Friday, December 28, 2012

Clearing the Leave Fresh Footprints

As a child one of my favorite toys was the Etch-A-Sketch, that technological marvel that looked something like a primitive red iPad with two white knobs at the bottom.  The knobs directionally controlled some kind of an internal stylus that drew lines on the gray screen.  With careful and practiced maneuvering the aspiring artist could draw all kinds of shapes -- not only the straight lines superficially offered by the knobs, but faux-curves as well.  The possibilities seemed endless.  But the "magic" promised by the label at the top of the toy was that the entire image -- masterpieces as well as mistakes -- could be erased with a simple, vigorous shake.  The slate thusly and summarily cleaned, the aspiring artist was ready to begin afresh.

It's been a week since the blizzard blustered its way through central Iowa leaving white-faced trees and a foot-deep blanket of snow on the ground.  In the ensuing days the road crews have done the best they could to restore the county's mobility; power crews have reconnected downed lines, and after more than a year of anticipation I finally had the chance to put our own snow blower through its paces.  For folks like us the "White Christmas" was a sentimental treat, though travelers had some grumbles.  It has been beautiful, quieting in a way -- centering.

But the blanket has grown worn.  The landscape still looks white, but a closer gaze reveals the traffic.  Deer passing through every morning and evening have tracked the lawn into a herring-bone pattern of comings and goings; bare patches betray the hoof-thrashes in search of food.  A herd of nine were clustered around the garden yesterday morning; a handful again last night.   When Tir and I stepped out front this morning in the not-yet-gray of dawn we first heard the scuttle of feet and then the flip of the white tail of the deer we had disturbed beneath the trees.

The imprints of activity leave a beauty of their own -- the etches and sketches of life.  I think about all the lines and curves, the patterned foot prints and the worn patches we have left on this first year at Taproot Garden.  While considerable life had been lived here before our coming, we arrived with a fresh, clean page.  In those months we have explored, we have hiked, we have cut paths of our own extending the ones inherited; we have trimmed and cleared, we have plowed and planted and weeded and dreamed; we have watered and harvested and planted some more.  Not permanent ones, we hope, but we have left our mark on this land to which we've come.  And though there is much still to learn, to experience, to practice and to dream, I am proud of our efforts.

 All that said about the last week and the last year, there was something magically compelling about the pristine smoothness of the fresh snow.

Appropriate, then, that it is snowing again this morning, here inching toward the birth cry of a new year -- creation's Etch-A-Sketch of both the calendar and the land.  For a few fleeting hours the ruts and bald places in the landscape will be filled in and smoothed out, and the unwrapped calendar, still devoid of entries, will be hung.  Everything clean and clear -- a panorama of the pristine.

The deer, I'm sure, will be back this evening tracking through the crystalline meringue; and we already have things to do and places to go and a New Year's worth of experiences to gain and memories to make.  But for just a few hours in the silence of falling snow, here at the benediction of a closing year and the invocation of a fresh one...

...all is beautiful, evocative...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Born Afresh in a barn for a Stable

To be sure, there is much for which to be grateful in a Christmas-time centered around the farm instead of the church’s activities.  We cleaned the house at a leisurely pace in anticipation of family time together instead of making sure the candles and correct bulletins were laid out for the congregation’s time together.  We double-checked recipe notes for the evening meal rather than sermon notes for the service.  We walked around the snow-covered field looking for animal tracks instead of circling through the sanctuary looking for miscellaneous trash and liturgical detritus otherwise out of place.  There was no anxiety about time constraints, no wistful apprehension about the size of the crowd, no nervousness about “how it all would go.”

The kids arrived, we honored, deepened and massaged well-established traditions, we loaded into the car for the trip into town and then loaded into a common pew from which to hear the readings and sing the carols, and then returned home to share the gifts we had to give -- chief among them the sentiments, the considerations, and the hours in each others’ keeping.  We hugged, thanked, voiced our love, and bade goodnight -- full in more ways than one.

But one thing was lost in this vocational transition.

In that previous life, the exclamation point of Christmas Eve -- quietly but movingly punctuating the evening’s long and celebratory sentence -- was the 11 pm service.  Each year, after the kinetic and frenetic grandeur of the early service with its choirs and crowds and children, after family time with kids, Lori and I would bundle back up and return to the church for the night’s quieter conclusion.  

Always an intimate gathering, we never knew who to expect; typically it was a small cluster of strangers huddled in from the neighborhood, along with a Mom or a Dad weary of assembling toys.  A few dozen at the most.  And having dismissed the rest of the staff to their families, the two of us would alternate the readings, harmonize the carols, and wink with love across the chancel.  Candlelight would be shared, Silent Night would be sung, a hushed “Merry Christmas” would be exchanged, and then, the last to leave, we would turn out the lights, lock the doors, and cross the emptied parking lot from which we would drive into Christmas morning.

We loved those services; treasured those quietly simple, spiritually and maritally precious moments.  And we miss them -- all the commensurate joys of Taproot Garden notwithstanding.

And so we had an idea.  

Last night, after church time with the family, after mealtime and gift time and all the joy of Christmas Eve tradition -- after we were once again alone -- just before midnight we shivered across the driveway to the barn, just the two of us, turned on the heater, plugged in the Christmas tree lights and nativity scene, and with hymnals in hand called ourselves to worship.  We remembered the Divine’s intention, we read the prophets’ expectation and the angel’s annunciation, we dueted the carols of the season and, having already shared with the larger congregation bread and wine, considered the other ways we had communed with Holiness throughout the day.  

We weren't, of course, truly alone.  We were circled by the memories of loved ones lost and deep gratitude for loved ones near.  We were fed by traditions that had shaped us, and in note and word and flame and story were, in the twinkling silence that followed benediction, palpably aware of the Word-made-flesh among us -- the light the darkness can't overcome.  

And with a tear in our eyes, we turned off the lights, locked the door, and gratefully, mindfully, reverently, and happily crossed the snowy driveway into Christmas.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Strength Would Be Nice -- and the Structure

I should be reading.  Or something.  These, after all, are quieter days.  The mercury is hovering around the single-digits, there is snow on the ground and even the chores set aside for “slower times” are forgiven until it warms.  Except for the greenhouse plantings this is the garden’s fallow season when the earth’s instinctual calisthenics quietly rejuvenate toward spring.

