Monday, July 30, 2012

Battling the Inner Nazi

Note to self:  It doesn't all have to look the same.

Truthfully, it is a little embarrassing.  Throughout the generalities of my adulthood and the particularities of my ministry I have fought against the cultural curse of homogeneity -- the bigotries that lead otherwise decent people to marginalize, demonize and even fear those who don't look, pray, talk or parse gender identity the same way they do.  It is just such  xenophobia that underlies some of the bleakest chapters in our human history, from the many examples of slavery, to the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and to the far less visible but no less shameful treatment of farm laborers.  Some would argue that most of these examples are more economic than social.  Money undoubtedly plays a role, but I would counter that we simply could not treat these victims with such brutal and dismissive disregard if we truly viewed them as equally human.  Our pattern with each other is coldly clear:  those we despise we either subjugate or annihilate. And mostly, if history bears witness, what we despise is anyone we perceive to be "different."

In farming, the rationale is different, but the result is the same.  More and more we homogenize.  And this, too, betrays an irony that embarrasses me.  For some time I have saluted the red flags raised by those journalists and agronomists concerned about the vast mono-crops that have become modern agriculture -- whole fields of nothing but broccoli; entire counties of corn; oceans of tomatoes; vast landscapes of sameness.  These mono-cultures cater to simplicity rather than nutrition; mechanization and portability rather than flavor.  And because of intrinsic vulnerabilities to particular pests and diseases, they are built upon a steady diet of pesticides and herbicides and genetic modification.  The best environment for healthy and happy vegetables (and the people who consume them) is a poly-culture of multiple varieties, growing in close proximity, nourishing and protecting each other.

I know these things; believe these things; teach these things at every opportunity.  Mono-cultures -- within the garden or the community -- are dangerous and sadly impoverished.  Poly-cultures -- many different types, growing and thriving side by side -- are more interesting, more nourishing, and ultimately more secure.

Why is it, then, that in my garden I have sought such pristine perfection in the pathways between my garden trenches?  Why is it that I have so maniacally worked to eradicate the clovers and the Queen Anne's Lace and the myriad other growing things that diversify the spaces outside the growing areas?  How is it that I came to wield such antagonistic force as to break two weeding tools in pursuit of my self-defined purity?  Who knew that I had such a virulent inner Nazi determined to propagate a perfect race of turf at the expense of anything that didn't fit into my horticultural stereotype? 

It could, I suppose, be construed that with this sermon I am simply admitting defeat -- implicitly acknowledging that the "weeds" have gotten the best of me; that I will never succeed in their eradication, and that I am providing myself with a convenient philosophical  -- yea, verily, MORAL -- rationale to cover my retreat. 

But I don't think so.  What I believe is that our corruptions and misunderstandings are deeper and subtler than we like to admit.  In the face of such intransigence, truth comes to us along its own path, in its own time -- like water finding cracks and seeping inside.  And the truth is that it doesn't all have to look the same.  Truth, and its intimate companion, "wisdom."  Some things can be taught; others, like seeds, must moisten and finally crack open to allow the fragile tendrils of growth to root themselves into healthier, more expansive soils. 

I am embarrassed by the time it took for this particular seed to break open in me, and all the gardening energies misspent in a pointless pursuit.  The vegetables, patiently forgiving of such squandered time, will nevertheless be thrilled with my new attentions.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Modesty Disintegrated by Heat and Drought

The heat is breaking records -- both the temperatures and their duration.  Drought conditions only exacerbate the problem.  After a stingy winter that gave up remarkably little snow to replenish the soil, spring and summer have thus far opted to repent of last years flooding by withholding moisture altogether.  Farmers across the midwest are wringing their hands, watching their crops dry up.  Meanwhile, I felt personally chastised yesterday when the water authority for the area looked down their noses at we glutenous citizens and the copious gallons of water we are using every day.  Voluntary water rationing is now in force.

Sure, but I have collard greens I am trying to mature -- to say nothing of all those tomatoes still ripening.  And did I mention the seeds I just planted last week gasping for life in all this dry heat?  Rationing doesn't seem like much of an option right now.  I know, I know; that's selfish and short-sighted, but...

In the meantime, I noticed yesterday something of a miracle.  Back in May I planted three kinds of okra seeds, and though the plants have sprouted and flourished, they have flourished low -- small, that is.  What should be a bush by now of 24-36 inches is stalled at around 6 inches.  They look healthy.  They just look small.  And then a week or so ago I began to see blossoms. 

I'll have to admit that I hadn't noticed okra blossoms before -- squash blossoms, yes, but not okra.  But there they were.  And yesterday, okra -- two different kinds:  several "Hill Country Reds" and several of the traditional green "Clemson Spineless."  As welcome as they are -- as gratefully giddy as I am -- I have to admit that they look a little foolish; like Shaquille o'Neal riding a tricycle.  Phallic fruitings not modestly veiled by the leaves -- there aren't enough leaves to offer much virtue -- but this time protruding vertically right out the top. 

