Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tomato Abortion Decried

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

Today, pastor-turned-gardener Tim Diebel condemned the prenatal slaughter of a rose tomato as "horticultural barbarism" and called for a time of mourning. "In the garden I am an fervent 'right-to-life' advocate," Diebel acknowledged, "and the loss of even a single homegrown tomato is a tragedy."

The brutality occurred when the spinning twine of a power trimmer was allowed to veer out of control by its careless operator, cutting off at the ground this otherwise healthy and productive heirloom variety and all its nascent fruit.

"It is such a senseless, agonizing tragedy, just as the tomatoes were ready to come into their own," said Diebel, who vowed to investigate possible legislation that could put an end to such backyard abortions in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Little More Salsa in the Making

As usual, Lori was right.  It didn't make any sense to keep pining over bare stretches in the garden.  Some of the seeds I planted in this inaugural season of my backyard trenches simply aren't going to sprout, regardless of how mightily I am pulling for them.  To be sure, there are a couple of rows I have held in reserve for the summer planting of fall crops.  Unfortunately, those aren't the only unproductive areas.  Some, of course, are merely the leftover feet of economies -- I didn't have quite enough of this or that to fill a row.  The hard fact, however, is that some things simply didn't spring up the space allotted. 
Or wilted in the transplanting. 
Or were grazed by the rabbits. 
Or simply didn't like where I put them and refused to budge. 

There are trenches where stems are flourishing with impressive vigor, and there are those that are tardy, but hanging in there.  But there is more open dirt than I should settle for. 

Yesterday afternoon, then, we stopped by the nursery and browsed the vegetable remnants.  We picked up some oregano (I'm not sure why I hadn't planted that in the beginning), plus some rosemary (another surprising omission).  I certainly couldn't justify anymore basil or tomatoes than I already have well under way, but I can always use more peppers.  I filled a few orphaned ends with more jalapenos; in intermezzo spaces, between two other varietals, I squeezed in some red bells, some purple bells, and a few other sweet peppers thus far unrepresented, specimens late enough in the season to already have fruit well underway. 

I'll admit it feels a little bit like cheating -- buying transplants from the nursery rather than growing them from seeds; like the delusion that adding your own oil and eggs to a boxed cake mix makes it homemade. While I will be stirring in my own dirt and water, it isn't quite the same. But unlike the cake mix, I suspect when we bite into their harvest we won't remember which is which, grateful instead for the harvest. 

Meanwhile, the tomatoes continue to inch taller, and the variegated green balls ornamenting their branches continue to swell -- golf ball size, some of them.  The spinach and the lettuce seems to be making a rebound after their recent reprieve from rabbit nibbling.  It's too soon to tell about the swiss chard, and the shell beans are anybodies guess.  I can't tell for sure -- my planting map is a little muddled on this detail -- but I think the okra is making some headway, and the squash, tomatillos and collards are simply showing off.  As far as I can tell the potatoes are hard at work beneath the surface, though I see no signs of life from the beets.  The rest?  Well, I'm not optimistic. 

I have plans, however, for a second round this fall. 

In the meantime, the new additions are a welcome augmentation.  We may have salsa to can after all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Protection -- at Least for the Moment

So, I finally cried "UNCLE"!  After watching my bean rows transformed from lush plants to toothpick villages and eventually to bare ground; after discerning that the real and nibblesome reason my spinach and chard and lettuces weren't developing, I admitted defeat.  A sad and desultory trip to Lowes filled the pickup bed with 5 50-foot rolls of 36" chicken wire and a requisite stack of metal posts.  This after an earlier and utterly silly foray to the party store for a supply of mylar pinwheels and whirlygigs I placed strategically around the garden in hopes that the shiny movement would scare the marauders away.  The fact that I was now hauling chicken wire home attests to the measure of their success.

The near-record setting heat of the afternoon notwithstanding, I began the scratchy and cumbersome business of unfurling the rolls into their new occupation as "rabbit prevention."  All this to augment the existing fence that was billed as "effective against rabbits, raccoons and deer." 

Well, to their credit, I haven't noticed any raccoon damage. 

And the deer, I suppose, are perhaps deterred to a modest degree, or simply haven't found it in their interests to breach the barrier.  And why should they?  The rabbits have already beaten them to the dinner table.  It was with only minor humor that we plotted to trap and butcher the little devils.  They would, we were assured, be plump and nourishing.  They had, after all, fed on the best.

