Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Cacophonous Order of Bearing Fruit

"It's a jungle out there; disorder and confusion everywhere..."  ---Randy Newman
  The weather has been a study in polarities -- flooding one week followed by drought the trailing two; scorching heat for days on end followed by sweater-worthy evenings.  In the garden we delayed reworking two beds because of muddy conditions, and then overnight it turned to concrete with all the heat.  Even the power harrow was panting from exertion.  And while our bodies shift into slow motion from the peaking mercury, the weeds and garden grasses have been very happy.  Couple that with a few days out of town, several days of relational distractions around the death of a dear friend, and a day or two of the "blahs", the overgrowth has been very happy, indeed.  We hoe for awhile; we hand pull for awhile; we lean on the hoe for awhile and then work it a little more.  And if the mosquitoes don't kill us, the ticks surely will.

Meanwhile, the good stuff has been growing, too.  The tomato plants are inching toward the height of an average middle schooler.  The squashes have overtaken any and every available space, and the okra is patiently, steadily stretching upward.  The peppers seem quite content as well, although I have yet to see any blossoms portending the spiciness in our future.  It's increasingly difficult to differentiate the beds.  It all presents as a cacophony of viney green.

"It's a jungle out there; disorder and confusion everywhere."

At least by appearance; on the surface.  The truth, closer to the ground, is a more complicated story.  Everything was planted in rows, in 30" raised beds.  The spacing between plants was precise.  The distance between each row on the beds was intentional.  True, as the stems grew and the leaves spread the inevitable sprawl of vitality ensued.  That's not a sign of chaos; it's a sign of life.  Some things grow up; others grow out; still others do a little of both.  Some fruit hangs down like droplets beneath high leaves; others sprawl on the ground.  It is the glory of diversity and its very manifestation.  What was precise in its nascence has become precocious in its growth.

You may call it a mess; I rather call it a vegetative frolic.  Everything has a personality, and I rather encourage its expression.  It will make it a little challenging to harvest the squash, but that will invite some kind of a dance of my own, stepping lightly over stalk and leaf to tiny patch of clearing.

It is, in other words, less than it looks like -- and more.

I consider that horticultural example as I read, with deepening concern, the paper each morning and follow the updates throughout the day.  It IS a jungle out there.  As the Randy Newman song goes on to note,  
"People think I'm crazy, 'cause I worry all the time.  
If you paid attention, you'd be worried too."
It feels increasingly like chaos -- social, moral, political and intellectual anarchy.  We are constantly at each others throat, and we aren't much kinder to ourselves.  We are committing murder and suicide in what feels like record numbers.  Increasingly, those who manage to stay alive lubricate the effort with more and more antidepressants.

It could be, however, that this snapshot is largely the view from the garden's edge -- from Facebook chatter and special-interest mailings and outlets for the 24-hour news cycle that constantly need high-octane stories to churn and burn what would otherwise be benign white noise.  It could be that it is not a jungle out there at all; that closer to the ground an ordered and civilized pattern is more apparent.  Maybe all this sprawl of leaf and limb, this splash of blossom and bud,is, as it is in the garden, merely the evidence of vigor and reach.

I'm not astute enough to say.  I only know it's likely to be more complicated -- more interesting and maybe even more fruitful -- than we are prone to think.

I suppose we'll see.  In the meantime, I'm going to go dance among the vines and check for squash.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Finding Our Summer Stride

I deftly unlatch and slide the plow blade off  the wheel hoe shaft, exchanging it for the large stirrup hoe attachment.  We now include two such stirrups in our arsenal of weed fighting equipment -- a narrower, 4-inch one suited for inter-row action and this larger 8-inch alternative for working between the beds behind the steel wheel of this long-handled garden marvel.  I have commonly heard the wheel hoe named as the favorite tool by professional gardeners, and though we had purchased one several years ago it wasn't until we adopted the new layout and cultivation system that I realized why it never really fit in to the old one.  It has quickly become one of my favorites as well.

And so, attachment changed and secured and wheeled out of the shed, it's time to lean into the weeding.  That's the work calling my name this morning.  Our few days out of town and consistent intervening rains have spurred the development of new weeds since my last clearing passes.  As for those interlopers encroaching on the beds themselves, hand weeding will be called for much to my chagrin.  We are determined this season to keep more attentively "on top" of weed control, but it's clear we have some catching up to do.  Having devoted our recent efforts to transplanting into new beds, the spaces planted earlier have been left to themselves and will require significant remediation.  That, plus the aforementioned absences.  It doesn't take long for weeds to gain a sneering upper hand.