  And I should be doing the same -- learning about seed selection, soil amendments, bug prevention, watering requirements, and why the cabbage leafed last summer but never formed a head; why not a single brussels sprout seed germinated despite 2 separate plantings.  Or I could simply ponder the grace-filled wonder of the carrots -- seeds that were a free gift accompanying the varietals I had actually ordered -- planted and then largely forgotten, that became the surprise bounty of the fall rediscovered only as I was bedding the rows down for the winter.  Or the tenacious generosity of the okra plants that never reached their bushy stature but nonetheless insisted on offering up their spiky fruitfulness from their gnomic twigs.  Or the kindness of the deer who thoroughly inspected the garden confines up until the time I planted, and then disappeared, returning only after the harvest was completed.

Instead I flit around the house like a hummingbird with ADHD, reading headlines but seldom the stories beneath them; returning books to the library only partially read; jumping into this while jumping out of that; eschewing complex sentences for mere subjects and predicates; sustaining an extended thought only under duress.

Perhaps it is the holiday season.  Perhaps my abbreviated attention span is tracking with the shortness of the days.  All I know is if I were Morse Code I couldn't spell anything of consequence -- all “shorts” and no “longs”; dots without dashes.

In pasta and bread making, we’ve been taught, there is the measuring and the mixing, the rising, perhaps, and even the resting; but eventually there is the kneading -- folding the dough onto itself and then pressing into it with the heal of the hands; stretching, rolling, folding again and then pressing.  Over and over again -- the tactile paradox of gentleness and forcefulness -- until the dough becomes itself, elastic but integral; firm but responsive.  It is the kneading that forms the gluten strands that give the dough structure and strength; it’s what holds the pasta or the bread together.  The proteins that are the gluten, of course, are already there; the kneading simply draws them together and develops them into long and resilient strands that lend the dough the character desired -- that make fine pasta or bread truly “fine.”

Perhaps, then, it’s kneading I’m needing -- some imposed and methodical stretching to lengthen my constitutional strands.  I don't quite know how to go about it, but I know there is a rhythm to it, a determined physicality, a rather disconcerting but satisfying stickiness, and a willingness to clean up the mess.  

Those, and the enticing capacity to anticipate the results.  It seems like good winter work.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Trimming, Risking, Exerting, and Learning

I am choosing to call it "management," although I concede that's a debatable point.  Perhaps I have mentioned before in this space that I don't know what I'm doing.  Having resettled our comfortable urban existence out onto 10 acres of rustic, dirt-roaded bliss, I am learning as I go.  My threshold for risk is high; I hate the thought of screwing something up -- especially something as precious as living land.  The result is that I am slow to intervene.  Though I have been twice visited by arborists helping me with identification and interpretation of the flora surrounding us, it still feels like a precarious and near-inscrutable line separating horticultural murder from stewardship of the land.  Who am I, after all, to be powering up my blade trimmer to impose my bucolic aesthetic?

That said, one truth is unimpeachable:  though I had my problems with tomatoes and peppers -- to say nothing of the stillborn brussels sprouts -- certain trees seem to spring up at will.  If those were oaks or maples or redbuds or the like I could hardly be happier.  As it is, the prolific varieties are osage orange and cedar.  The former spawn lecherous branches with thorns along with those prehistoric looking hedge apples; the latter, though evergreen, simply look ragged and have therefore drawn the ire of my lovely bride.  I am convinced that I could whack down every one of them on the property and overnight they would miraculously reappear.

In that confidence, this morning I gassed up the trimmer, positioned the ear covers and safety glasses, and pulled the starter cord.  Together the roaring blade and I improved existing paths, began the clearing of a new one, and then forded the prairie grasses in pursuit of saplings whose generating seeds had exercised the poor judgment of sprouting in inopportune locations.  My field travels eventually took me northward toward the putative spring.  Deep into the woods -- territory I have traversed only a couple of times at the cost of torn clothes and ripped skin -- is a slender waterway of questionable origin.  Deer and who knows what other wildlife have found it by the signs trampled into the area, but it isn't much for human passage.  Threading through the brush only gets the curious to a couple of drop-offs usually exacerbated by muddy terrain that never seems to dry.  That could be evidence of a spring, or it could simply mean that the sun rarely gets all the way to the ground.

I made a beginning; that's about the best I can claim.  Overarching, but low-hanging branches complicated by thrusting saplings made for slow work.  Eventually the trimmer sputtered to silence having thirsted through a full tank of fuel.  And so I began the trudge back to the barn, remembering that this is the constant work of a lifetime -- like trimming fingernails -- not merely a winter morning's exertion.  Another day I will fill the tank and pull the rope and roar my way back into the woods... manage this land we are calling home.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Enough Experience to Be Dangerous

Last year the problem was getting it out.  This year, of course, it was the opposite problem.

When we were in the swirl of buying this acreage, Lori looked dismissively at the 30-foot by 40-foot metal building perched off the driveway to the south and west of the house and wondered aloud how difficult it might be to tear down.  "What use do we have for a barn?"

"Well," we eventually concluded together, "we could always use it for parties."  It is, after all, heated and has a simple but functional enough bathroom.  And we have come to enjoy hosting.  Party prospects, then, saved the barn, but it has been the rapid accumulation of equipment and tools that has  turned it into a godsend.  Chainsaw, power trimmers of multiple specialization, an air compressor to fill things, a power wagon to carry things, a commercial size diesel lawn tractor to mow things, when it isn't trans-fitted with an industrial snow blower to clear things in the opposite season.  And, of course, the requisite pickup.  I'm still not sure why we need a pickup, but everyone said we had to have one, and we are nothing if not compliant.  And fuel cans.  My heavens, do we have the fuel cans!  There are cans for diesel, cans for gasoline, and cans for a gas/oil mix.  And then there are the lubricants and the stabilizers and...well, you see my point.  All of these necessities have to go somewhere.

The problem -- or the blessing -- is that we still choose to have parties.

In the barn.

Which means plotting a grand evacuation in the days preceding such an event.  It works out fine; a few tarpaulin curtains to veil the miscellany pushed into huddles against the wall, a few hours with a broom and then a mop (did I mention the drips and drops of some heretofore unidentified petroleum product staining the floor?) with a heavily Pine Sol-laced solution.  Of course all the major equipment must be backed out and parked for the night under a tree to make room.  That's no problem for the truck or the power wagon.  Frigid winter or blistering summer, neither seems daunted by the effort.

