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Growing optimism - Martha Randolph Carr

In many cities across America, spring has sprung at last. I'm not quite including where I sit in Chicago in that group just yet, because we keep bouncing around between the high 80's one day, and feeling like it's in the 30's with the wind chill.

We've been holding steady mostly in the 50's, which is still 20 degrees below normal for this time of year.

I've only been here for two years, so I've been surveying old timers who swear this is odd, even for the Windy City. My mother, Tina, who can feel a chill inside a building with no air conditioning on a sunny day, is reporting that she'll give us a few degrees of her Florida sunshine. Even Mom is feeling a little baked with temperatures there hanging in the 90's.

Apparently, global warming is not quite the right term for messing with Mother Nature and spilling toxins everywhere, burying plenty underground or spewing them into the atmosphere. It's as if nature is trying to tell us that the planet will go on, but we may get kicked off.

However, this is still springtime and I can finally open a window on occasion and hear the birds singing and the kids playing kick the can just across the street. In Chicago, that means it's time to slap on the flip flops and get to planting as quickly as we can, because this too shall pass.

My first spring here was last year, and in late April, I went hunting for some pansies to plant. I figured those would be hard for me to kill, and if I underestimated the date of the last frost, they had a reasonably good chance of survival, despite me. If I was wrong, I could stomach the $5 loss.

The line at the local Home Depot was all the way through the garden center and everyone else but me was pushing a dolly stacked with plants, dirt and fertilizer. Not one of them had grass seed of any kind. I felt like I wasn't quite getting something as I stood there with my four plants cradled in my arms.

Back in Virginia where I'm from, April is already growing hotter and the spring planting is already done for the most part. The azaleas have announced their arrival everywhere in a riot of color and the blossoms are off of the dogwood trees. The warm days stretch on for months and it's not till sometime around Halloween that there is really any kind of a good chill in the air.

There are some people in Virginia who will read this and want to disagree, but get a good Chicago winter behind you and one with Snowzilla 2011 in it, and the perspective of what constitutes a good chill will change.

Big topics in Virginia are sunscreen, steeplechase, golf and tomatoes. Big topics in Chicago are smart wool socks, the right kind of coat, Italian Beef and the Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox or Blackhawks. There isn't a long enough summer for that to become a major topic.

However, springtime has the power to make anyone forget all of that and wonder if maybe this time things could be different. That's why a visitor to Chicago's neighborhoods won't see much grass in the front yards. They're crowded out by flowers with a narrow winding path so the owner can still get to the front door.

Last year, my contribution with my neighbor, Mimi, was to try and grow three large tomato plants off of my partially sunny balcony, but all they did was grow bigger and smell like tomatoes. The actual fruit was pretty much of a no-show.

I swore after all of the work last year that I was going to restrict my tomato lust to the farmer's markets and let that be enough this time. After all, there's a market only blocks from my home. But then I caught wind of free garden plots at a nearby church that have plenty of direct sunlight, and there was still one that could be mine for the brief Chicago summer.

Maybe, it's because my father's side of the family is originally from Hanover County, Va., which is famous for its tomatoes, or maybe it's because of a whiff of a spring breeze after a long winter where it could get cold indoors with the radiators pouring out heat. But I'm trying to grow tomatoes again this summer, and this time, I just know it's going to work. More adventures to follow. Tweet me @MarthaRandolph with any growing tips. I could use all the help I can get.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.