Monday, February 27, 2012

Dug, Filled, and Waiting

There have been two kinds of work to accomplish today, although the "today" part is somewhat arbitrary.  In my mind I have designated March 1 as the day that seeds would emerge from their packages and descend into potting soil.  Today anticipates that moment by several days, but I am eager.  Or is it "terrified"?  In truth it is something of both, although I can only partially account for the debate.  The eagerness is pretty simple:  having initiated this new beginning at a time of year impractical for gardening, I have twiddled my aspiring green thumbs for all these winter months impatiently waiting for the days to grow longer and the temperatures to rise higher.  The time is almost here.

As for the terror?  That part is a little more complicated.  I laughingly tell my friends who ask how this new life is going that I am wildly successful -- at this juncture before I have actually begun.  More than one has speculated that "it can only go down from here."  That, of course, isn't the only option, but it is, of course, a very real one.  While this is, at its core, a learning project, there are some very down-to-earth dimensions I don't take lightly.  Because of my new and passionate sense of calling, we have turned our lives upside down in order to birth a new one.  I quit my job, leaving stretch marks on our resources; we sold a townhome that we loved, nestled in a convenient and hospitable neighborhood we enjoyed, and moved to a spot in the country which by even the most charitable description could hardly be labeled "convenient."  I read hungrily and incessantly books and magazines full of insights, steps and tips, but at night I have this dreadful sense that all this information is someone leaking out of my brain.  What if that thunderous crash reverberating next fall in these rolling hills is my big flop?  So, as I will need to accomplish with the deer when the time comes about staying out of the garden during growing season, I will need to come to an understanding with the seeds:  "do not let me down.  You've got important work to do.  Grow!"

In the meantime, and eagerly apprehensive, I conclude that it's time to get to work getting more deliberately ready.  There is ice to break, metaphorically speaking, and preliminaries to ready.  There is, for example, that thorn tree growing in the heart of the garden plot.  I don't know what it really is, though it looks like a prop for a Holy Week drama.  I don't know if it sprang up volunteer, or if the previous owners lovingly selected and planted it, but to its singular misfortune it finds itself residing at a conspicuously inconvenient address.  There isn't, I recognize, any particular rush -- I won't be cultivating there for another 6-8 weeks -- but the sky is clear and blue, the ground is soft with melted snow and...well, like I said, I'm eager.  With less resistance than I anticipated, the deed is done.

The other job, while not essential for today, is a bit more pressing.  Months ago the "Cowpots" arrived -- the seeding cells made out of dried cow manure.  Heretofore unopened, the trays would need to be unboxed, separated, and filled with the special potting soil that similarly has been stored away in the barn awaiting just such a day as this one if I am, indeed, to start the seeds later this week.  The barn having been suitably and musically christened by throaty singing and exuberant playing over the weekend, I removed the table cloths, zipped open the shipping carton, cut open the first bag, and began to trowel in the potting soil.  Fifty-four 6-cell flats.  Three-hundred-and-twenty-four cells.  Just in case I need to plant more, there are a few bags left over.

Friday, February 24, 2012

So Much for That Early Spring

I'll admit, I had been tempted.  As these abnormally warm, 50-degree Iowa winter days have drifted ever closer toward March, my thoughts have been following a parallel path toward spring and its likely premature arrival.  This usually bitter season has been a wimp from the start -- likely, it was reported this week, to be the first EVER in which temperatures failed to descend to zero.  We have had a few dustings of snow, but nothing to actually interfere.  I know, because I have been watching -- waiting for an opportunity to put my manly snowblower through its paces.  As the months have drifted by instead of snow, I could have largely gotten by with a kitchen spatula for all the driveway clearing I have needed to do.  Yes, I have fired up the blower a couple of times, but it was more out of longing than necessity. 

So, I was tempted.  After all, news reports have been filled with dangerously early buds on trees, and suspicious signs of crocuses tempting fate.  And already I have been thinking ahead to the weekend's work of reorganizing the greenhouse, setting up the seeding cups and filling them with potting soil in preparation for next week's official launch of the planting season.  To be sure, mowing season is almost certainly weeks away, but the though had crossed my mind that one of these days I would need to beg, again, for help from my mechanical friends with the exchange of the mowing deck for the snowblower on my garden tractor.  In fact, I had had that thought this very week.  That I didn't act upon the idea, I must confess, has less to do with prudence than procrastination.  "What's the hurry?" I asked myself.  "There will be time enough for that kind of work."  And so the snowblower remained at the ready.

