Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Humbling Wisdom of the Weeds

The old adage suggests that weeds are simply plants growing where you don't want them to be.  Now that the garden is fully planted, with growth actively underway, I am discovering the dubious companionship of all sorts of these "plants growing where I don't want them to be."  Indeed, I am finding that the name chosen for our humble effort -- "Taproot Garden" -- is coming back to haunt me, with many of these inconveniently located plants establishing a prior claim via impressive taproots of their own.  The photo illustrates one such root, extracted I must say with a smile, and held upside down for the camera.  Because photography can be deceiving, I should explain that the above-ground portion of this particular specimen measured perhaps a foot in length; this taproot shot down into the ground perhaps half that length -- at least the portion of it I extracted.  A close inspection of the tip reveals a truncation likely to be the foretelling of a growthful return. 

It is humbling work, this tedious business of uprooting.  I, after all, am the interloper exerting an alternative point of view, an alternative rigor, and an alternative outcome desired than simply the fullness of growth and spread as intended by these...er...uh..."weeds."  They were here first, stretching their whiskery toes and gleaming torsos in opposite directions to reciprocal benefit.  And by the looks of the landscape, they have been doing so happily and with wildly successful results.  I am under no delusion of my own effectiveness.  A scant few weeks of inattention and I know full well that the garden space I have so laboriously carved out of the acreage would be utterly reclaimed and reversed.  These are the truer inhabitants of "Taproot Garden"; merely and begrudgingly allowing me temporary use.  Long after I am finished and moved on, they will be thriving in place; the wounds of my tiller and spade long erased and forgotten. 

It's a sobering discernment, but worth holding before me lest I lose myself in the hubris of cultivation.  The flimsy little fence I have stretched around the trenches for protection no doubt does little more in the long run than allow me a season's night sleep; it doesn't ultimately stake much of a claim -- nor do I.

Maybe this sort of cautionary reminder of transience is what scripture intended when it observed that we are dust, and to dust we shall return; grass that flourishes for a time and then withers. 

Who knew the arrogance that could be blunted by a little simple weeding?

Friday, May 25, 2012

As Though a Drink of Grace

It feels like grace. 

I can't say I really mind the discipline of irrigation.  To be sure, I lament the extra use of water, and I can always find some other way to use my time.  It is laborious and a little bit physical.  But that word is appropriate:  it is a discipline, this process of finessing the hose around the garden so as to avoid growing stems while insuring each active trench receives some kind of drink.  The ritual of daily attention is instructive to me -- settling, grounding with a mindless yet evocative tedium, reminding me in the spraying that life is interconnected.  Every growing, living thing needs regularized nourishment and care, not just episodically, parsimoniously and begrudgingly delivered.   I, myself for example, don't go long between hugs, drinks, forkfuls and encouragements before I turn cranky and begin to wilt.  The beans and tomatoes and peppers and all deserve and depend upon no less.

And so for the past week, since nestling in the last of the seeds and the tomato transplants, I have contributed my manual substitution for the rain.  It has been dry here.  The lawn, in the barer places, is cracked, and the flowers lean despite my contributions.  The garden -- that beneficiary of so much imagination, preparation, perspiration and expectation -- silently whimpers.  Daily, then, the hose and the spray and the careful protection of emerging stems. 

And then last evening, fittingly around dinner time, the sky released some of its own.  It wasn't a torrent cannonaded on stormy winds; rather it came as a gentle and blessing shower -- a quarter-inch if my rain gauge is to be believed.  That gift was followed this morning by a sequel.  It wasn't, I suppose, all that much; but it was enough.  And more is predicted through the weekend. 

Grace upon grace. 

It's nice, of course, to have a break.  The water at my disposal can remain in the hose, and the rain barrels can be usefully replenished.  But mostly it is nourishing to be reminded that the garden has an advocate and resources larger and deeper than me. 

Grace, indeed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sown and Seeking a Moist Light

I don't know; maybe it's the seeds, maybe it's the soil, or maybe it is simply the proprietary sense of bonding that grows between the fragile little stems and the one who buries their roots in the garden.  I only know that I am starting to sound like a farmer.  I know this because I have begun hearing myself complain about the weather.  First there was too much; now there is not enough.  The former delayed my site preparation and sowing; the latter means I now spend considerable time schlepping a garden hose over and around and at great lengths.  But it's worth it.  As of day-before-yesterday, the planting was complete. 

Cinnamon Basil Sprout

For old times' sake I had started with the PVC pipes, lovingly if awkwardly transported in the move from our townhome and reestablished on our deck.  There three different basil varieties are sprouting, plus dill and chives.

