Monday, December 23, 2013

Enemies Bearing Gifts

We walked the prairie trails north of the garden before the snow settled in.  Most of the previous blanket had vanished in a surprising warming trend that could hardly be called an "Indian Summer", but sunny 40's in December are welcome regardless of their label.  Sunday's early morning 6-inch snowfall and today's -25degree windchill were still mere forecasts.  The dogs needed did we.  Ourselves, then, jacketed and the pups leashed we struck out north for the adventure. 

Circling the garden we inventoried the square access holes neatly spaced and cut by the rabbits through the deer fence.  There will be more chicken wire in my future I noted to myself.  We called attention to the flattened grass patches where the deer apparently like to sleep.  We wondered aloud how the bees are wintering in their wooden box hives.  We mentally sited the labyrinth we hope to construct on an easterly patch of the prairie this spring and vocally thanked again the apple tree that surprised us this fall with fruit we didn't even know to expect. 

And we assessed the nascent trunks of the volunteer osage orange and cedar trees and how they might fare against the new piece of brush cutting equipment on which we just took delivery to combat just such growth.  If I have a functional animosity toward the osage orange and its spindly, unruly and thorned branches that employ an almost radar-like accuracy for snagging any exposed skin, Lori nurses a more aesthetic grievance against the cedar.  Ubiquitous in this area, they seem to be in a race with the rabbits over whose reproduction can be more prolific.  Turn your back for an instant and multiple baby cedars will have popped up in the interval.  Shaggy and unkempt, they are the ugly duckling of the evergreen family; hardly the warm blue of the spruce, neither the deep ancience of fir nor the bright green of pine, cedar branches slag outward in a flatness of color that is more green than brown by only the thinnest of degrees. 

And winter -- when all the other trees are bare -- showcases our wealth of the scrubby species, dotting the landscape in all their sprawlingly dull languor.  We can't wait to fire up the brush mower and commence the eradication.

But as the trail led us toward the edge of the tree line and proximity to a cluster of our sworn arboreal enemy, the cedars reached out in peace with something of a gift.  As if bedecked for the holidays, the branches were dripping with blue beads; pearls, as it were, sprouting from swine.  And it was lovely; my enmity toward the species softened if only for the season.  There truly was a wintry beauty there that I had forgotten from before -- if ever noticed at all. 

I am under no delusion.  Those holiday jewels, I know, are nothing other than the eventual seeds of my larger and eventual discontent.  They will scatter and sprout in locations I least desire.  But for the moment even the cedars are celebrating Christmas, and we'll enjoy them as long as we can.  They are, even Lori had to admit, magnificent in their offering.

As for later and those likely seedlings from all this splendor? 

Well, there is always that new mower.
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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

In the Spirit of Hope

Seed orders have been placed -- a new personal record for getting a head start on the upcoming season.  One-hundred varieties so far, although there will almost certainly be a few outstanding odds and ends yet to secure.  There always seems to be an extra tomato or pepper to try.Who knows how it will all fit in the deer-fenced space?  But then it is the Christmas season and the catalogs seduced me.  Herbs and greens and roots and fruits with a handful of flowers thrown in, I have ordered a little bit of it all.  It is the bliss of leaning forward, even while thawing from the freezer and enjoying the taste of looking back.  Even while the ground is snow-whitened and the temperature is in the single-digits.  Another harvest is already budding in my imagination, never mind that what winds up in my basket never looks quite as glamorous as the glossy pictures in the catalogs.  I can always hope --
  • that the seeds actually germinate and sprout; 
  • that just the right amount of rain falls at just the right intervals; 
  • that this year I will successfully manage the pests; 
  • that my back holds out through all the weeding; 
  • etc., etc., etc.

Farming, in other words, is intrinsically hopeful work -- which, come to think of it, makes Advent the perfect time to order seeds while we are busy with other, exponentially bigger hoping -- for such packages under the tree as... respect among religions;
...peace between nations;
...reasonable access to health care for all; end to hunger...

As to that last one, I like to think I am making some small contribution, although even that hope is largely aspirational.  My meager harvests are hardly feeding the world.  They are hardly feeding Lori and me!  But I am learning.  And I am generating conversation.  And one of these days others will come to sit at our table, and perhaps someday something I have grown will be a nourishing blessing on tables of their own. 

And then, on fuller stomachs, and almost certainly healthier as a result, with therefore less need for all that medical care, we can make better progress toward world peace. 

Here’s hoping.

Which just goes to prove what all can happen by simply placing an order for seeds.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Closing the Door -- and the Book -- on Autumn

We finished, without an hour to spare. 