Lori's arrival home from work and shift into garden clothes was helpfully timed to intervene before my profanity poisoned the remaining crop and before my exhaustion cut the effort short.  Another hour and the metal encasement was finally secured.  All I'm missing now is concertina wire along the top.

Later, enjoying dinner on the deck, Lori noticed movement in the grass out back.  With fear, trembling, and fervent prayers, we crept to the railing to survey the garden environs.  Indeed, four rabbits were busily -- hungrily -- reconnoitering the situation from outside the fence.  They poked here, then there, then around to another side.  Clearly they had come to assume free access.  Eventually, they backed away and resigned themselves to a commoner's dinner of grass blades. 

I'm not totally delusional.  I have every expectation that eventually the rabbits will find or create a new way inside my culinary wonderland.  They are, I anticipate, resourceful and persistent adversaries.  In the meantime the chicken wire affords me a fighting, albeit ugly, chance.  It would be nice to see something from all this horticultural investment actually make it to our table.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Thousand Mile Dinner

Lori and I have fantasized about one day offering dinners at the farm.  You know, paying customers.  It seems like a natural expression of all these cooking classes we have been taking in recent years, sounds like something we would enjoy doing -- as long as it wasn't too often -- and would be a natural application for the vegetables I am learning to grow.  Plus, it is just one more thing we haven't a clue how to actually make happen --like the garden itself, and our aspirations to utilize the canning kitchen we have created. 

So, I was intrigued when my brother suggested that I send some samples of whatever might be harvestable at the moment to be included in the Father's Day dinner he and his family were preparing for our parents.  Our first farm dinner -- albeit 1000 miles from the farm.  Daddy, after all, invested quite a bit of energy in the garden's planting when they visited last month and by all rights should get something for all his effort.  I loved the idea, but was skeptical.  It is, after all, early yet -- at least in my garden.  A quick glance around revealed precious little that might be at the edible stage.  Sharper inspection commended a few things -- French radishes, an onion, a single sweet pepper, garlic scapes, and some herbs -- though it still seemed like a trifling gift.  The image of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes came to mind, but I am guessing that those fish were more than minnows.  It was going to be hard to successfully multiply my little minnow-class offering. 

Still, trusting that every now and then it really is "the thought that counts" I bundled up my little harvest in wet paper towels, a freezer bag, and a plastic grocery sack; inserted the bundle in an overnight postal box and paid the postage.  They might well be some of the more expensive vegetables eaten this season.

I hadn't come up with many creative menu ideas for the integration.  Thankfully my brother was, as he usually is, more imaginative than I.  He concocted a wonderful menu in which something from the garden figured in every course except dessert.  His printed menu even gave me credit -- over-generously I must say.

So, our first farm dinner is accomplished.  I hear it was a big success.  We didn't get to taste anything, but then neither did we have to clean up the mess.  Maybe that all equals out.  Here, then, is the menu, with garden ingredients indicated by a Taproot logo:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Downpour of Grateful Delight


Today, then, can simply be Saturday -- a guilty little pleasure.

Chattering news reports have confirmed the details of what we already new by experience: we have been bordering on drought conditions. That's why the garden hose has been a long but limiting tether these past weeks. Rainfall, at this point in the month, is more than two inches behind. The lawn is browning; the soil cracking; the crop, despite my daily ministrations, gasping. As a result, my days have predictably followed the routine of hose and sprayer, followed by weeding by the buckets full. The weeds, as it turns out, flourish regardless of rain.

Yesterday afternoon then, the garden chores completed followed by a shower and some lunch, I had settled down in my office to shape some words into sentences when the sky darkened and thunder interrupted the silence. Rain had finally been predicted but I had rolled my eyes and taken matters into my own hands. But drops began to fall despite my pessimism.

More drops.

Lots of drops.

Strong winds swept in heavy rains.

The clatter continued for several minutes; the winds calmed but the rain continued several minutes more. Then quiet, and the blue daylight reappeared. I was grateful for the interruption, but went on about my typing. Again, however, the sky darkened and again the rains fell. The pattern repeated itself throughout this latter part of the afternoon until by early evening -- a scant two hours after it had begun -- over 2 inches had fallen. I could almost hear the cracked earth relax; could feel the roots and stems drink in and flex their suppled selves; could almost see the grasses greening.

More rain is predicted for today, though I'll believe it when I see it. In the meantime the garden is slaked for the day. Remembering a time when Saturdays were a leisurely reprieve from the busier days that surrounded them I opted to resurrect the rubric and enjoy the sabbath. Who knows when it may happen again?

