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January Garden Update

Long view of the garden in January.
This time of year it is always strange for me to wander down to the garden. Despite living in Japan for nine years, I still suffer from what I call seasonal jet lag. A part of me still expects to wake to snow and ice, a garden covered in white where garlic cloves dream in a bed of compost, and I peruse seed catalogs wearing a thick, wool sweater. 

Instead, winter mornings are more akin to this one. I'm still perusing seed catalogs, but the sun shines brightly in a clear blue sky. Winter in Japan is a dry and bright season. The only thing in my region wearing a coat of white is Mount Fuji glittering in the west. My garden is not as busy or full as it is in summer, but things are growing there and there is always a chore to be done.

You'll have to peer closely to catch site of the red onion seedlings, but they are there.
My red onions were planted in November and surrounded by a wara (rice straw) mulch shortly thereafter. They are not growing as fast as those of my neighbors who use black plastic mulch, but I'm OK with that. Black plastic is undeniably an effective weed suppressor and soil warmer, but I find that it does little else. I prefer organic matter - wara, burlap bags, old t-shirts or cardboard - as it feeds the soil while protecting it. I certainly want to eat those onions, but my primary focus is the soil. If I don't tend the soil, I won't have a good crop.

Volunteer kale and norabo
Three different kinds of kale and some good old-fashioned norabo self-planted themselves last summer, and I'm reaping the benefits now. The plants are not huge, but the leaves are sweet. I am hopeful that they enjoy a growth spurt as warmer weather approaches and flower once more. I am also hopeful that Makino-san, my neighboring gardener currently undergoing cancer treatment, will again tease me that my garden looks like a habatake (flower garden) more than a vegetable plot. His quiet presence and timely advice are a great comfort.

Parsley also self-seeded around the garden, and I'm encouraging it wherever I can. Swallowtail caterpillars seem to enjoy it as much as we do in our salads and pesto. Plus, it along with the bergamot are a welcome tastes of our time in Michigan. At this moment, both look a bit worse for wear, but I have faith that as the weather warms, they will stretch tender leaves and stems up to begin a new season.

Beyond the lettuce and covered with burlap bags is where popcorn will be planted.
A middle section needs to be layered yet with leaves and manure in preparation for the summer growing season. I plan to grow a long swath of popcorn this year with fresh seed from Seed Savers. I learned a valuable lesson this last year as I watched my small crop falter and received a smaller yield than ever before. After reading The Garden of Invention, I realized my error. Corn is an inbreeder that needs a steady supply of diversity (who doesn't?) to remain viable.

A shortage of wara again this year meant I needed to come up with another solution. Last year's failure of the potato bed was also a valuable lesson. Using a row cover on top of the bed only served to dry out the soil and create a scenario where almost nothing, especially my potatoes, could grow. A few parsley plants gave it a go, but otherwise the soil remained empty. The result is that this year I am using burlap bags from a local coffee shop. It may not be perfect, either, but I have some hope.

Lettuce seedlings in wara.
Hara-san once again gifted me with a handful of beautiful red lettuce seedlings, which I immediately planted and surrounded with wara. They, too, are not overly impressed with winter weather and the fact that I have given them no protective row cover, but they are managing and doing so beautifully. I am not much of a believer in lettuce, but these lovelies are a current exception.

Meanwhile, back in the cozy living room, tomato, viola, and marigold seeds are, hopefully, giving serious thought to sprouting. The tomatoes I bought at the local garden center were not as nice as my Amish Paste, and I decided I wanted marigolds and violas that I could collect seed from for future gardens. Hopeful, of course, is the key word in this endeavor as in all others in the garden.


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