But the tractor has a mind, temperament and biorhythm all its own.  Last winter, on the afternoon of the party, nothing could persuade it to start.  Maybe the diesel had turned to pudding.  Maybe it was simply in one of those moods.  Whatever, neither key nor crank nor coaxing nor cursing would beckon it to life.  Just to punctuate its defiance, the battery moaned itself into an neutered silence.  A desperate call to a friend with knowledge of such things summoned eventual rescue, arriving armed with a jump starter for the battery, some miracle aerosol for the engine, and a fresh presence of optimism and patience.  As if sizing up the odds and crying "uncle" the Kubota quickly roared back to life and the party was saved.

This time, as if to forestall eventual panic, I started the day ahead...without a hitch.  The space was readily cleared, cleaned and decorated, and at the appointed hour some 24-hours hence, a good time was had by all.

But of course by then the weather had changed.  The mercury had dropped, a dust of snow had fallen, and the two nights in oak's shade had not been kind to the Kubota.  The truck returned to its cozy space inside, as did the power wagon, but nothing could convince the tractor that anything could be gained or enjoyed by cranking.  Once again the battery suffered the consequences.  It was morning, and it was evening, a third night spent outdoors.

This time, however, I did not panic.  And of course this time I had my own jump starter, and my own reserve of patience.  I've dropped a coin in this jukebox before.  I had time, a few new ideas from my knowledgable friend, and a warming forecast.  By lunchtime the engine had started, a few recharging laps completed, and its rightful place in the barn retaken.

There is something to be said for experience, even if that pool, after only one year, is shallow.  I even put newspapers down to catch the drips.  I wouldn't say I'm feeling cocky, but the squash bugs better watch out this summer.  I'm on a roll.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Breaking the Ice to Offer the Growing A Drink

I'll admit to apprehensions.  Last night was the first serious freeze since the seeds went down in the greenhouse, and as watering time arrived I entered with trepidation.  I had it on good authority that the new row cover fabrics I exchanged for last year's space heater would keep the emerging little stems protected, but I had my doubts along with my hopes. Sixteen-degrees, after all, is colder than I would want to be out there trying to grow.  Clumsily opening the door with gloved hands, I found no encouragement in the frozen jugs of rainwater stored inside.  It wasn't hard to see my breath, even with the full sun high over head.  Gingerly, I pulled back the covers expecting wilted, frost-bitten devastation.

Instead, I found lush and vibrant leaves, stems more than holding their own.  Even the wispy scallions seem no worse for the wear, their tendril-like shoots standing tall and upright.  The kale, at first rounded and smooth, is developing the crenellated edges for which it is known; the sorrel, slower but holding its own.

It is an amazing thing to watch -- forces of nature competing.  A tug-of-war between temperature and photosynthesis; growth and decay; quite literally life and death.  On Christmas Eve, with a fistful of candlelight in an otherwise darkened space, it is customary to hear the biblical testimony that, "the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Perhaps the greenhouse is occasioning a new metaphorical witness:  "the life grows on in the coldness, and the coldness has not overcome it."

It is a hopeful promise, in the face of almost certain coldness still to come over the course of these winter months.  Snow will no doubt eventually blanket the roof and Tir and I will have to clear a path to the door.  In the face of it, I will nevertheless more optimistically apply my gloved hands to the balky latch and push inside.  And with a sturdier confidence, push back the fabric to offer the living -- the intrepidly thriving -- a drink.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dreaming and Drooling While Turning Down the Pages

I am old enough to remember the enormous Sears and Roebuck catalogue that routinely arrived through the mail each year, but young enough to have missed out on all the associated excitement that arrival once carried with it.   At once a toy, hardware, clothing, musical instrument and even house plans store, that original catalogue brought entire malls into one's living room.  It's not that we no longer shop through the mail.  The tonnage of specialty catalogues that pass from my mailbox directly into my recycling bin each month evidences that someone is doing it.  And what is except a virtual version of the old all-purpose catalogue?  In the last year I have purchased everything from books to automotive supplies, garden tools to kitchen tools from this friendly online retailer, and doubt that the new year will be any different.

Some of us don't mind the wait; others of us hate fighting the mall crowds and the parking lots; still others are confined to their homes but explore -- and shop -- the world online.  But the lure of the immediate killed off the door-stop catalogue.  Target and WalMart and Home Depot are just down the street, and even if I can't find exactly what I want there, "close enough" is usually "good enough."

But some gratifications are necessarily delayed -- especially when it comes to gardening.  Winter is the gardening season of imagination, of anticipation, of vicarious salivation, above all...waiting.  It will be months before the seeds are started in the greenhouse under lights; months beyond that before the first soil is turned; months still further out before the first pepper or tomato is picked.  Winter, for the gardener, is the season of dreaming, planning, and waiting.  The dormant preacher in me recalls that there is a lot of that going around this time of year.

Advent, in the church's alternative ordering of time, is the season of waiting.  As the four weeks leading up to Christmas, it is the season reaching back into the soul and psyche of the Hebrew prophets who watched and waited for -- and pointed toward -- something better.  The first reading of this first Sunday of this year hears Jeremiah anticipate "those days" when "a righteous Branch" will spring up, implicitly calling attention to what for all the world looks like "dead wood" surrounding us these days.

Paralleling the story of Mary's pregnancy, Advent is the season of waiting (as one of my teachers cleverly put it, with a nod toward every pregnancy) for what never seems to come.  Days are short.  Nights are long.  The end seems nowhere in sight.  Depending on one's attitude about such things, the chilly air nudges us to "cozy" or "huddle" or "close" in beneath layers of whatever keeps us warm.

And as best as we are able, we wait.  Sometimes aching, sometimes dreaming, sometimes doggedly slogging through; looking forward when we aren't looking down.

And so it is that in what has to be the perfect Advent symbol, the first two seed catalogues arrived yesterday in the mail.   Pages and pages of colorful photos of ripened vegetables and fruits -- anticipatory savories and sweets -- beckoning the imagination spring-ward.  Seeds for this bean and that herb; this brassica and that allium; this cucurbit and that nightshade.  Heaven's harvest complete with an order form.

I've already begun to dog-ear pages.

And salivate.  Happy Advent.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reticently Released Into Winter's Approach

Laziness, perhaps, or wider distraction.  I could, of course, have just been lulled into complacency by the protracted mildness of the weather.  There have been cold snaps, to be sure, and yet this final day of November finds me once again coat-free -- with a string of duplicates still predicted.  Whatever the explanation, I still have not completed the winterization of the farm.  The tools are largely organized and stored.  The garden is officially put to bed, though the deer are claiming their biblical entitlement to any residual gleanings.  More than a few have arced the fence -- some clearing the clothesline strung above the fence while others show off their precision with an airborne limbo through the foot-wide space between the fence and line.  Finding one of the metal posts bent almost horizontal I wince vicariously at the thought of some poor deer's scarred undercarriage.