Monday, June 4, 2012


The rabbits did it. This evening, enjoying a late dinner in the sunroom, the lawn and garden reddened by the sunset, we were enjoying the arrival of the neighborhood bluejay perched on a post. Movement caught my eye skittering in the garden, For a moment I suspected the jay of hopping from his perch and into the bean trench, but a second glance exonerated the bird. In fact movement on two fronts in the garden settled the matter. Two rabbits had breached my defenses. Hurrying outside I hoped not only to shoo the critters away but also to discern their access. It didn't take long. After narrowly missing the first one's escape, I searched the general vicinity of its exit to no avail. Nothing about the fence seemed out of place. But the second one was still inside. "Watch how it gets out," I called to Lori who had chosen an alternate approach. I hollered, and after a second's confusion, it bolted... ...across the garden...and through the fence. Through it. It took a flying leap and simply passed through one of the 3" squares formed by the mesh strands. I was incredulous. "How am I supposed to protect against that?" I wondered aloud. My only consolation was that it wasn't some worm or worse. I can't help but conclude that the solution will simply be to plant more beans.

Straddling the Intersecton of Horror and Hope

There were two catches in my throat, albeit from oppositely toned stimuli.  Watering the garden and then surrendering myself to the garden trenches and their riotous weeds, it was my first seized opportunity to converse with the toddler vegetables on a first-name basis.  Obscured by the tufting grass blades in one area there, it happily turns out, lettuce actually appearing.  No signs yet of peppers on my greenhouse transplants, but the plants seem to be thriving.  The potatoes -- all three varieties -- appear positively festive; the purple cabbage, sage, collard greens and squashes are meanwhile flexing their own burgeoning muscles. 

It was, however, the tomatoes that made me giggle.  They are blooming.  Lots of them.  Lots of blossoms on lots of plants.  I'm not really clear why the tomatoes have risen to "favorite child" status.  In my head, I am every bit as anxious for the myriad pepper plants to go into labor.  I am eager for the squashes and beets and all the others.  But for whatever reason the tomatoes have captured my soul.  Maybe it is the extra attention they demanded in the sprouting -- first watering and watching, then moving up to more spacious abodes in the Kum and Go cups, and then finally being the last to dip their roots in the garden proper.  Perhaps it is the fully developed vision of their derivative uses via the canning kitchen we wait to employ.  Perhaps it is because the varieties I selected have particular whimsical appeal.  Or maybe it is, like the song says,
"There's only two things that money can't buy 
and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes."

I don't know.  Suffice it to say the appearance of those small yellow blossoms is like the first twinkling light of Advent, with the next several weeks -- OK, the next SEVERAL weeks -- feeling like a child's anticipation of Christmas.

I can't say that it completely took the song out of my step when I steered my way along the bean aisle, but the tune certainly shifted to a minor key.  There I could see that something has been getting better acquainted than I with my cannelini and calypso beans.  Upon closer inspection I could see that the favas and Good Mother Stallards have neither been immune.  Having sprouted vigorously, indeed almost playfully, with a delightfully leafy canopy, the row is now perilously near nakedness, more spindly stems than covering leaves.

 Something has been grazing, but whether rodent, insect or fowl I cannot yet say.  The fence is designed to withstand rabbits and raccoons and even deer.  Though I have seen birds landing and dancing within the compound, the damage doesn't strike me as particularly beak induced.  If I were a betting man, I would say it looks like rabbit nibbling, but I have yet to see any such thing anywhere near the fencing.  In front of the house, yes; beside the barn, you bet.  But I haven't seen them sniffing curiously around the garden aching for a tunnel in, though I suppose they could be coming at night.  Bugs of some kind could be the culprit -- a worm or some such predator -- but you would think you might see one hanging around.  So far, nothing.

Nothing, that is, except this oddly melancholic intersection of the bean row horror and the tomato blossoms' hope.  I grieve for my beans, but whatever it is better stay away from the tomatoes.  I might just have to set up a chair in the garden and spend the night on patrol...

...with a stick...
...or a gun...
...or a prayer.

I'm not much of an aim with either of the former, but I have to believe that God's heart, too, has a soft spot for homegrown tomatoes. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Of Terroir and Time

We had to replant the cherry tree.  It, alone, fell victim to the whiplashing vagaries of a premature spring that seduced early blossoms and buds that were almost cruelly punished by late-season frosts.  All the others, however, survived it -- the apples, the plums, the apricots and pears.  Only this one out of our tiny little grove of nine.  We lived a month in patient hope -- or simple denial -- believing that the black crepe annotations on the branches signaled only the demise of blossoms nipped in their prime, not the actual tree.  When the brittleness of the stems made the diagnosis plain, we had no choice but to pronounce a benediction. 

