Potatoes are ready for harvest when the leaves begin to tur.jpg

Potatoes are ready for harvest when the leaves above ground turn yellow, then die.

My friend Cammie once told me she plants potatoes every Valentine’s Day, a practice I’ve tried to embrace over the years, too.

I don’t think Cammie meant her tradition as a nod toward the holiday itself; it was just a convenient way for her to remember February as prime planting time for potatoes in south Louisiana.

Even so, I like the idea of including old Mother Earth in a day set aside to celebrate bonds of affection. A casual glance at the headlines brings a daily reminder that the planet could use as much love as it can get.

That seemed especially so last month as an ice storm visited much of Louisiana. The storm’s approach scrambled my usual plans to plant my Valentine’s potatoes, but I got them into the garden a few days ago.

In the wake of the big freeze, there have been many other things to do.

After days of arctic temps, my yard looked like a battlefield shelled into ruin. Our palms were withered and brown, our gingers equally grim. Limbs littered the lawn, shook out by hours of wind. The patio ferns were as dry and brittle as kindling.

Now, a landscape freshly emptied by the ravages of winter offers a clean slate, the kind of blank canvas on which gardeners mentally scribble ambitions large and small.

It’s a form of daydreaming than leans toward elaboration, as my wife and I were reminded the other weekend when we went to the neighborhood plant nursery. I’d intended to get only a few seed potatoes, along with some rosemary to replace what had perished in the cold.

We left the parking lot an hour later with the SUV loaded to the roof, stuffed with potatoes and herbs, flats of petunias, straw and potting soil, manure and flower seeds.

Nurseries, like hardware and bookstores, invite digression, the search for one thing nudging you toward a dozen others. But there’s joy in letting your mind slip its leash amid aisles of fertilizer and birdseed, trowels and clippers, terra cotta pots and pine bark mulch. After a national winter of worry, our minds need a walk in greener pastures.

I go to nurseries as much to see the people as the plants. Gardeners have a native optimism that’s in short supply at the moment, and it’s cheering to hear anyone talk of the future with a smile rather than a grimace.

“Do you have any caladium bulbs?,” one customer asked, seeming not too disappointed when told they had not yet arrived. He looked pleased by the prospect of a return visit, the thought that he’d have something to anticipate beyond tax filing day or the latest round of vaccine.

The fluted petals of our new petunias greet me each morning like trumpets sounding a fanfare still too faint to be heard. They’re tribunes of Easter, which will be here before we know it.

Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.