I'm not complaining, you understand.  I'll take them -- and eat them...

...albeit with a smile.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Into the Future with the Aid of the Past

Defying the very possible epigram of "one hit wonder" -- without necessarily even the "wonder" part to my credit -- I made a down payment this morning on the future.  Here in the depths of this drought-stricken summer, with an eye toward succession planting, Amelia and I sowed the first seeds of a fall garden while her father Ben gave me a break from the watering. 

Early this morning I resuscitated the tiller and prepared the several trenches and partial trenches ready for their second round.  A couple of hours later, cabbage, butternut and buttercup squash, turnip, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, and more beans were planted, markers were poked into the soil, and the existing crop's thirst was at least temporarily slaked.  Still in hand are spinach, lettuce, carrot and kale, waiting a little longer for deeper fall -- and cooler weather -- harvest.

It's a helpful discipline, this looking ahead -- one that has never been my long suit.  But when maturity is 95-100 days away, it is important to at least cast your mind that far forward, or there won't be much to show for the effort. 

It is, I'm thinking, about time to start using the kitchen compost along with some of the other detritus from the rest of the yard as mulch to provide nourishment and protection from the heat.  That, too, will feel like good use of our time and resources -- a first tiny inroad toward our own little permaculture.  Steps toward the future, nourished by the past.

Life, it seems to me, is moving deeper and onward.  And if the compost is any indication, richer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is it Supposed to be Red, Or Yellow, or Green?

This concept of "ripeness" has, I suppose, always felt a little murky.  I recall asking L.T. to explain it to me one afternoon when we were at his farm picking up our share.  His first response derived from his more technical side -- something to do with the fruit reaching its complete capacity to reproduce the plant.  I had something more basic in mind -- like how you know when to pick something?  He subsequently offered up a kind of horticultural behaviorist account that still, today, seems more mystically poetic than helpful -- about how the plant rather offers up the fruit by getting out of the way as opposed to its protective hiding during the maturation process.  Perhaps to the trained observer, but not to this clumsy, ham-handed grower.  I still navigate between the overly zealous (which generally provides me with more than my share of "green") and the overly cautious (which almost disdainfully mushes into my palm, as if to say "what kept you so long"?).

To my natural ambiguity I have now added a new stimulus for harvesting hand-wringing:  it's dangerous out there!  Never mind the chicken wire and the mesh, rabbits could breach my defenses at any moment, hopping over or burrowing under.  And no self-respecting deer would actually be intimidated by my fortifications.  From the very beginning they were designed to deter, not prevent.  And then, of course, there are the bugs and the beetles and the fungi and aphids -- any one of which could invade and invest overnight.  My precious harvest is vulnerable out there, like a pretty girl walking alone at night in the park.  Who can calculate all the evils that could befall?

So, there is the dilemma.  It is a gift to actually have things growing in the garden, but it is a immense responsibility.  I certainly don't want to leave produce out in the garden to rot, but I do want it to enjoy the full privilege of getting ripe.  But I don't want to leave it vulnerable any longer than is absolutely necessary.  But... 

Perhaps it is a little like parenting -- judging when to shelter and when to let go.  Or like poker -- knowing "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."

You get the point.  This is worrisome business.  It's a wonder that any of it -- including the gardener -- survives.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hovering, and Wishing For Only the Best

There are now "helicopter parents" -- the 21st-century pattern of dubious child-rearing best characterized by teenager who complains that "mother hovers over me like a helicopter."  Teachers and school administrators are too-well acquainted with these types; classrooms and Principal's offices having become veritable helipads for the landing of overly zealous parents who have taken "child advocacy" to steroidal levels, determined to spare their child any speck of dust, any discouraging word, any ripple in their pond.  Hovering, whirring up an almost tornadic sandstorm of affection, concern, paranoia and smothering, finally landing with hand sanitizer at the ready.

Suddenly, however, I understand. 

It has been our intention, ever since moving to Taproot Garden, to "put up" the excess the harvest.  Arranging the household, we established a canning kitchen in the lower level, equipped with shelving, countertops, a utility sink and a stove.  Along the way we have accumulated books on the subject, attended seminars, and more recently purchased supplies.  All we lacked was the harvest.  That, however, we were confident was only a matter of time.

But then we panicked.  We had never canned before; and we were going to learn on our own precious harvest?  The tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers and the rest that we had labored over, weeded around, sprinkled around and sung to since seed cells in the greenhouse?  Our...horticultural children?  Horrors!  What if (as was completely likely) we screwed it up?    Absolutely not!  What we needed, we declared, was some practice. 