But we are finding our rhythm.  And we are catching up -- slowly, but steadily.  Yesterday, while restoring breathing space to one of those neglected rows I discovered turnips ready to pull, with dozens more on the threshold.  There is no more delectable dinner than one integrating fresh harvest sprung from seeds that you have planted!  Somewhere in all that thick morass I will no doubt find beets nearing the time of their own star turn at the table.  The collards are holding their own, along with the curly kale.  It's hard to know what's going on beneath the surface, but above ground the potatoe plants are thriving and filling out.  Soon I will need to try out the new hiller attachment we acquired for the potato rows.  And if even half of the sweet potato slips I planted yesterday thrive -- eight varieties in all -- we should produce enough by season's end to fill an ample root cellar.  It won't be long before the garlic is ready to pull and cure, and the various squash plants spreading out over the beds and the tomato stalks already reaching high into the cages portend good things arriving later in the summer.

The next round of transplants -- various chicories, for the most part, and a few additional brassicas -- are readying themselves in the greenhouse, waiting their turn for time and space in the ground as it becomes available.  Maybe yet today I'll nestle the melon seedlings into their intended home.

All of which is to acknowledge the many moving parts that animate and busy our days.  The rains have given us a break from managing the irrigation, but there is plenty else to demand attention.

But as I reach the end of another weed-cleared row I can't help but smile.  It will take a while, but we are finding our stride.  It is, after all, for this that we have planned and ordered and patiently but eagerly prepared.

A toast, then, to mud-encrusted pant knees, and dirt beneath the fingernails, and the satisfaction of watching -- and assisting -- the earth produce.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Waiting and Working for What’s Ultimately Beyond Us

So, now we’ll see.

After a lingering winter that all but squeezed out spring, the garden is essentially planted. Yes, there is more to do.  We intentionally shifted, this season, away from direct seeding as much as possible, opting instead to transplant seedlings started in the greenhouse. Transplanting helps us get ahead of the weeds, enables us to more precisely space the plants in the rows, and the greenhouse’s limited real estate helps us stagger plantings so that everything doesn’t mature at once. All of which means there will be waves of planting for several weeks to come.  The “three sisters” project — an ancient companion planting concept integrating corn, beans and squash — is ready for the second phase now that the corn has emerged from the ground on its way to offering itself as a trellis for the beans.  All that, and the sweet potato slips ordered months ago are just now being shipped by the supplier. 

Those provisos accepted, however, the garden is essentially underway. The fencing has been mended.  The irrigation system, simplified by the addition of a new hydrant and made urgent by the premature advent of 90-degree days, has been reassembled. The beds, thanks to the new implements and design, have been created and largely filled.  Weeding, the incessant pastime of summer, is underway. 

And though it always feels like we are behind — the obligatory neurosis of farming — the reality is that we are right on schedule.  At least our schedule.  In the rarified environment of the greenhouse we have, since early March, sown, we have watered, we have managed the temperature and the timing.  In recent weeks we have opened the garden soil and nestled the juvenile plants into place. And now we’ll see.  We’ll see if anything grows or fruits, despite the odds.  “Odds” because it’s all a major gamble. Its not, in other words, smooth and confident sailing from here to harvest.  Indeed, the bean leaves already look like Swiss cheese thanks to the appetite of some early pest.  We’ve replaced half a dozen tomato plants because some pernicious varmint helped itself, never mind the fence.  And the berry canes have taken it upon themselves to invade anywhere they so please.  And already, barely into the season, we are trimming and hoeing and pulling, alternating between hope and despair.

We watch the forecast for rain.  We spread a little more composted manure.  We pull a weed.  We wring our hands.  We pray.  Ultimately, we dig deeply into ourselves for the patience and larger view this kind of endeavor teaches and daily demands.  I think of that biblical admission from the Apostle Paul — in a rare moment of humility and in the midst of one of those early church rivalries — that, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.”  Which is to say that none of us is in charge of it all.    We do what we can do, and then let go.  And wait.