Yesterday, while having lunch with a friend, I learned that snow was in the forecast.  "Really?" I asked.  I had understood the prospects to include mere rain -- like that which had already been falling all morning; February!  "Yes, snow.  At least according to the latest report."  I heard him, but I'll admit that I didn't much believe it.

Well, the joke is on me -- and the snow.  Letting Tir out early for his morning rounds, the porch light illuminated the crystal carpet stretched plush and wall to wall; horizon to horizon. 

Snow frosting deck rails, branches, fences and mailboxes. 

The garden site looks like a pond.

Snow windblown onto window sills and caking rooftops -- and...

...covering the driveway.

 The good news is that I finally got to use the snowblower. 

This may well be the only time procrastination saves the day.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Even the Mud is a Teacher

Tir and I have had to alter our routine in recent days.  Warmer temperatures have turned Monday's snow into roadway gray soup.  It's one thing to navigate the paved part of the driveway toward the grass where the Corgi's tummy, riding low on genetically short legs, merely gets wet.  We can even make it to the greenhouse without making too much of a mess, allowing us to acquit ourselves of that part of our daily responsibilities.

But retrieving the mail?  No way.  Even skirting the dirt and gravel length of the driveway through the lawn eventually brings us to the culvert beyond the fence, and the muddy road that stretches moat-like between us and the mail.  Without thinking, we tried it once -- a disastrous education requiring the investment of almost an entire roll of paper towels and the ensuing half-hour to rectify.  Yesterday I made the journey solo, but the fact is that we both need our exercise and fresh air.  Today, then, after the greenhouse had been tended we took the long way around the yard.  There the bath of sun has cleared away much of the snow, but the grass beneath kept us relatively unsullied; and the freshly liberated sights and smells kept Tir active and engaged.  Deer have been overnighting with the rabbits under the trees out front -- we incurred the annoyed and snorting exit of one of them early this morning when we stepped outside before light -- and so there are all sorts of interesting scents to inventory and consider.  When it came time to cross the road, I got the impression that even Tir remembered the toweling.  Instead of darting back and forth in his usual gamesmanship, he stood uncharacteristically still so I could pick him up for a free ride to the mailbox and back. 

I am impatient for the growing season -- in my mind skipping over, and thereby sacrificing, these lingering weeks of winter.  It is, I sense in my better moments, a fool's expedience.  In her book, Growing Season:  Life Lessons from the Garden, Arlene Bernstein notes the lessons of the ground:  "be still, be open, be present, witness 'what is' without judgment, let go, and trust what grows naturally in the space."  Tir has better witnessed and reconciled himself to the "what is" than I have, and seems perfectly content. 

Spring will come soon enough, and these days, too, he and the soggy soil are teaching me, are worth living on the farm.  They are days, after all, I'll never get back.  Why begrudge a little mud and a few fewer paper towels?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Snow, the Rubber, the Helpless Determination and the Steel

One more brick in my wall of knowledge.

It had already been a busy day, and now midway through it (if daylight is any measure) I had the bright idea to move a little snow.  A couple inches had accumulated since early in the morning and since I was free until evening and hadn't yet had a reasonable opportunity to try out the snow blower, this seemed like the moment.  Entombing myself in thermal underwear, outwear, my heretofore unworn quilted and insulated Carhartt overalls, parka, knitted ski mask and gloves, I lurched out to the barn, raised the door and fired up the Kubota.  After a few tentative passes I was trying to convince myself that it really was doing a good job, while subconsciously trying to ignore the fact that it wasn't.  The blower attachment seemed, well, tilted, and though plenty of snow was billowing out of the exhaust shoot, the driveway passes didn't seem all that smooth.  But I was sitting up there proudly behind the wheel, captain of my own equipment. 

In a fit of  thoroughness I extended my pass out beyond the driveway entrance and into the road where I turned around and faced back up the drive when this "Captain of His Own Equipment" found himself tilted at a marginal angle and, like the ill-fated Captain of the Italian cruise ship, hopelessly stuck with wheels spinning.  My first thought was, "who knew this little entering incline would pose such a wintertime problem?"  Attempting the usual "rocking" maneuver familiar to wintertime motorists stuck in the snow, I managed a few forward bursts, only to feel the tractor trapped in a perpetually circling movement.  Stepping off to scrape the icy surface away for some grassy traction, I recognized the more substantive problem.  I had a flat tire. 

