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.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

With an Eye and an Appetite for Next Year

Perhaps it is the cooler weather -- 72-degrees now midday, with a predicted high only in the 80's.

Perhaps it is the inch and half rain that fell yesterday, affording a delightful respite from the hose.

Perhaps it is the thorough weeding accomplished earlier in the week.

Perhaps it is the brief interval between harvests since Tuesday's aggressive gleanings of okra, tomato and cucumber and the grand pickling that night.

Whatever the justification, and with nothing from the garden really calling, I indulge a second pot of coffee, settle down to the computer and...order more seeds. 

Garlic, actually.  Which won't be shipped until October.

It's strange to think about next season.  I've just begun to pick squash, and the okras have a long way to go before they are exhausted.  I clipped the first of what I hope will be many leaves of swiss chard, and the potatoes are still in the ground.  There are yet tomatoes and tomatillos and peppers of several varieties, and the basil is patiently waiting for its turn in the pesto kitchen.  Who knows when the beans will be ready to harvest and shell, and whether or not the beets will actually offer anything other than tops.  The fall crop is only half planted, with half a dozen seed packets queued up and waiting.  Next season?

The fact is that garlic requires advance attention.  I barely beat the deadline last fall with a late November planting.  Better to nestle the cloves into place before the end of October.  And purveyors tend to run out of supplies early in the fall.  Already one of my preferred providers is sold out of two desirable varieties.    It's important to order early.  And I learned the hard way that in this first go-round I planted far too little.  Saving back a few heads for next season, we have already gone through much of the harvest. 

And I never wanted to be a one-hit wonder.  Peas produce once and then are done; I want to be a recurring, perennial producer.  There will be a Season #2.

Still, it's barely August and Season #1 is still in process.  It is with a curious mixture of embarrassment and titillation that here in the throes of summer I straddle the entire girth of autumn and winter and plant a foot so proleptically in spring.  But I can already almost taste it.

Here, then, is what's in store:
Erik's German White
Erik's German White (Seed Saver's Exchange):  Hardy plants, with strong roots overwinter without heaving out of ground. Bulbs have white wrappers with red-purple skinned cloves, easy to peel. Rich and slightly spicy garlic flavor. Hardneck, 4-6 large cloves.

Lorz Italian
Lorz Italian (Seed Saver's Exchange):   Northwest heirloom brought to Washington State’s Columbia Basin from Italy by the Lorz family before 1900. Medium warm with a zesty flavor that is not harsh and lingers on the tongue. Great for roasting. Softneck, 12- 18 cloves per bulb. 

Georgian Fire
Georgian Fire (Seed Saver's Exchange):   Obtained from the Gatersleben Seed Bank (#6822) in eastern Germany. Described by chefs as a truly "white hot" garlic. Raw taste is strong with a nice hotness that is not at all unpleasant. Great for salsa and salads. Hardneck, 4-6 cloves per bulb.

German Extra Hardy
 German Extra-Hardy (Maine Potato Lady):  Also called German Stiffneck, German White or Northern White. Very winter-hardy porcelain variety having a large root system to help withstand the freezing and thawing cycle that heaves the bulbs out of the ground. Very white wrappers over 3-5 dark red cloves. Large well-formed heads have a strong and robust flavor. Stores well. 

Inchelium Red
Inchelium Red (High Mowing Seeds):   HEIRLOOM Award-winning flavor is robust and rich with a hint of heat, but never overpowering. This variety has large bulbs reaching 3” across; bulbs can have 12-20 cloves. Outer bulb wrappers are thick and protect the bulb. Stores well for 6-7 months. Originally found on the Coville Indian Reservation in Inchelium, WA. Softneck (Allium tuberosum)

Music (High Mowing Seeds):  A large, beautiful porcelain variety. This hardneck variety produces large bulbs with 4-5 large cloves. Flavor is strong and robust. Vigorous variety with long roots gives it the ability to over-winter without heaving. Stores well. Hardneck (Allium tuberosum)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Invaders by Taproot Garden
Invaders, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.
Truth be told, I suppose I have been expecting them. Not, perhaps, specifically these, but garden pests of some variety. Bigger pests have preceded them, of course -- rabbits, birds and, by some evidence, a deer or two -- but this appears to be the first of the bug variety.

Curiously, they seem confined to the pumpkin plants. Studying up, I've learned that squashes are most susceptible to worm-like vine borers and squash beetles, but this critter doesn't look like either one. In fact, the closest I have come to an identification is the "spotted asparagus beetle." You be the judge.  The small inset picture is the textbook example.