And so, we’ll see what might grow — through our efforts and all those which are beyond us.  We’ll see what might happen because of us, in spite of us, or coincidental to us.  

We will do our part, acknowledging that the bigger part is out of our hands. 

Which is humbling, of course, but the truth about most things in our life.  

We sow a seed.  Someone else waters.  Something else — something marvelously, mysteriously, ineffably beyond us — gives it growth.  

It’s maddening, I suppose, to good bootstrap-pulling, self-reliant delusionals reared to believe we can do anything and all; 

…but it is, quite simply, the actual way things work.  If I quiet myself enough to hear her, I hear the earth gently and lovingly chastising and coaxing me with the simple invitation:

“Get over yourself, take a deep breath, and simply participate in the wonder of what is transpiring.”

Well, we’ll see.  Listening just now to the thundering rain that simultaneously nourishes, drowns, washes away and keeps us out of the garden, we can do little else.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

An Annual Protuberance of Grace

I’ll confess at the outset that I haven’t been an attentive steward.  All the guides I read stress the importance of keeping asparagus beds “clean” — as in weeded and free of herbaceous encroachment.  Soil amendments wouldn’t hurt either, like compost or other nourishing organic matter.  I’m sure it’s good advice, but I have neglected to follow it.

“Neglect,” of course, is the proper description because ever since planting the two varieties of asparagus the first spring of our residence on the farmstead I have been well-intentioned but poor-performing.  There are always other, ever-pressing garden tasks this time of year that assert a higher priority.  Always.  There is greenhouse management, repositioning of rain barrels after winter storage; there is bed prep for the seeds we directly sow and transplanting of seedlings started indoors.  There are irrigation lines to run, and interrupting rains and...

Like I said, “always.”  The asparagus always gets neglected.  Perennially through these past six years this gem of spring has essentially had to fend for itself.

So it is this grace-filled marvel that, inexplicably, it somehow manages to do so.  This year in particular.  Out of the morass of last year’s detritus and this year’s early weeds; despite creeping competition from nearby berry brambles and grass from the pathways alongside emerge these purple and green stems, at once delicate and sturdy.  So pessimistic am I — along with inveterate distraction — the protuberances practically have to wave and shout and jump up and down to attract my attention.  Gratefully, moreso than in any of the previous years, they have succeeded.  We have happily taken notice.  Almost daily, with knife in hand, we navigate our way to those remote reaches of the garden to admire and avail ourselves of what growth the overnight has afforded.  Even still I find it amazing, this tenacious generosity of soil and crown and time, made all the more miraculous by my neglect.

We have not taken this beneficence for granted.  We have roasted it, sautéed it, grilled it and consumed it raw.  We have included it in pastas, in frittatas, and as the frame around steaks.  We have, in a word, enjoyed it.

I suspect all blessings are like that — testaments to unmerited grace.  They simply present themselves unbidden and undeserved.  The tomatoes and peppers, I dare say, I expect to harvest — along with all those other roots and fruits I so carefully coddle and tend.  Indeed, I get annoyed when their output is sub par.  Harvesting them is my due, after all, given all I have invested in their growth.  But the asparagus?  By all rights those crowns I buried as a neophyte farmer all those years ago should have laughed at my fecklessness before lifelessly withering into the soil.

And yet, nonetheless, it appears, year after delicious year.  As if to say, “I forgive you. Eat well.  I’ll do the best I can.”

If I have any measure of gratitude, I will do all I can to do the same.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Because Everyone Should Have the Right to Puke

Here in Iowa our esteemed legislators recently passed — and the Governor signed into law — what I affectionately refer to as the “Big Ag/Industrial Egg Welfare Act”.  Shoving aside less pressing concerns confronting the state and the world like climate change, pesticide resistant weeds, peak oil, trade standoff’s with China among others, this initiative tackles a problem on everyone's mind by requiring retailers who participate in the subsidized nutrition program know as WIC to carry industrial eggs (AKA “conventional eggs”) if they also commit the heinous atrocity of carrying “specialty eggs” — or “good eggs” as I like to think of them. You know, eggs produced by chickens whose chickenness is honored with good food to eat, good land to freely range, and plenty of room to flap their wings.

I can sympathize. God knows it’s hard for me to make a living selling dozens of eggs. I can only imagine how hard it must be to thrive selling millions of them.