It's the rain barrels that are delaying me.  Two in the back near the garden; two in the front near the greenhouse.  All four have acquitted themselves well; fall rains have filled them to capacity.  They can't stay that way.  The barrels need to be emptied and brought into the barn for protection from freezing.  They are plastic, after all -- heavy and durable, but vulnerable nonetheless.  Greenhouse seedlings will need a great deal of the water through the winter and I have been filling as many gallon jugs as will fit, along with three plastic garbage barrels now swollen and lidded.  Perhaps 130 gallons of rainwater are safely gathered in.  Though the front two barrels are greatly diminished, they aren't yet empty; and the back two barrels are still holding their own.  One thing is certain:  it doesn't pay to try and move them with even a little water remaining.

Of course I can just open the faucet and let the water drain out, and ultimately some of that will be necessary.  But I'm nagged by the stewardship of it.  It feels like waste to simply have it trickle into oblivion.  There is, I am aware, something irrational in that view.  "Trickling away" is precisely what the rain intended those drops to do.  I can't shake the sense, however, that it's somehow akin to letting lettuce rot in the crisper.  It seems brazenly profligate -- especially given the volumes of rural water we purchased through the drought of summer and desperately hosed onto the thirsty plants.

Perhaps in light of that drought-stricken memory -- and having filled every container and available space -- perhaps draining the barrels into the cracks of the rain's intended destination is stewardship of a different kind.

Only briefly -- and with the best of intentions -- delayed.

Monday, November 19, 2012

For Now, There's Promise

There is something almost giddy about green sprouts.  From seeds fingered down into fresh soil only days ago, these emergent sprigs of hope and promise push aside all thought of the calamities quite potentially in front of them and concentrate imagination on their possibilities alone.  Here is abundance in miniature.  Here is lush fecundity within one's very grasp. all the naive glory of what might be, blinding any anticipatory glimpse of the fungi, the diseases, the bugs, or the simple neglect that very well could dim the glow.

Here is the new mother, brow still wet with labor's perspiration, and new father, face still contorted with cheesy/mystified grin, snuggling in their imagination into the cuddles and teacher's accolades and advanced college degrees to be earned, willfully ignorant of the colic, the broken curfews, and poor dating choices just as likely in store.

Here is the new recruit, starting eagerly to work, ready to take the world by storm -- increasing sales, expanding territory, lowering taxes, healing hurts, overcoming long odds, and bringing lasting peace to the Middle East -- without considering the break-room jealousies, the political calculations, the intransigent conflicts, the complicated human natures, and the unforeseen hurricane that sweeps away the prized project just beginning to bear fruit.

And here is the idealistic farmer who moves to his very own plot of ground and immediately orders seeds and wonders aloud what he will do with all the produce.

No, I'm not already grown cynical in this newly minted vocation.  If the harvest was smaller than imagined, there were nonetheless successes along with the failures in this first venture into the soil.  And there were joys and satisfactions infinitely more abundance.

It's just to say that "naive optimism" isn't given much room for rooting in this work, no matter how good the soil.  As with anything of consequence, bad can happen as well as good.  I understood that in my previous life; I'll eventually make room for that reality in this current one.

In the meantime, I don't take these little sprigs for granted -- nor the future I hope for them.  I'll simply do my part, as they will theirs, and together we'll take what comes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Penultimate Harvest

Penultimate Harvest by Taproot GardenPenultimate Harvest, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.
The truth is that I had practically forgotten about them. Charge me with negligence if you must, but they hadn't given me much cause for titillated anticipation. I had sown the seeds in mid-May, and the several times I had "dip sticked" their progress through the summer they had demonstrated almost supernatural antipathy toward growth. More than once I had mistaken their willowy little fronds for weeds, and no doubt more than one was aborted through just such confusion. As late as August, when a young visitor accidentally uprooted one, it could have been mistaken for a jaundiced pea.

All this, plus the fact that I didn't have much invested in them besides space. I hadn't actually intended to plant carrots in the first place. The seeds were a free gift from the seed company from which I had ordered several other varietals of higher interest for this inaugural season. A bonus. An afterthought. I had committed them to the ground, and largely left them alone.

So it was that yesterday, in the course of my ongoing winterization of the garden -- dismantling fence panels, uprooting steel posts, mulching, manuring and the like -- that I happened a glance in their direction. Ready, I must admit, to have the spaces officially put to bed, I determined to dig up whatever might remain -- if anything. There were, I could see upon closer inspection, glimpses of orange peeking up above the surface; more, I soon discovered, down below. Dozens of them -- short and stumpy little Parisienne Carrots. A harvest where I least expected it.

There is probably more insight in this windfall than I really want to internalize -- my biggest harvest from my most neglected and forgotten sowing -- but I'll stew on that another time. For now, I am simply humbled and grateful for this serendipitous gift of the garden -- a penultimate harvest, as it turns out, since I did eventually leave the immature kale still giving growth their valiant effort. Maybe if I ignore them, they too will flourish and bless before winter settles in.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Onion for My Valentine

I fully recognize how tardy I am.  I should have completed this step a month ago -- or more.  But, it isn't  a perfect world, and it was only yesterday that I nestled the new seeds into the greenhouse potting soil and covered them with the Agribon row cover fabric for frost protection.  Last year I experimented with a couple of winter green varietals in the greenhouse, but the heater ran almost constantly.  Hoping to avoid those electric bills this winter, I am following the advice of one wintering gardener who argues that the second layer of frost protection provided by the fabric accomplishes the same end.  Not only is it cheaper, it seems to this aspiring conservationist to be far less wasteful.

The experiment, however, isn't electricity-free.   Root warmth is a key variable, and I recall reading a couple of years ago that mini-Christmas lights under a seeding tray will accomplish the same low-level warming as an expensive warming mat.  We have plenty of those to spare, so after a quick trip to the commercial kitchen supply store for oversized baking sheets to use as base containers, and a longer trip to the basement in search of stored strings of lights, I am in business.  The baking sheets rest on the greenhouse shelves; the lights are scattered lazily on the sheets, and the planters rest on the lips of the pans just above but touching the lights.  A wire frame conceived by a friend holds the fabric row covers over the planters.  My job is to water, wait, and hope that Mother Nature accomplishes the rest.

