate gaps in the cardboard. They find the spot where I have not overlapped the sheets, and up they come. Peeling back the cardboard, I see that they grow along the underside until they find a gap, then shoot up through the mulch into the sunlight. That’s hard work in a dark, wet underworld beneath what for them must be a huge weight of cardboard and mulch. And nothing less than survival is at stake.

Now, you might object to me ascribing genius to a wild garlic. But it was one of the human species’ more notable geniuses, Thomas Edison, who opined that genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration … that is hard work. So I’m willing to grant that one percent of inspiration to the wild garlic in honor of the 99 percent of hard work it took to reach the sunlight. And given the results in our garden, there’s a lot of really smart garlic out there.