We had ordered jars online, though they hadn't yet been delivered.  Target, however, had them on sale.  Shortly before closing time on Saturday we hurried through the Downtown Farmer's Market and snatched up discounted boxes of "ugly" tomatoes, Serrano peppers and garlic.  Heading home we detoured by Costco to procure large containers of strawberries plus the essential water bath pot for the canning, and headed home.

Looking back, the rest of the weekend is something of a blur of sanitizing, boiling, chopping, mashing, simmering, filling, lowering, raising, rereading instructions, and listening in the end for that almost musical telltale "pop" that signals the lid has miraculously sealed.  And sampling...with a satisfied smile. 

The result? 
  • 18 pints of strawberry preserves (half spiced, half traditional)
  • 18 pints of tomato sauce
  • 8 pints of salsa
This, from the practice session.  Meanwhile, looking ahead, there is still the produce ripening in our own garden.   Assuming, that is, we can actually bear the thought of picking it, chopping it, and submerging its jars beneath the roiling boil of the canner.

Because I now recognize that we have become...
"helicopter gardeners."

Friday, July 13, 2012


Just to follow up:  it is raining.


The Seduction of a Distant Thunder

So, I am gambling.  Last night's weather forecast for today indicated at least a chance of rain, and shuffling outside earlier this morning revealed dark clouds to the west.  Nevertheless I turned on the faucet as I passed and made my way to the garden.  By the time I had tightened the new hose connectors I had inadequately added yesterday and thoroughly sprayed myself in the process, I could hear a distant rumble.  Thunder?  Really?  I hadn't held out much hope. 

Our water bill is set up for auto pay, which has allowed me the guilty privilege of turning a blind eye to what it has been costing us to pour water every day on these thirsty vegetables -- a little like the infant's fantasy in covering his eyes:  "if I can't see you, you don't exist."  A second rumble, however, brought the prospect of a day's respite from the manual dousing and its price tag a little clearer into focus. 

"What's the point of obstinate routine?" I questioned out loud.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, I recalled, once mused that, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."  Not wanting to add "neophyte gardeners" to the list, I closed up the shed, turned off the faucet, and returned to the comfortable indoors just to see if it might rain after all. 

In the paper today was a story trumpeting this year's record breaking profits of the local casino.  Apparently lots of people are gambling these days.  Mine, however, feels a lot less risky.  If it doesn't rain this morning, I can always water tonight.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Grateful for Privilege of Participating in its Arrival

DSCN2612_edited-1 by Taproot Garden
I can't account for it. If you had asked me a few years ago what I thought about tomatoes I would have told you I didn't think much. It isn't that I didn't like them; they just never commanded much attention. They were merely those slices on burgers or those confetti-like dices strewn on salads or secreted between the folds of a taco shell. Pretty, and pretty tasteless. What else is there to think?

I vaguely remember the boycott of Taco Bell several years ago, and perhaps even more vaguely knew that it had something to do with tomatoes; and while as a rule I am supportive of social justice concerns, let's face it: it's hard to keep up with all the myriad initiatives. While I tried, at the time, to welcome in through my car window fast food from alternative venues, I confess that I didn't bother to learn too much about the issue. That, of course, has since changed as my culinary interests intersected with my justice concerns. The plight of tomato pickers is one of those travesties against the human family that ought to keep all of us awake at night praying for forgiveness -- along, I'll admit, with too many other atrocities to count. But that is another story.

Independently, quite apart from concern for those workers in the field, I actually tasted a tomato. Not one of those "tomato shaped objects" picked green, gassed into redness while in transit and sold in the grocery store that maximizes color and uniform shape at the total expense of flavor. No, an actual tomato. And it was an awakening. I don't know if it is the acid or the sugar or mysterious alchemy of all the elusive traits intrinsic to the species. All I know is that that taste represented a corner I unwittingly but irrevocably turned.

It turns out there are farmers and gardeners around who actually grow the real things -- usually ugly, contorted looking orbs that, if consumed blindfolded, one might confuse with sun-drenched droplets of divinity. Who knew that's what a tomato tastes like? It didn't take very long to become a tomato bigot, eschewing any of those store bought unreasonable facsimiles in favor of those real ones burdening farmers market tables and weighting sacks handed me as gifts from gardening friends.

Somewhere, sometime, somehow I knew that growing such gifts would need be in my future. Indeed, homegrown tomatoes have become something of the symbol and theme song of this farming adventure. Other things are growing back there -- treasures whose harvest I eagerly await -- but the sheer idea of growing my own tomatoes took on an almost "Holy Grail" significance. Ever since poking those tiny seeds into cups during the winter and tending their greenhoused sprouts; ever since transplanting them into the garden and watching blossom ever-so-slowly become ripening fruit I have leaned forward apprehensively toward the day one would fall, fully ripened into my hand and shortly thereafter onto our plates.