As for the waiting, that's no trivial matter:
Evergreen Hardy White Scallions -- 65 days
Grazia Arugula -- 50 days
Astro Arugula -- 21 days
Sorrel -- 45 days
Romaine Winter Density Lettuce -- 54 days
Winterbor Kale -- 60 days
Champion Collards -- 60 days

So, perhaps a little Arugula for Christmas, perhaps some Sorrel with which to welcome in the New Year, and then who knows?  Perhaps we'll be building salads for Valentine's Day.  Nice.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

All in the Name of Public Service

Garlic Rows by Taproot Garden
Garlic Rows, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

The expression on more than a few faces betrays the opinion that I have leaned toward excess. I have planted 7 rows of garlic -- something in excess of 130 feet of cloves securely nestled in well-manured soil and a canopy of mulch. This compares with a scant 6 feet planted for the season just past.

Let me just say that it wasn't nearly enough.

Besides, in addition to its culinary assets, garlic is proving itself to be something of a wonderkin. University studies are showing the pungeant little allium to help prevent heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, boost the immune system, and prevent cancer -- all this in addition to its long established virtues in scaring off vampires. Cautious gravediggers in 18th century France crushed garlic into wine in the belief that it would protect them from the plague, and soldiers fighting in both World Wars were prescribed garlic to prevent gangrene. There is some evidence that garlic may even help prevent the common cold -- this, in addition to killing roundworms and, when applied to the skin as a gel, treating ringworm, jock itch, and athlete's foot. Given its vibrant aromatic qualities, I'm guessing that such a gel would go a long way in preventing STD's, since social interaction of all sorts would necessarily be impaired. It wouldn't surprise me if further studies reveal that inadequate garlic cultivation is, in large measure, responsible for the enduring breakdown of world peace.

So, as you can see, I am merely doing my part for the betterment of humankind and global well-being. "Alliums for all!" "Cloves for Cultural Enhancement!" "Garlic, for Goodness Sake!"

Indeed, in light of all its virtues, my 7 puny rows don't sound like nearly enough.

Friday, October 12, 2012

From Whatever Field, A Gift

"Perhaps, after all, it is not what you get out of a garden, but what you put into it, that is the most remunerative.  ...By gardening, I do not mean that insane desire to raise vegetables which some have; but the philosophical occupation of contact with the earth, and companionship with gently growing things and patient processes; that exercise which soothes the spirit, and develops the deltoid muscles."
----Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, p. 53
The season is waning -- a gradual descent that does not sadden me, but affords me moments to pause.  A few things remain -- some lingering chard, valiant against the cold; some sprouting kale and twigs of broccoli that won't likely come to any good.  The carrots I have left to stretch out the season along with the parsnips and rutabagas and some other leafy thing whose identity I've forgotten -- but I dug up the beets and turnips this afternoon.  In a week or so I will plant the new garlic for next year, and I have begun to ready the greenhouse for a winter experiment, but just now there is this window of in-betweenness I can only describe as "quiet."

What have I, following Warner's accounting, put into it this season regardless of what I've gotten out?  I willingly confess to his indicted "insane desire to raise vegetables," but I nonetheless agree with his assessment.  It has been the contact with the earth and companionship with gentle growth that has nourished me most these past many months.  I was telling friends this week that I score my efforts a "C-" for the season, given the meagerness of the harvest.  But the warmth and settledness of my spirit somehow doesn't comport with the lowliness of that grade.  I have felt satisfaction, if not all that much fruitfulness.  I have felt diligence, if not expertise.  I have felt attentive and observant if not always productive -- not at all unlike my years in parish ministry.  More often than not in those days the most I could do was be present; and as often as not presence was enough.

Naked brown stems still protrude from many of the trenches; I'll pull them up when I have the chance, along with the other acts of tending in preparation for next year.  I begin the process of putting the furrows to bed for the winter with, if not much else, a bumper crop of tangled confusions I'll spend the next several months teasing out into comprehension.  If I am successful.  The dirt work, in other words, gives way to book work.  And I, of course, enjoy that too.

And every bite -- regardless of where it came from -- I will chew more slowly, more gratefully, more appreciatively for the blessing of simply having it on my plate...

...and all it took to get it there.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prairie Management as Spiritual Discipline

Yesterday I spend the better part of two hours and a full tank of gas/oil mix in the power trimmer assaulting volunteer saplings in the field.  It is a formidable undertaking that has no end in sight.  Some of the species I recognize -- osage orange (from the thorns), cedar (from the smell), walnut (actually, just a guess) -- while others are mysteries.  In fact, given my larger measure of arboreal ignorance, I could be cutting down things I will later regret.  But I am more interested in prairie than forest in this particular area, and so the saplings need to go.

And I get the concept.  Given the 7 or 8 (I lose count) 5-gallon buckets-full of walnuts I have collected from beneath a single tree in the front yard and relocated with, again, no end in sight; given the hedge apples still waiting to fall in a veritable hailstorm of green and knobby orbs, I am only surprised that derivative saplings aren't taking over the world.

That said, there are plenty -- many of them nowhere near their sources.  Squirrels or rabbits or birds or deer or the wind itself -- or all of the above -- have scattered the seeds far and wide, some number of which obviously taking root.  There will be more such days to spend; more such gallons of fuel to burn if my interventions are to mean anything at all.

The whole process, however, has me thinking about other infiltrations that silently and, for a time, invisibly take root where one least expects them.  Habits, I suppose, I am thinking about primarily -- good ones, but more glaringly bad ones.  In their infancy, a mower can knock them over -- or a good, firm yank; before long a shovel is required, or the trimmer I was so violently wielding yesterday.  But in a surprisingly short span of time, the trunk of the things have thickened and deepened to the point that more extreme measures are required -- a chain saw, at the very least.  Eradication, to say it another way, benefits from early detection and early response.

And so I cut...and ponder, amazed at all the noxious sprigs I discover growing within and without.  And the field's experience is as humbling for a person of spiritual consideration as it is daunting:  this fact that there is, as I mentioned, no end in sight.

No end to the noticing, the truncating, and the bundling of all the detritus that needs hauling away.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Perhaps "Noxious" is Only a State of Mind

I think it is genius.  Or a horticultural appropriation of aikido.

Over the weekend we traveled across the prairies of Kansas to attend the 34th annual Prairie Festival sponsored by the Land Institute near Salina.  There were scientific reports, art exhibitions, folk concerts, dire lectures by climate change experts, glimpses into the tragic stories of farmers in India who were shifted from subsistence farming to cash cropping.