But this new law has an oddness to it that intrigues me.  On the one hand, our Legislature never misses an opportunity to suckle and succor Business Interests in general and Big Ag in particular -- and this law unapologetically guarantees the latter a sales stream -- it is unusual that our lawmakers have opted to elbow their way into meddling with how retailers stock their shelves.  Meanwhile, though this and recent Legislatures demonstrate resourceful creativity in conceiving new and imaginatively paternalistic ways to punish the poor, this law imposes no requirement on what must actually be purchased; rather it reserves its muscles for coercing merchants into a specific mandate for what must be sold.

Like any good and concerned citizen I wrote my two legislators -- one, a Democrat, and one, a Republican.  Only the former deemed this constituent's query worthy of response so I can't speak to the motivations and/or logic of the latter.  The response I did receive defended his support of this bi-partisan bill by asserting the importance of using government monies wisely (though I can't discern how this measure accomplishes that) and lauding the fact that conventional eggs are inspected.  That last argument, of course, is almost too circular to engage.  Hypothetically, inspections sound like a good thing -- if we were to actually accomplish them.  These same legislators and their colleagues at the federal level, however, so routinely cut the budgets of such inspection programs -- in part through the protestations of the industry lobbyists who, let's face it, don't really like inspectors snooping around, alongside that elusive, Holy Grail-like quest to "reduce the size of government."  In my response to my legislator's response, I allowed as to how I had never -- ever -- heard of a "specialty egg" recall, and that he has more confidence than I do in our vaunted "inspection" system.

As if on cue, this weekend we woke to reports of yet another salmonella-tainted corporate egg recall.  Rose Acre Farms of Seymour, Indiana is recalling over 2 million eggs produced in their North Carolina factory farms and sold in nine states under numerous labels because...well...because they were making people sick.  Fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Thank goodness these things get inspected -- although it would probably be more helpful if they were inspected before they were sold.

And thank goodness we now have this helpful law signed and on the books.  It would be a terrible thing if the poor of Iowa were deprived of their own fair share of salmonella.  Everyone, after all, should have the right to puke.

Friday, April 13, 2018

We Can Wait, or We Can Start to Bloom

I no longer recall why I ordered them.  I was reading something, no doubt, that extolled the virtues of Nanking Cherries and something apparently clicked.  I do, after all, love cherries.  Never mind that we had planted several cherry trees last year that should eventually supply more than enough fruit to meet our needs, these were different — a bush, for one thing, moreso than a tree.  Requiring less space than trees and therefore more versatilely sited, they are reputed to be easy growers, not especially finicky about their surroundings, producing fruit— albeit smaller and therefore more difficult to harvest —comparatively fast.  Gathering to myself all these compelling attributes I seemingly tracked some down through an online nursery and placed an order.

I’m not proud of this horticultural impulsivity.  I'm aware that one really should be more strategic and thoughtful about such considerations, as in thinking through where such new arrivals might actually be planted, and if, despite their attractiveness, they actually "fit in".  But that said, neither am I terribly penitent about it.  We have space, we are curious and experimental, we value perennials and their fruit -- for ourselves and the wildlife and pollinators -- and we will find for them a place.

Unfortunately, they arrived during the recurring aftershocks of winter.  They would need to camp out in the greenhouse.

Cutting the tape on the shipping container I gently lifted away the moistened packing mulch and separated the bare root plants from each other.  It was then I realized that not only had I been impulsive, I hadn’t paid close attention to what I was doing.  I had ordered three — already more than we needed — but it turns out that the “three” I had ordered were bundles of three.  I’m not very good at math but even I know that adds up to nine.  Nine bushes.  We are really going to need to love Nanking Cherries.  I settled the saplings into potting soil and tucked them in to the greenhouse.

Winter has been a wearisome challenge this year.  Let me just clarify that I happen to like winter.  I will not willingly be one of those who packs the car, forwards the mail and heads off to warmer climates in an effort to bypass Iowa’s harsher months.  I like the snow, the fire in the fireplace, sweaters and flannel-lined jeans. I like snowshoeing the trails around and through the farmstead.  Heck, I enjoy firing up the tractor and clearing the driveway after a heavy snowfall.  But even I think it’s time to move on into spring.  There is a time and a place for winter which expired a few weeks ago.  Enough is enough.  We have other things to do.  It’s the middle of April, after all, and we not only had snow last Sunday, more is predicted for the coming days — never mind the 70-degree days in between.  All this back-and-forthing makes it impossible to move things into the garden, and even those sprouts in the greenhouse are yet timid about sticking their necks out very far.