Perfect!  Stuck in the snow on the side of a country road, perilously close to the culvert with a flat tire.  Now a day later and reflecting on the situation, I don't really know why I was so flummoxed.  I've changed lots of tires before -- even worked in a tire store a couple of summers in junior high.  But staring at that limping tractor mired in the snow it was supposed to be clearing, I felt helpless.  My brain was as paralyzed as my wheels.   I didn't have a clue how to solve the problem, but I couldn't imagine leaving my prized equipment by the side of the road until the snow melted.  In a fit of desperation I called the salesman at the equipment store who had delivered it.  Secretly, I suppose, I fantasized him saying something like, "No worries.  I'm in the neighborhood and will be happy to stop by and help."  Instead, he suggested I put it in four-wheel drive and see if I could get some movement.  I hadn't remembered I had such an option.  Thanking him, I hung up and made the shift.  Nothing.  I called back.  He suggested a car jack. 

Well, the short version of the remaining story is that my car's lug wrench didn't fit, and the thingamagadget jack seemed too specific and perilous for my immediate and broader application.  So, after a trip to the tool shop for a metric socket socket set (which I am embarrassed to say required a learning curve of their own), and then the auto parts store for a heftier jack (which came packaged with practically useless instructions, but that's another story), the tire was fairly simply removed.  And after a repairing plug was inserted in the wounded tire by a charitable auto shop serviceman at closing time, I skittered home as quickly as the icy roads would permit, restored the tire to its axle, lowered the jack, fired up the engine, and roared my way almost effortlessly up the drive just as the sun was setting.  Tempting fate, I lowered the blower and made a few redemptive passes up and down the driveway, amazed at how much more effectively it worked leveled and straight.  I was so proud...

...of the equipment, which I finally was able to test drive, but also myself.  I had waded into the difficulty, albeit hesitantly and clumsily, and clawed my way out triumphantly on the other side.  And, in a giddy extension of Christmas, came away with a few new tools to brag about.  God only knows what might happen when I get around to trying out the chainsaw.

Friday, February 3, 2012

When a Molehill Really is Just a Molehill

I suppose I have always known about them and their propensity for outsized estimation.  I have, after all, spent my life in the church with all of its committee machinations, pastoral considerations and moral suasions.  Mountains nee molehills have dominated my professional landscape.  But I don't know that I have ever tripped over the real thing. 

Yesterday, Tir and I were getting a little exercise outside the house.  With four consecutive 60-degree plus days bridging January and February I had heard reports that flowering trees were likely to be stunted when the almost certain-to-come colder weather eventually arrives; and fruiting trees were vulnerable to the loss of more than color.  I wanted to see how significantly my own adolescent fruit trees had been seduced by our spring-like weather.  Of course my survey produced laughable results because I don't know what they are supposed to look like this time of year, although I am pretty sure they aren't supposed to look nibbled.  Deer!  Of the six, buds are noticeably bulging on three, while the other three present subtler signs.  Whether either stage of progress is normal or premature I am not prepared to guess, but at least they showed no signs of leafing or breaking into song.

It was then, while walking away deep in dendrological contemplation, that I stumbled over a mound of freshly risen dirt.  Called back to my senses, I forgot about the trees and began to study the ground behind them.  In a straight row, neatly spaced perhaps 6-8-feet apart, were these neat little hills of dirt -- at least four of them, though I lost interest in counting as they continued off into the grasses.  Here, I surmised, were the legendary mole hills that I had so long heard about and cautioned others against escalating.  Except now I wasn't merely confronting hyperbolic fearfulness, but rather willful tinkering with my land.  Somewhere under the surface of the soil is a little bugger -- or maybe even an army of them -- crazed with agricultural malice and armed with the tools to utterly destroy my future garden.  Bring on the chemicals.  Bring on the poisons.  Bring on the dynamite and the traps.  Dig up the world if you have to but capture those little underground terrorists!

Then, taking a deep and clarifying breath, it occurred to me that I might just be making a mountain out of molehill, and that there are probably simpler, calmer steps to take.  Climbing back down to ground level, I resolved to do a little study on the subject and see what I could learn. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Sign of a Foretaste of a Feast to Come

I can't really say why, but now it feels complete -- at least official.  The sign arrived today and was installed.  I was disappointed that the few subsequently passing cars didn't screech on the their brakes to stop for a closer look, but perhaps one of these days they will -- after I have branded a trademark rutabaga or something equally exotic.  In the meantime -- and regardless of what it says to others -- it will remind me of the intended work here.  It's purpose, its place, its anchoring and centering demarcation between what has been and all that we hope to grow from what now is.  Beyond that, it will almost certainly serve to generate questions about "who" and "what" and "why", and occasion new opportunities to offer explanation.

Who knows what lateral roots might grow from such beginnings?