As it happened, the two did not occur in tandem. Yesterday was the day I screwed up my courage to approach the vine of the first ripened one of my inaugural season with a snipper in my hand.

This early arrival is a "Costoluto Genovese" tomato, a fluted, old Italian varietal that has been around at least for a couple hundred years. Popular in Italy for both fresh eating and preserving, its advertisements promise intense flavor and deep red flesh. I started to say "I couldn't wait to bite into it," but of course when it came down to it I did, indeed, wait.

Almost 24 hours later it still ornamentally bedecks the hutch beside the kitchen -- a trophy, perhaps, or better, an icon. It felt like sacrilege to summarily dispatch a dream, and so we opted to savor the presence of it before the flavor of it.

That won't go on for long. It would be greater sacrilege to wait too long, allowing it to sag into a gelatinous, rotted mush. Tonight, then, I anticipate will be the night. We will find fitting ways to honor it...

...with a little fresh mozzarella, perhaps, to honor its heritage; some fresh basil from the deck, and perhaps the slightest splash of balsamic vinegar -- on a bed of the lettuce that grew alongside it...

with a prayerful breath of gratitude for the privilege of participating in its long-awaited arrival.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Because it is Never Quite Completed

I had begun to think of weeding as something akin to breathing...or blinking -- reflexive movements that one simply does without thinking too much about it.  Second thought, however, corrects that overly generous comparison.  Unlike those bodily examples, you don't have to do it.  You can get by without devoting the time and the energy.  It is, finally, your privilege to make the choice.  There are consequences, to be sure, but not immediate ones.  Weeding is more "maintenance," in some sense of the word, and preventative if given the longer view -- which is to say that weeding is much more like exercise...or flossing.  You know the dentist's dictum about flossing:  "you don't have to floss all your teeth; just the ones you want to keep."  The value of exercise, while perhaps not so cleverly stated, is something of the same.  Exercise -- at least regular physical activity -- is only necessary to the degree that health is desired. 

And so I weed so that the garden can be healthy -- so that the desirable growth can have its way with as little opposition as possible.  It does nothing to prevent deleterious invasion, although some fungi and molds may, in the process, be held at bay.  Insects are certainly not deterred by my attentions.  But surely the slow and inexorable siphons and suffocations -- those almost passive environmental decays of crowding and choking and shading and resource diversion -- are defeated by my ministrations. 

At least temporarily.

Perhaps that recognition is the gift of it all.  Just as I cannot take one deep breath and be done with that task for the rest of the day or the rest of the week; just as I cannot perform a few calisthenics and be perpetually healthy, I cannot finally get the garden weeded.  As soon as I complete the project it demands resumption from the beginning.  There is a dailiness to the work that echoes the rest of the best of life -- the routinized discipline of attentive care.  It is akin to telling my wife that I love her: saying it "once upon a time" doesn't quite suffice.  Saying it today -- or not -- is consequential both for her and for me. 

How much of life, I've begun to ask myself, is like weeding -- not so much in its purging but in its constant invitation to pay attention and step into the fray? 

Tomorrow I will resume the fingered attentions.  Tonight I will breath, blink, floss...

...and speak a word of love.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Garlic, Squash and the Taste of Pickles

I finally got around to following Shirley's advice.  The delay had nothing to with the advice, but rather otherwise ordered priorities.  I had weeds to pull.  Finally completing my sojourn around the trenches, and weeds momentarily in a modicum of retreat, I could indeed turn my attentions to the garlic.

The garlic had been a gift from brother-in-law Steve last fall out of his personal stock saved out of last year's harvest.  It was, I think, his small act of encouragement to this naive beginner who had by that time just about allowed the window of opportunity to close on garlic planting for this season.  His little bag of prodding got me moving -- digging a sowing trench almost before I had outlined the future garden. 

Now over seven months later, scapes long since harvested and the leaves beginning to wilt, I knew I shouldn't delay much longer.  After mowing the pathways between the trenches, trimming a little along the edges, and watering the whole of it, I palmed the hand trowel and went to work. 

They aren't perfect of course.  Some heads are small, while others are quite large.  But I find them quite beautiful, thank you very much.  With a purplish tint and well-developed cloves, they are aromatic and, I think, quite stylish.  After a period set aside for curing, they will be ready to go.

Beyond garlic, the closer inspection afforded by the hand weeding revealed progress on the cucumber and squash front as well -- an area of concern that had been nagging at me for some time.  I had seen blossoms but nothing more.  But, as it turns out, the little green fingers are there and beginning to swell.  Just in time for the cucumbers, the dill and peppers are beginning to come into their own, anticipating a marriage made in...a pickling jar.