The video opens on an image of Danielle Eaton’s gardens but there’s not much to see, really: raised beds filled with snow. Garden paths completely vanished beneath a foot or so of the white stuff. Bare trees and metal fencing standing cold and stark against the snowy backdrop. 

Danielle Eaton of Litchfield with bounty from her garden last fall. She’s now in the throes of planning her next garden. Photo submitted by Danielle Eaton

“There’s not a lot going on right now,” Eaton begins, “because it’s January in Maine.” 

There’s your irony, though. For the next half-hour, Eaton, of Litchfield, goes on to explain that there’s a whole LOT going on, in fact, and for a sizeable group of gardeners, January is a very busy time of year indeed. 

Meanwhile, on Facebook, Linda Doucette Scott has posted a meme on her “Victory Garden” group page. The image shows a snow-covered field with a red barn way off in the background. 

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the year,” goes the message on that one. “For gardening begins in January, with the dream.” 

The dream, as it happens, often involves the kind of strategy and planning normally only seen in military operations.  

Gathering supplies wherever you can find them. Ordering seeds or calculating inventories of private stashes. Agonizing over exactly what you mean to plant and where and when you will do it. Gardens need to be charted, and measurements taken, down to the finest details. Do you have enough space for this if you also mean to grow that? Will spring come early or will it come late? 

So many questions to be asked and potential problems to be solved. For outsiders, this might seem like tedious busy work, but for those in gardening frames of mind, it’s a labor of love. 

Auburn gardener Michelle Jones has her own collection of seeds ready to be planted come spring. Photo submitted

“In the wintertime, you know, it gets dark at 3 or 4 o’clock,” says Gus Ramsey, who maintains a sprawling garden in front of his Lewiston home. “I like to sit down and kind of plan it all out, especially since I like growing a couple new things every year. And I just got a new seed catalog in the mail. It’s fun for me to look at because it gets me excited for growing season again.” 

Excited enough that when he’s not working his regular job, he’s mostly trying to narrow down exactly what his garden is going to look like this year. New stuff? Old stuff? A healthy mix of the two? 

Last year, the sight of Ramsey’s corn growing to more than 12 feet in his front yard was enough to bring the curious to his neighborhood from miles away. 

“Oh yeah, I’m gonna try growing that again,” Ramsey says. “And I’m thinking about maybe cantaloupes because I didn’t realize you could grow them around here.” 

In the meantime, he’s still browsing the seed catalogs in search of inspiration. 

It’s funny about those seed catalogs. Almost every gardener gets them — whether it’s from Burpee Seed, Baker Creek, Prairie Moon, Stokes, or one of about a thousand other seed companies — whether they need them or not. 

“I haven’t ordered any because I have over like 200 packets from the last couple years,” says Ramsey. “People will say, you know, there’s an expiration date on seeds, but I’ve never had any problems at all. Last year I saved a lot of the seeds from my plants because I like to grow them over. The more you grow them, the more they get accustomed to where they’re growing, I feel the better they are. Plus, I don’t want to feel like trying to look for seeds and not being able to find them.” 

Linda Doucette Scott has mad seeds, too, although she still tends to order more of them from companies that have heirloom seeds — seeds that come from open-pollinated plants that pass on traits from the parent plant to the child plant. 

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE ARE BLACK TOMATOES

Gus Ramsey, of Lewiston, displays his collection of seeds. Ramsey is already planning and dreaming for his spring garden. Photo submitted by Gus Ramsey

Scott, too, has now moved into the garden planning phase, which most people begin once the frantic pace of the holidays is over. And when a gardener tells you she’s got plans, she’s not talking about just vague ideas. 

“I have many spring garden plans,” Scott says. “I’m currently in the process of redesigning my different plots now. I usually spend much of January and February working out which plants I want to grow for the year and where I’ll be placing them in my garden. I think this is a pretty traditional thing here in Maine in the winter.” 

For most, the planning stage involves considering what has worked well before and what new plant might be brought into the fold. In some limited situations, indoor planting may even begin. 

“I’m growing sprouts under lights this year for the first time,” says Scott. “It’s hard to grow stuff other than house plants this time of year, unless you have a greenhouse, which I don’t have yet. I won’t start my seeds inside yet for a couple months still, but I do set up a grow area in my house with light, when it’s time to start my seeds. 

“I usually try one new strange or unusual variety each year,” Scott says, “’cause I love to try new stuff. This year I’m thinking of growing black tomatoes. Apparently they are very sweet and a deep rich purple/black color.” 

In Auburn, Michelle Jones is likewise in the process of planning and calculating and measuring for her vast garden in back of her home. In her arsenal, Jones has bags and baskets and cans and packets full of seeds, seeds and more seeds. 

Danielle Eaton’s “Tomato Jungle,” which she planted in winter in preparation for her garden in 2019. Photo submitted by Danielle Eaton

“Somewhat organized,” she says. “In the end, half-and-half purchased seeds and self-gathered seeds. In a few short weeks, I’ll start planting some varieties in the house so I have seedlings to put in the ground when it’s time in the spring. The first carpets need to be started inside 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost.” 

Will that last frost be early this year or unexpectedly late, like it was in 2020? Will COVID-19 further disrupt supply chains, making it tough to get badly needed gardening supplies? 

These are the types of questions that enthusiastic gardeners choose to face in January rather than in April as the clock is running down. 

And for some, gardening is only one component in a broader way of life that demands similar rigorous forethought. 

Eaton, for example, is a complete homesteader who, with her family, raises chickens for meat, keeps bees and laying hens, and has plans to add a milking goat to the mix. 

“Our homestead has been about five years in the making and this last year made abundantly clear how important these kinds of skills are,” Eaton says. “I am in no way a doomsday prepper, but when you see grocery store shelves empty and eggs are nowhere to be found, I was mighty thankful to have a garden full of food and eggs to collect every day!” 

Eaton herself is versed enough in this way of living that she is able to maintain the popular YouTube channel “The Eaton Homestead,” dedicated to the lifestyle. She also operates a blog that offers tutorials such as “Seed Starting Basics” with tips she’s gleaned during her foray into gardening.

Yet even someone with that advanced kind of knowledge admits that when it comes to gardening, few people have achieved true mastery. 

“I’m not an expert in any way,” Eaton advises in her latest video, on the art of seed starting. “I’m still learning. I’m still researching and finding out new things all the time.” 

That goes likewise for everyone cited above. When we get to talking to gardeners, we never find a single one who claims to have it all figured out. The seeds they love so much are so tiny, you could fit a dozen of them on your pinky nail, and yet each one is full of as much mystery as it is hope. 

Such is the nature of seeds. Although in mid-January spring seems a long, long way off for most of us, the time of the seed has definitely come. 


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