And there were prairie walks.  We hiked out into the fields to explore the test plots under the guidance and annotation of the scientists who are conducting the fascinating research.  All focused on the perennialization of grains, my favorite involved efforts involving grain sorghum...

...and Johnson grass.

Johnson grass -- a noxious weed -- and sorghum -- a desirable grain.  Crossed.

It turns out that Johnson grass and sorghum share some genetic ancestry which make them likely partners.  This isn't, after all, the kind of genetic modification that borrows an isolated gene from a butterfly and inserts it into a squash to produce a kind of tie-dyed pumpkin.  This is the slow and tedious process of shaping and nudging the generations of natural selection and crossing between cousins to borrow the desirable traits in one for the benefit of the other.

Or, as I was thinking, that horticultural aikido I mentioned before.  Aikido, a Japanese martial art synthesizing physical defense, philosophy and even religious belief, redirects the force of an attacker into a positive action.  In the case of these experiments, the tenacious reproductive and perennial prowess of the Johnson grass -- typically viewed with hostility by gardeners the world over -- is redirected to the positive benefit of the sorghum, rendering it not only perennial, but also as tenacious as its incorporated cousin.

So I have begun to think about this spirit of aikido with regard to my own garden, wondering to what positive uses I could turn the noxious elements I have encountered -- indeed, "battled" there.  I am certainly not into genetic research or experimentation, so those kinds of applications are out.  But surely the only obstacle to an effective and transformative use of squash beetles and tomato horn worms is my own lack of imagination.

Give me time.  I'm working on it.  In my spare time.

Friday, September 28, 2012


There are new blossoms on the tubed pepper plants growing on the deck.  And more tomatoes are appearing on the grape tomato vines.  And today I picked a handful more of peppers from the garden.  All this, after the supposed "killing frost" last Saturday.  Perhaps this is the definition of resilience.

I think back to the stories emerging from the coastal regions along the Gulf of Mexico about how the area is recovering more rapidly than imagined, let alone anticipated after the BP oil rig offshore expelled copious amounts of oil into the waters a few years ago.  The awe-struck word they used to characterize it was "resilience."  Nature tenaciously clawing its way back to health.

Or in my case, back to growthful vigor.  My guess is that there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, not just for coastlines, waterways, peppers and tomatoes, but the whole of nature as well...

...of which people are a part.  Sadly, our species has worked hard through the generations of "civilization" to distance ourselves from the rest of creation, preferring instead to focus on that whole "dominion" assignment given by the Creator in the beginning.  We have relished and excelled in the multiform arts of "subduing" that supposedly went along with that divine assignment, loathing the thought that as creatures ourselves we might be subject to the same natural laws that applied to everything else around us.

But in all these personal and collective seasons of challenge when we are prone to despair, perhaps we could remember our "roots" and trust in the same capacities for resilience inherent in us as those plentiful examples in nature around us.

Anticipating the freeze last Saturday, Lori and I grabbed up what we could from the garden and the deck, including subjecting the tassly chives growing in one of the deck tubes to a severe haircut.  Now, scarcely a week later, the scalping and the frost notwithstanding, if it were a head of hair it would already find itself in need of a comb.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Too Little, Too Late

  by Taproot Garden
, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

I had heard of the dreaded monsters, but hadn't had occasion to see one first hand.

Until yesterday.

Watering and generally checking over what remains of the garden, I came across this curious beast emerging from a bean row. About the size of my index finger, i couldnt decide if it was a Pygmy snake, an Amazon worm, or a neon caterpillar sans bristles. After reviewing the photo I had sent with my query, my farmer friend/expert resolved the ambiguity.

"Unfortunatly, I know that caterpillar all too well! It is a Tomato Horn Worm," he lamented.

My initial reaction was horror. "An infestation of these little buggers would be like science fiction horror," I mused in disgust. Even their name is off-putting. Anything with the words "horn worm" in their name sounds intrinsically ominous.

Before long, however, my disgust melted into into amusement. Recollection of Saturday's damaging frost flashed to mind, and how in anticipation Lori and I had gleaned all the extant tomatoes that had lingered on the vine. And only now arrive the tomato horn worms. It's like showing up at the dance after the band has left the stage.

I noted in retrospect that the worm, when I discovered it, had actually been headed out of the garden.

No doubt with its little tubular tummy growling with hunger. I couldn't help but smile.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Redeemed by Chow Chow

The squash, I suppose, is all that really surprised me.  Not the yellow summer squash or even the remnant zucchini, but rather the pumpkins, butternut and buttercup fall varieties.  I had every reason to think they would survive.

By Friday we had been warned of a likely freeze -- frost, at the very least -- on Saturday night, and that if anything sacred remained outdoors the attentive would surely take some precautionary measures.  Our brand of precaution was simply to gather up flashlights and the harvest basket when we returned home Saturday night and head out to the garden for a preemptive harvest.  There were green tomatoes, after all, and peppers and okra at the very least.  Most of what remained -- the root vegetables, the cold-hardy greens, etc., and yes the autumn squashes -- we assumed would be fine.  Upon closer inspection this morning, however, the larger extend of the damage became clear.

As expected, the pepper plants took a hit, along with the okra.  The beans seem fine, and surprisingly the tomato plants.  True to form, the collards, broccoli, spinach and kale look as hardy as ever, and the cabbage, if anything, looks stronger.  I see no reason for concern over the root vegetables -- the beets, the carrots, the turnips, parsnips and rutabagas.  In a demonstration of what a difference six feet of altitude can make, all the plants in the PVC pipes on the deck seem to have successfully weathered the weather.

But the squash.  Vibrant, healthy and vigorous one day; withered and wilted the next.  Clearly I have homework to do on fall squashes.

In the meantime, we made good use of the premature harvest.  The green tomatoes and the peppers were appealingly transformed into green tomato chow chow, courtesy of a recipe from Emeril Lagasse, canned and water bathed and nested on the shelf.  The only problem is the patience required.  Like virtually everything else associated with the garden, gratification is necessarily delayed.  The last line of the recipe instructs, "allow the ingredients to age for two weeks before opening."

As a friend of mine responded, "I've marked the date on my calendar."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Drops of Rain...and Time

The weather has broken -- at least for the moment -- and the morning is the chilliest yet of the season.  A heavy sky has offered up gentle rains, and all seems quieter for the change.  The nights have gradually been cooling in recent weeks and even the weeds have seemed calmer, somehow less aggressive.  Perhaps the bugs will take the hint and slow their voracious chewing.  Dripping with a kind of beckoning interiority, the day feels suddenly open -- less obligated; reflective and available.