Taking advantage of today’s sunny respite I accomplished some plowing and garden bed preparation while Lori spread mulch and whacked away at some dying shrubs we will be replacing.  We may or may not be able to squeeze more such preparations in tomorrow, depending on when the weather starts to deteriorate.  Weary, with afternoon hours waning, we opted to water before going inside.

For the past month or so we have been sowing seeds in flats and settling them in the greenhouse.  Thirty-six trays have so far accumulated there with likely that many more to go — trays of peppers and tomatoes, herbs and greens, flowers and leeks and now Nanking Cherries. Almost by rote now we fill milk jugs with rainwater stored through the winter, and tray by tray give everything a good dousing.

It was then that Lori noticed the Cherries.  The nine stems a few days ago had swelled proud buds, but tonight there was one thing more:  a blossom.  The glory of Washington, D.C. in miniature.  One lone blossom among nine budding stems. On the one hand there is nothing special about that. Fruit trees bloom, as apparently do fruit bushes.  But parked there in a drink cup stuffed with potting mix and stowed in the greenhouse it seemed, nevertheless, almost bankable:  a promissory note of spring, born of an impatience equal to my own; as if to say, “winter be damned, we are moving ahead with life.”

And so it was that I decided to move forward with it, living rather than waiting; blooming, which is to say making way for fruit.  Because for too many things to count...

...in the garden...
...in my aspirations...
...in this crazy, "stuck" world...

...it is simply — if not past —time.

So, yes, we will be finding a place to plant the cherries.  All of them.
As soon as the next round of snow melts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Whipped Between the Beckoning and the Forbidding

The radio, of late, has been set on the '70's channel.  I'm not quite sure why.  I haven't been in an especially nostalgic mood.  Nonetheless, I've been enjoying the music.  I hear plenty from The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Earth, Wind and Fire.  There is an ample number of "one hit wonders" -- songs that I readily recognize by performers whose name I've long-since forgotten.  But I have especially enjoyed revisiting those early R&B sounds -- songs by groups like the Temptations and the O'Jays and the Spinners with their finger snaps, matching suits and choreography; groups I didn't really pay that much attention to back in their day, but whose music today I can only describe as "fun." 

I've been especially resonating in recent days with one of those songs in particular -- "Rubberband Man" by the Spinners.  The song is actually about a novelty musician, but it's the elasticity I've been feeling lately, stretching in one direction only to be boinged back in the opposite one. 

We are, I'll readily admit, still firmly within the embrace of winter.  Having begun in earnest some time in late November, our last average freeze date is April 26.  Sitting here in early March, we still have several weeks to go.  But weather is a mercurial phenomenon, especially in these climatically challenged days.  This winter we have gone from 50-degrees above zero to double-digits below overnight.  We've had no snow, only to be buried beneath blankets of it several days running.  It's been hard to know what to expect.


But last week we had a stretch of mildness.  Coats drifted away into the closet.  We soil blocked and sowed seeds in trays and nestled them in the greenhouse.  In the chicken yard and field, residual snow melted away into mud that, itself, eventually dried.  Unable to resist the sunshine and anxious to make garden progress, I gassed up the walk-behind tractor and went to work on a targeted piece of ground adjacent to the existing garden.  A plot something like 20-feet by 72-feet, I tilled and plowed my way into 5 new raised beds and eagerly ordered additional seeds to populate it. 

And then yesterday it snowed. 

All day. 

Multiple inches.

The temperature, though colder than prior days, was yet tolerable; but having stretched our way forward into spring, we have rubberbanded back into the throws of winter with gloved hands and coats retrieved. 

Looking at the forecast ahead, we will see still more of this slingshotting rhythm -- whipped between the mild and the mess, the beckoning and the forbidding.  I am, indeed, the "rubberband man", stretching back and forth between the seasons. 

But that is nothing new.  I routinely ride that rubberband between hopes and memories, imaginations and recollections, passing through present reality on the way and pausing just long enough to drink in the wonder of what is...

...and to plow a little more fresh ground.  It can be a little dizzying, but all in all, it's not a bad trip.