I always look forward to this time of the year, when I can sleep with my garden.
Don’t fret. I am safe and sound in my own bed. But the soft chill of these April nights is filling up the bedroom, the doves are cooing me to sleep, and I can smell the tangy green of the vines that have just started tapping against the screen.
It’s open-window season. Yes, of course the humidity of July will put an end to it. But these coming months on the Gulf Coast, from the middle of April to the middle of June, are packed with warm days and splendid nights, while the humidity is still low and the evenings pleasantly cool.
My windows – as well as the front and back doors when I dare – are all flung open to invite in the season. I can hear the dark recesses of the hallway gasp when I finally admit that first gust of spring air and as it gently moisturizes the house’s creaking old bones. We all live and sleep better for it.
But I fear sometimes that we’ve forgotten the purpose of windows.
Windows were once the holes we punched to free us from the prison of our walls.
Now they have become our walls.
We fix gargantuan windows to the fronts of our houses as symbols of our status, never meaning to open them. Our offices are endless expanses of immovable glass. In our old Southern mansions, the gracious windows, stretching from floor to ceiling, are nailed shut and caulked tight. We’re now content to appreciate the garden through the solid glass of our picture frame windows, as if the world were just another television show. But those who see the world only refracted through glass are missing much of what it means to have a garden and be connected to the outdoors.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the glass in its proper place and season. After December’s first hard cold, I pull the windows down and make a cozy winter refuge for myself and my plants that can’t stand the frost. But the condition of the plants tells me something about how unhealthy it is to live in such a sealed-up state for too long. The excessively dry heat and stagnant air of a closed-up house leaves us feeling withered and cracked.
It’s more than stale air that gets us down. Plants are often confused by a world that knows no seasons, where temperatures at midnight are the same as those at noon. Many indoor plants that have long refused to flower may break into bloom when the windows are open and the house swings gently from daytime warmth to nighttime cool.
Researchers are beginning to discover that people are, in that way, much like plants. It turns out that our bodies even produce excess fat in the constantly warm temperatures of our carefully sealed and conditioned houses. (It might not be unreasonable to suggest that opening the window is a weight loss plan.) I also suspect that the “stuffy building syndrome” often associated with super-tight buildings may be the result of our being completely divorced from the signals of nature our bodies evolved with – not just the normal seasonal swings, but the sounds and smells of the natural world.
Once upon a time, Southern gardens were famous for the evening fragrances that crept across the windowsill and crawled quietly into bed with us. Our great-grandmothers treasured plants that exhaled their fragrances only at night: moonflowers and angel’s trumpets, brunfelsia and nicotiana, hymenocallis and night blooming jasmine. Even gardenias and hostas release a special essence in the evening.
Gardeners who see these plants only in the daylight, or only through glass, will fail to appreciate why their ancestors thought they were so lovely. They reveal themselves to anyone bold enough to stroll outside after dark. But perhaps they are best experienced as you’re reading in your favorite chair in the living room, or in your bed, nodding off to sleep.
Before you sleep, you’ll be comforted by the realization that the world is still rich with the chirrup of katydids. You may dream about the hiss of rainfall as it pelts the warm earth and wake to find it’s real. If you can’t get back to sleep, the whip-poor-will may come and sigh to you about life and love.
But that’s a song only those who open their windows can hear.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Fruit of the Month
Some call them loquats, others call them Japanese plums. But they’re the first fruits of the new year, and they’re richer and sweeter than any grocery store plum you ever tasted. They’re ripening all around town. Don’t let the birds have them all!
Signs of the Season
As the bright green of spring fades, the rich green of summer spreads fast. Binocular-clad birders rush to the coast to meet the last rush of warblers from the tropics. With these warm days and cool nights, nothing seems to hold the garden back.
Finally, the ground is warm enough for eggplants, tropical peppers, okra and southern peas. This will be the last good planting time for corn and beans, so don’t delay. If you slept through March, the best planting window for tomatoes, you may as well wait until June to get a fall crop.
April is so pleasant, it seems as if nothing could go wrong. However, that low humidity means that there’ll be no rain for days or even weeks. April may be the most critical month for watering on the Gulf Coast. Newly planted shrubs and trees may need careful watering several times a week.
If you are determined to whip those big old azaleas into submission, now’s the time to do it, right after they bloom. The harder you prune, the uglier they’ll look, but at least they may have time to recover and bloom next year.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
Text and photo by Bill Finch