Park that parka

Like the crocuses now awakening and preparing to rise through the late winter snow, there’s already a buzz of activity in preparation for the coming gardening season. Like these crocuses, though, this activity may also go unnoticed. I’ve got the inside scoop on this since daughter Leah is in charge of these deep winter festivities — a little light in the deepest depths of February. It’s a warm, bright corner of spring activity in the bleak winter landscape.

Passers-by may begin to detect this activity when smoke is first observed rising from the stack over the wood-fired boiler behind Abundant Life Greenhouse at Shanks. The ceremonial match to light the boiler is struck on Feb. 13, the day before the geraniums arrive by truck. There is a friendly competition between Leah and Abundant Life owner, Ernie Baisden, as to who strikes and applies that match. This boiler heats the large growing area. Because of the short winter days, employees idle until now, often linger into the early evening hours in order to get a full day’s work on the books. The eerie glow of grow lights, visible from the highway, illuminate the large opaque structure.

In this warm, steamy environment tons of specially mixed potting soil, which is compacted at the factory for transport, is fluffed up and sifted in an antique feed grinder/mixer salvaged from an old farm building. Into this soil compound, the seeds of a myriad variety of plants will be sown, including 27 different varieties of tomatoes. To keep the geraniums and new seedlings from freezing, the fire outside must be maintained. The workers formulate a 24-hour furnace-feeding schedule and activity can be observed around this furnace even in the wee hours. Three cords of wood will be burned before the outside temperature rises enough for the workers to let the fire subside.

Still, a very low fire will be maintained well into the spring season. Should there be a late frost, the fire would then be brought up to its roaring wintertime capacity. (If three cords sounds like a lot of wood, Greg Lohman, owner of Abenathey and Spencer Nursery, a larger operation in Lincoln, Va., says that during this part of the season, they burn seven tons of coal a day.)

Custom growing is part of the goings-on this time of year. Folks bring their heirloom seeds to be started in the greenhouse environment, then pick up the young plants when the actual growing season begins. Some of these varieties can be traced back to the customers’ European or Asian ancestry. Often, these seeds do not have names, but Leah has to label them somehow to ensure that the customer receives the right plants. She has proven to be somewhat creative in this capacity, naming each variety after the customer, his or her characteristics, or nationality.

Some examples are: Raney’s Red Delight tomatoes, so named because Jim Raney, who mails his seeds in every year, says that this tomato is a delight to any gardener. Another example is long, hot Romanian peppers, the seed supplied by a Romanian immigrant customer.

Music plays from speakers somewhere — Abundant Life’s own CD mixes which can range widely in musical genre. Tunes by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, which may remind us of our Appalachian surroundings, might be followed by — the big city sounds of Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw. At other times the reggae tunes of Bob Marley combine with the warm, steamy atmosphere for an island effect. So, if you stop by, “park” that parka — summer attire is customary as the inside temperature can reach the high 70s even when it’s snowing outside. Abundant Life is not officially open until March 1. However, if you happen to notice the smoke rising and the employees’ cars parked out front, you’re welcome to stop in and share the unique warmth of these 16 days of spring in February. (Just between you, me, and the gatepost: if you happen to stop by when the employees are taking their morning break, or “muffin thirty” — 10:30 — there may be some coffee in the deal as well.)

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