If that ID is correct, they seem to have lost their way. I spent part of the morning weeding the asparagus trenches and found them completely beetle-free -- except for the occasional song on my iPod playlist by the fab four

Because I haven't heretofore been confronted by such invaders this summer I had to excavate my spray bottle of organic homemade pesticide left over from last summer. In the ensuing year, the mixture of vegetable oil, dish soap and water had separated of course, and shaking the ingredients together only manufactured an unsprayable foam, so I unscrewed the top and splashed the horticultural meringue over the offended blossoms. We'll see.

In the meantime, it will pay to keep watch. Add this to the already lengthy list of enterprises and growing organisms that don't prosper while on auto-pilot. Most things of value, I am constantly being reminded, benefit from loving attention.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cracked skin

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

You might think there would be a cream for this. Perhaps Estee Lauder or Lubriderm simply haven't thought about the horticultural prospects yet. I can tell them that are potential profits rotting out there in the garden. Cracked skin, as it turns out, isn't confined to faces and hands.

It has been a sobering disconcertion. All season long I have quietly tended, looking forward to an inundation of ripe tomatoes. From greenhouse seeding to garden weeding I have been present, watchful, and ready with the hose. The weather, after all, has been challenging. Everyone I meet commiserates pityingly over my misfortune of starting this new garden in this particular year -- what with the choking drought and the record setting heat. I usually reply that it might be good to start at the bottom. I might even believe it.

But now as the green orbs redden or orange, and I withhold my plucking hand for the perfect moment of ripeness, I discover upon closer inspection the chasmic wounds marring more of the harvest than seems fair.

Sure, there are plenty of beauties, and I treasure them. But there are all those others. To be sure, for many the marring is merely cosmetic, but in others the cracks have actually opened the flesh and baited the ants and their kin who have burrowed and gnawed and defamed.

It turns out -- and this really comes as no surprise -- it is likely my own fault. Sure, the high heat could be a factor according to one guide. But the likelier culprit is over-watering and under-fertilizing.

Ironic, I think, that my zealous ministrations with the hose might have been the undoing of a material percentage of the crop. That, while paying inadequate attention to basic nourishment.

Perhaps it is a little like an overprotective father, perpetually standing too close so as to deflect any potential harm, while providing little more than cotton candy for supper.

Well, I started this project in order to learn. Lesson #1: a little tough love can go a long way.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Paying A Different Kind of Attention

Just another Harvest by Taproot Garden
Just another Harvest, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

By this point it seems like a long time ago. Last September we moved to this property with a household's worth of packed boxes and a vision, excitement and more than a little apprehension over the implications of what we had done. Less than a year -- not so long when measured by the calendar, but an eon , all else considered. In the intervening months we have trimmed trees, cleared brush, planted trees, built a greenhouse, commissioned and planted a sign, designed a garden, ordered and planted seeds, cleared the target area, dug trenches, staked and strung a fence, and planted. Planting gave way to watering, weeding, weeding and watering, contending with rabbits, adding more fence, weeding and watering, watering and weeding, waiting and watching, watering and weeding. And weeding and watering.

There develops, in the practice of it all, an almost drone-like character to the tending -- a rhythmic, centering monotony only occasionally interrupted by a brief rain or a schedule conflict. Watering, weeding, observing the growthful progress. There was a certain giddiness over the progression from stem to leaf to flower to bud and finally that blush of color. But still there was the drone -- the weeding, the watering, the studious observation and the waiting.

There was that delicious euphoria at the first tomato plucked and the companion pepper snipped. But it doesn't pay to overly indulge in self-congratulation. A garden, I have learned, is like a river -- always moving, always in motion; a glacier, more like it, given the almost imperceptible pace, but moving nonetheless.

And the drone, I have discovered, is hypnotic. I get out early to preempt the heat, barely shaking off the sleep, yank the standpipe's handle, will my palm into compliance with the shape of the hose, and set about the routine. The drone buoys me along the paces, watering and then weeding, noticing.

Suddenly I realize I am missing something important: the harvest. After those initial offerings, I have slipped back into routine, forgetting the "moreness" still and inexorably ripening -- the payoff of all the effort.

So each day now I remind myself to actually pick something -- to allow myself a momentary arrival in the midst of this ongoing journey; the crunch of a fresh raw okra, the juice of a ripe tomato dripping off my chin, the spicy bite of a pepper just off the stem.

And in so pausing, to step out of the lulling drone and pay a different, more flavorful attention.