It reminds me of those rare winter days growing up in west Texas when snow risked its way into down.  The cancelled school that necessarily followed felt like the exact same bonus day to a kid as this cool and wet autumn day feels to an adult gardener.  A gift.  A free and available day; as though a 25th hour had been squeezed into the day -- a 366th day shoehorned into the year.  The raindrops may not lend themselves to rolling into snowmen, but they create their own options for alternative pursuits.  There are books piling up and words as yet unwritten.  There is housework long overdue, and some tools to organize and repair.

And there are some thoughts, long fenced and channeled, that need some open range to roam.

Which is to say that the cool rain is as welcome to the clenched soul as to the curling leaves and the cracking soil. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

School House of the Great Lessons of Life

"The principal value of a private garden is not understood.  It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues, -- hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation.  The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.  I mean to have a moral garden, if it is not a productive one, -- one that shall teach...the great lessons of life."
---Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1870.

I must confess that I began with somewhat lower expectations.  I simply wanted to learn about growing food.  Like death and dying, this central element of living has moved away from home for most of us, to the "experts" who handle such things on behalf of the rest of us.  Sensing that we lose something precious in this removal, I resolved to do something about the agricultural aspect, if not quite so immediately the funereal. 

Along the way, however, the garden has indeed expanded its curriculum, becoming a multifaceted classroom for the heart and soul as well as the mind and stomach.  Lessons in patience I expected -- gratification delayed -- but "hope deferred" caught me by surprise.  It has not come to "resignation" or "alienation", although more than a few expectations have been "blighted," and the season is not concluded.  I had not thought too much of Eden in the context of my humble enclosure of furrows and trellised vines, but as with that first one my little garden is an active moral agent and test of character, touching on more than a few sage nuggets. 

It doesn't, for example, have to be "grocery store perfect."  Just last night we sauteed some swiss chard that bugs had swiss cheesed with holes.  It wasn't, perhaps, photographable, but it was delicious.  I have already lost count of the BLT's we have enjoyed, built around cracked tomatoes. 

 And as for that "hope deferred"?  Patience, as it turns out, really is everything.  Among the seedlings in the greenhouse, the kohlrabi was the first to sprout.  The purple cabbage was a close second.  Healthy and eager, I transplanted them in May with high expectations and relative confidence.  The rabbits, of course, matched their eagerness and, as far as I could tell, demolished them.  A pathetic twigs remained here and there, and I didn't have the heart to till them under, but they remained as sad altars to dashed dreams.  Now at the birth of September -- months after most have harvested their brassicas -- mine have rejuvenated themselves, almost flaunting their promise.  Maybe Churchill was right in 1941:  "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."  I recognize that the evil of which he spoke was somewhat larger than hungry rabbits, but the point remains.

And so I am grateful for all that is happening in the little "schoolhouse" behind our house -- all it is teaching, and all I am struggling to learn.  The brussel sprouts still haven't shown themselves, but who knows?  And if worse comes to worse and we have to survive without them...

...well, I am sure there are more horrible fates.  We may be hungrier, but we'll at least have beauty.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gewgaws and Preoccupied Attentions

"We do not, in our gardens, need rarities, nor more land, nor a better climate.  We merely need more labor and less grumbling, more brains and fewer store-bought gewgaws, and most of all more awareness of what is in front of us in the garden.  What good would a whole orchard full of daffodils be, if our minds were preoccupied with palm trees?"
---The Essential Earthman:  Henry Mitchell on Gardening

“... all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper.  ‘I am watching you – are you watching yourself in me?’” 
---Lawrence Durrell, The Spirit of Place 

I suppose I have always had this problem.  Before, it was books.  More and more books.  Always another book.  Research, I sensed -- always looking for the next better answer or better way of accomplishing something -- was a way of never getting around to actually doing that thing I was reading to improve.  "Magic" was always just around the the next book.  To be sure, there is a fine line between inquisitive aspiration and artful avoidance -- between an insatiable aspiration for the perfect and a procrastination of the adequate.

Along with the books have been the "gewgaws" that Mitchell decries.  I have, for example,  just taken delivery of the 4th or 5th (I am losing count) floor care tool I have purchased since moving to the farm -- each, in turn, anticipated to be the "perfect" accessory for housekeeping.  With each one -- this newest one to soon be included, I'm sure -- I demonstrate the veracity of his observation:  what's needed is not another gadget, but a little more effort.

There are garden tools that make life easier among the trenches and their vines.  A particularly satisfying weeder we purchased comes to mind.  But I have yet to find a substitute for time spent, labor invested, and attentions focused on what is before my eyes.  It is truly amazing what happens as a result:  I find grass that needs pulling, bugs that need squishing, blossoms that need admiring, and fruit that needs harvesting.  In the process I find me sweating...and also smiling.  Because I have been present; appreciative and intertwined with the wonder that is transpiring there.  I have felt my pulse, offered its life, and in some transcendent way watched not only the landscape before me, but watched myself within it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Audacity of Survival

It is not nice to garden anywhere.  Everywhere there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before.  There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad. ...  Everything grows for everybody.  Everything dies for everybody, too.  
---Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman:  Henry Mitchell on Gardening, p. 3
There is that, of course.  Bad things happen -- as well as good.  Some of that is your own doing; some of it not.  This year -- my first real year -- there has been a little of it all.  Early spring.  Late freeze.  Historic drought and record setting heat.  Nibbling rabbits.  Novice blunders mitigated by kindly graces of the gardening gods. 

And deer.  The truth is that I can't honestly complain.  Whether due to my fencing deterrents or simple disinterest, the deer have largely left me alone.  I would like to credit my precautions, but who's to say?  The deer aren't talking. 

There has been one conspicuous exception.  Around the eastern and northern borders I planted sunflower seeds of several varieties.  Some were shorter; others the towering sentries of the plains.  Some promised hand-sized blossoms, while others presaged dinner plate proportions.  It was to be an impressive perimeter.  The seeds sprouted, the stems stretched, the leaves sprawled in all directions, and the crowns began to form.  And then one day I returned to the garden to find miniature green telephone poles where the day before had been the promise of blossoms.  Deer -- surely no rabbit is tall enough to nibble 3 and 4 and 5 feet off the ground -- had pruned the rising plants of leaf, stem and bud, leaving only the now-tailored stalk.  I couldn't complain too much.  The purpose, after all, leaned in this direction.  As anxious as I was to enjoy the showy blossoms, my reason for planting flowers in the first place was to offer the wildlife -- bugs and bees, rabbits and, yes, deer -- alternatives to my vegetables.  If the rabbits opted for the entire pantry and not just the table I had set for them, at least the deer had confined themselves to their due.