Tube Planting
Down the row the herbs are joined by a few pepper and tomato varieties.  All in all, it will make, I hope, for a quite nice kitchen garden.

Sprouting Collard Greens

Then, a week ago the naked seeds of beans and squash and cucumbers and miscellaneous greens -- collards and chard and six different lettuces -- went into the ground; subsequent days moved most of the greenhouse seedlings from shelves to carefully spaced homes in the soil.  To my mild surprise, the seeds are actually sprouting -- witness the determined little collard greens.

The tomato plants were the final hurdle -- and not an insignificant one.  I had...how shall I say this..."several."  There were, for starters, 9 different varieties -- some I had heard of; others are discoveries that sounded like appealing enough experiments.  The seeding project had resulted in...that aforementioned "several."  Supporting tomato plants is always a challenge, and every grower seems to have a favorite system, from commercially available wire cages to bamboo teepees, homemade encirclings made from fencing rolls.  A recent article in Mother Earth News lauded the virtues of steel cattle panels -- 16-foot heavy wire panels that can be positioned with steel posts in a way that resembles free-standing fences.  A farmer friend who had no possible reason to be so generous rustled up 10 used panels and dropped them off a couple of weeks ago.  Lori and I wrestled several into position; I managed a couple more, and Daddy and I finished the job.  A quick trip to the craft store secured a gross of pipe cleaners -- my idea for a simple way to tie the growing tomato plants to the panels.  All that remained was the planting. 

Tomato plants on Cattle Panels
By this time my parents had arrived for a visit, and tomatoes became the chief preoccupation of my Dad and I.  We got the first 50 (which begins to reveal the truth of the matter) set in place and tied on Monday before wearing out.  The final 50 or so found their new homes on Tuesday.  One-hundred tomato plants.  Crazy, I know.  If things go as planned we will be eating our weight pasta sauce, salsa and BLT's.  On second thought, I hope we don't actually weigh that much.  Beyond that, we'll have to see.

All I know for now is that the ground is full.  The seeds are soaking up whatever moisture they can find in order to swell into the daylight.  The transplants are sturdily reaching upward and outward for sunlight while their tentacle roots dig down for nourishment of a different sort. 

And I am watching the sky, praying for rain.  Feel free to join me in that endeavor -- but be careful.  I would hate to have to complain about floodwaters washing away the seeds.  So, gentle showers if you please -- nicely spaced about every couple of days.  That should do it...

...until I think of something else to worry about.

Friday, May 4, 2012

One of These Days...but in the Meantime...

It felt a bit like horticultural cruelty.  That, and flagrant, callous wastefulness. 

When the kids gave me fruit trees for my birthday shortly after we moved to the farm it was late enough in the commercial season that the nursery attendant was more interested in getting rid of inventory than dispensing guidance to an ignorant wannabe farmer.  We planted them, hoped for the best, and hunkered down for the winter, hoping they would survive.  When Lori and I brought home a few more last month -- from a different nursery -- the owner offered an extensive tutorial.  Included in the counsel was the forewarning that the trees could possibly show fruit this summer, but that we should prune it off to direct maximum nourishment to the roots.  "This year," he offered in his best Zen voice, "the roots need all the energy." 

Sure enough, springtime killing frosts notwithstanding, the trees popped with aspiring plums, pears and apricots.  I felt a first-timer's giddiness at the bounty and stopped to admire the fruitful branches every time I passed.  But the nurseryman's haunting caution breathed foreboding in every rustling breeze.  Indeed, I understand the principle.  Fruit trees -- like the asparagus I planted a couple of weeks ago and the raspberry bushes I planted today -- are long term investments.  They aren't the peas that will move from seed to supper in a matter of weeks.  Short term skimming, I know deep down, jeopardizes long term resilience and productivity.  Nevertheless it broke my heart to take the pruner in hand and do the deed.  I felt like King Herod slaughtering the innocents in Matthew's nativity story.  Or like a miscreant drowning puppies.

Helpful, then, to my conscience to come in and reread the Gospel lection for this Sunday -- Jesus' metaphor about the "true vine" in John 15 in which the vinegrower not only removes non-bearing branches but also prunes even those branches that do bear fruit to enable them to bear still more.  That characterization recalled my soul to the Oregon vineyards we visited last summer where we learned about "fruit drop" -- the process of cutting out whole grape clusters so that the remaining clusters have better access to the sun and all the vitality the vines have to offer now concentrated rather than dissipated. 

And that, of course, is the point -- to encourage the best fruit the plants have to offer.  Soil health, rain water,and pruning.  There was a time when I might have looked at those long term investments and whined, "I can't wait until next year," but not this time.  There is too much to look forward to in the meantime to want any of it hurrying by.