Apart from the obvious weather anomalies, we aren't really sure what happened.  As I say, all the other trees -- each a peer of the cherry -- are thriving.  Is the cherry somehow intrinsically more fragile -- more susceptible to the cold -- or simply less suited to this location?  There are, after all, horticultural limits.  As much as I miss the crepe myrtles and bluebonnets of my Texas roots, or the towering cypress trees of Tuscany, they simply aren't suited for life in Iowa.  I know this in part by looking around and seeing nothing of the sort.  I know this, more definitively, by reading the maps published by the USDA differentiating the various plant hardiness zones showing Iowa to be Zone 5 and Texas Zone 8, aligning them with seed guides clarifying what plants thrive in what zones. 

As much as I miss those heat-loving blossoms, I also honor this element of "terroir" -- the French agricultural term translated "taste of place" -- which calls attention to the fact that places have particular character.  No place is every place.  There are soil variables, sun/shade variables, and certainly climatic variables.  Certain things thrive on hillsides, while others crave rich valley river beds.  Some seeds require bitter cold to crack and germinate; the same cold that would eviscerate others that flourish in warmer environs.  Honoring the uniqueness of terroir forces inhabitants to discern the blessing and opportunity of their particular location instead of simply trying to replicate the beauties of somewhere else. 

Perhaps the cherry tree variety we initially selected was only marginally suited for zone 5.  I cannot say, since I no longer have the tag.  Its replacement, I will note, has been specifically developed for zones 3-7 -- roots and branches, in other words, that like to shiver. 

Of course there are no guarantees.  The summer will deliver its own horticultural stresses we'll have to meet and overcome.  And then there is always next winter.  And high winds.  And nibbling deer.  And...

...and all the vicissitudes of growth.  The most we can do is plant what is appropriate, water when dry, prune when needed, care...

...and wait and see.

The Statement in the Planting

There is an old Chinese proverb that asks:
“What's the best time to plant a tree?
100 years ago.
What's the second best time?

One of the authors I read early in the gestational stage of our new beginning -- I think it was Joel Salatin -- encouraged wannabe farmers, new to the land, to plant fruit and trees before anything else.  Before unpacking the dishes, before hanging pictures, before ordering seeds for the garden, plant trees.  Perhaps he, too, had learned from the Chinese.  And so we did.  Through the initial generosity of the kids and their birthday gift of 6 fruit trees, later augmented by our own hunger with three more fruit trees (along with 6 raspberry bushes, 2 blackberry bushes and 50 asparagus plants) we began our life here with the far horizon on our minds.

There is, to be sure, a time frame involved.  Unlike peas or salad greens, fruit production is measured in years not days.  Even the long-suffering tomato moves from blossom to ripeness in a single summer -- a virtual instant by comparison.  I haven't studied nuts, but I'm guessing that they, too, take years to mature.  It makes sense, then, to plant them -- if not “100 years ago”, which poses an obvious problem -- at least as soon as possible; the “today” to which the Chinese proverb calls secondary attention.

But there is, I sense, something deeper in the wisdom of planting trees than the mere pragmatism of protracted growth.  There is, to be sure, a kind of generosity about the act -- a downpayment on shade, as another sage voice characterized it, under which you'll not likely live long enough to sit.  But with fruit trees there is a more personal intent -- an intrinsic statement of settlement.  The planter, in digging the hole and lowering the root ball, is announcing to himself, to her neighbors, or merely to God above that migratory days are past; that he or she is in some important sense "home"; has found a sense of place where he or she intends to stay.  Whether or not the planter lives long enough to enjoy its shade, he or she fully intends to hang around long enough to taste its fruit.

At least that message is quietly embedded in our several acts of planting for the long-term.  We aren't, as with the stock market, living for the next quarterly report; we are investing in a life spreading out as far as we can see.  Every bit as much as this land becoming a part of us, we intend to become a part of this land -- not merely for a season, but for...well...whatever time we have left. 

I've cheated a little.  As per the horticulturist's instructions, I pruned off this year's early showing fruit in deference to sturdy roots over immediate gratification.  But it so happens that I "missed" one pear.  I know it's foolish whimsey.  Between the birds, the winds, the bugs and the blights, the chances that we will taste its ripeness are microscopic.  Still it will grow there at least for a time -- a reminder, and with any luck at all a foretaste, of the feast to come.