Still, I resisted carte blanche.  Just yesterday a spotted fawn, alone and hungry for quite possibly the first time in its young life, was caught nibbling at one of the few remaining stems.  Tir, front paws on the windowsill and in full voice, encouraged the intruder to look elsewhere for supper.  Lori was sympathetic toward the fawn.  Tir and I were of narrower mind.  "I would like to see at least one of them bloom," I muttered as the four little legs skittered off toward the woods. 

And then today, reconnoitering after weeding and a wee bit of watering, I saw it -- surely the expression one of those blessing smiles of the garden gods:  the survivor.  Hopefully not the last, but at least the very first.  Even Tir couldn't resist barking in celebration.

Or protective warning.  "Keep your nibbles to yourself."
And just enjoy the view.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Harvest

Monday Harvest by Taproot Garden
Monday Harvest, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

Admittedly, it's not a burying windfall. There was plenty of room left in the basket. Nonetheless it was good to spend the morning getting reacquainted with the garden after an extended weekend away. More, really, because showers throughout the preceding days had seduced me into leaving the seedlings to their own quiet growing while I attended to matters outside the fence. A generous neighbor agreed to monitor the thirst of the intervening days, so I knew the project was in good hands. Still, like a parent leaving young ones with a babysitter, it was good to get back home and behold their well-being with my own eyes.

In the cool of the morning, heavy with dew, I made my way out and through the gate. Indeed, all was well, though the plants seem to be "between times." Recent seedings are only barely peeping through the soil, and the tomatoes seem pretty well exhausted. The peppers, while not heavy with fruit, are popping with new blossoms; a premonition of spiciness to come. The rest are on their way or holding their own, contentedly filling their spaces.

I strapped on the knee pads and started a fresh circuit confronting weeds in the first half-dozen trenches, and then browsed the rows for ripeness. There were, as the picture attests, a few offerings to bring inside -- a kindly, if humble, gesture as though to say, "welcome home."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Repent, Recant, and Regard Afresh the Gift

"To be a greedy gardener seems somehow offensive.  What I get from the garden I like to regard as a gift.  Nature and I have cooperated.  Though when we have summers of drought, then summers when it rains daily for six weeks and the garden is a swamp, I feel angry, cheated.  Who's cooperating here?  This is my garden!  Not my chief source of food, it's true, but the food I most covet and hoard in the deep freeze for the worst of winter nights, an essential ingredient of the life we've made for ourselves here."
-----Deborah Tall, From Where We Stand:  Recovering a Sense of Place, p. 150
So I have slept on my desultory feelings regarding yesterday's potato harvest, and feel the need to repent.  Tall is right in her observation captured above:  greed in a gardener is, indeed, offensive.  That anything emerge at all -- meager or abundant -- is, indeed, a gift.  Especially for me.  If this garden is a cooperative effort between Nature and me, then I can only acknowledge receiving the more enviable share.  Nature, in my helping hands, gets the shorter end of the bargain.  True, I am attentive -- to a fault.  True, I am protective.  True, I am eager to learn.  But this latter is an extraction rather than a contributive asset.  It carries within it the hope of future capacities, but speculative tomorrows offer little consolation to the deficits aching today. 

Grace, then, anything this garden manages to deliver this year -- gift and grace.  So I recant my tomato critiques and potato belittlements; recant, as well, my disparagements of the collards' slow pace and the beets' indifference to my schedule.  They are all alive and growing and offering up something of themselves, even if it's not what I pictured in February from the comfort of my recliner.  Their capacity to survive at all in the worst heat and drought in decades -- along with my clumsy ministrations -- should, if anything, inspire wonderment and awe, rather than this gratitude squeezed with as much parsimony as I have accused the garden itself of offering.

So, yet another lesson learned.  This is real life, not the glossy photographs in the seed catalogs.  And however uneven the partnership, Nature and I have cooperated.  Just this morning I tilled up the now-empty potato trenches and scattered a few more left over seeds.  Let the partnership continue!

And come that "worst of winter nights" when I reach into the deep freeze -- or the shelf of canned produce -- this will be the food I most covet and hoard, not simply for the gift of it, but this year for the miracle of it existing at all.

Truly a blessed and "essential ingredient of the life we've made for ourselves here."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Eyes Under Ground

  by Taproot Garden
, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.
I suppose it goes without saying that it is hard to see what you can't see.

Back in May I planted three types of potatoes: French Fingerling, left over from last season; Yukon Gold purchased at the local farm store, and basic Russets, gone to sprout in my Mother-in-law's garage. I cleared the trenches, scattered in the seed potatoes, covered and waited. Along the way, they actually sprouted (I am always surprised by such things), blossomed, and...well, that's the mysterious part. After the blossoms it's hard to know exactly what else might be going on beneath the surface.

On faith, then, I weeded and watered and watched and waited. For the past two weeks I have thought to dig them up, believing -- for reasons I can't quite put my finger on -- that it was "time." I was supposed to have help today, but that fell through. No worries, however. I rather enjoyed the discovery process, and it didn't turn out to be that much work.

Which is a coy way of saying there weren't that many potatoes to dig.

I started with the Fingerlings; pitch-fork loosening the soil, then hands and knees and fingers making my way along the trench. I will say this: if there were an award at the State Fair for the smallest potato there would be a blue ribbon in my future. There are certainly nice sized ones, but my heavy harvest in this category this year is less the size of the eponymous finger and more along the dimensions the lentil -- half a dozen or so to the mouthful.

On to the Yukon Gold, results were a little more impressive -- golden golf balls and slightly smaller unearthed in this partial trench abutting the now-vacated garlic bed.

To be sure, I had the least invested in the Russets, which turns out to be a good thing. They were the most disappointing producers -- the harvest barely replacing the eyed chunks I had buried in the beginning.

I have more reading to do on the finer art of potato cultivation, despite the "any boob can grow potatoes" reassurance proffered by my preliminary inquiries.  This boob's efforts would barely rate a C- by any objective assessment, although the 15 pounds or so I weighed in with isn't a total embarrassment.  Besides, I am sure they will make up in taste what they lack in volume.  Right.

Postscript:  Click here for a panoramic view of the garden. The image, which takes a moment to fully load, will open in a new window.  Click and hold your mouse button anywhere on the image, then drag the photo from side to side to see the full scene.