All week we had been conscious of the season's closing window and all that remained to be done.  There were still trenches to clear of the vestiges of harvest. 
There were fence panels to separate from their posts and organize for winter.
There were leaves to rake for the compost pile.
There was garlic to plant.
The tractor's snow blower attachment needed to supplant the mowing deck.
And there was rain water to store as best we were able, and the barrels -- eleven in all -- that had collected it to store.

And a winter storm forecasted by the week's end.

Early in the week I devoted my energies and what time I had to the garlic.  Readying the trenches.  Amending the soil.  Mixing and sprinkling in some fertilizer.  Nestling and then covering the cloves.  Spreading straw across the top.  Lori amplified the efforts one of the days.  Eventually 10 rows were planted:
  • Georgian fire
  • Oregon Blue
  • German Extra Hardy
  • Inchelium Red
  • Spanish Roja
  • Samarkand
  • Music
There will be no vampires at our house!

Friends could converge on the tractor project this morning, and Lori planned a half-day of vacation to help with the rain barrels.  We hit the ground in the dim light of emerging morning and were well under way by the time the friends arrived for the manly work.  In a fog of diesel we backed, unbolted, disconnected and maneuvered into place.  With the snow blower in place and demonstrated in less time than we anticipated, we expanded our efforts to securing tire chains for extra traction.  The coffee pot empty and the mechanics completed, I waved them goodbye and returned to Lori and the barrels and their water. 

The temperature, chilly from the start of the morning, was conspicuously dropping, and it is tedious work filling and relocating jugs for pouring into storage tanks out of the weather.  By the time that A.M. was slipping toward P.M., however, we had accomplished our intention.  Well over 200 gallons of rainwater had found safekeeping for the winter months' nourishment of houseplants and greenhouse greens and seedlings. 

Breath was fogging as we closed the barn door, and fingers were numbing.  A little water on ourselves and a fresh change of clothes, we headed our separate ways into town and work of a different kind...

...when the rain shortly commenced, freezing onto the windows and pavement.  
So much for the chores of autumn. 
Snow is predicted tomorrow.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Seasonal Muddle in the Mowing

Mowing snow.
It was a first for me.

After our late summer drought was succeeded by continuing early autumn dryness, heavy rains in recent weeks have reenergized the lawn.  Months of scant tractor use gave way to weekly passes over shaggy grasses waving in the fall winds.  This at a time when I have begun to give thought to the onerous task of switching out the mowing deck to the snow blower in preparation for winter.  The Farmer's Almanac, after all, warns me that I'm going to need it. 

But not before one last mowing.

More rains delayed the trimming.  Busy schedules complicated the matter, and of course the time change a couple of weeks ago abbreviated the number of available evening hours.  And then the first snow of the season descended on Monday.  And temperatures in the low teens.  It didn't feel like mowing weather.

Yesterday, however, there was a clearing in the sky and my schedule, and the mercury was sniffing at the 50's.  I changed into work clothes augmented with some extra warmth, and raised the door on the barn.  Leaves had carpeted much of the open space and my mind drifted to mulch as I raced to beat the darkness.  Finishing the front, I steered to the back and the garden surroundings and waded into the curious obstacle protected by the shade of the house.  Accumulated snow.  Unsure of the protocols for such a work, I pushed on through -- blades trimming blades, mulching leaves, and blowing snow all in a single pass.  Summer, autumn and winter confused or conspiring -- all three swirled into a seasonal compost of white stained with reds and greens.

Despite the way that history books date the endings and beginnings of epochal shifts, I suspect that my season-blurring experience in the yard is more representative.
The line between adolescence and adulthood.
The line between student and teacher.
the line between apprenticeship and mastery.
The line between vocation and retirement.
The line between autonomy and community.
The line between life and death.
Ambiguously blurred; inching forward while subtly retreating.  Muddling from one into the other.

Green grass and fallen leaves and snow, all mowed together.

And then today, with any luck, I'll plant garlic.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Of Cabbages, Experiences and the Sauerkraut of Life

With the forecast hinting at the season's first freeze I spent the remainder of the afternoon attending to some garden cleanup -- rolling and labeling the rest of the drip tapes for next year's reuse, and gathering.  There was a bit of dinner time hidden agenda -- the collards and kale, along with some of the peppers would go nicely with the sausage in the freezer and the leftover cornbread for a chilly night's repast -- but mostly I was in scavenger mode.  The remaining tomatoes and peppers weren't likely to tolerate the freeze.  So, with basket, snippers and knife in hand I made my way through the rows.  The beans and tomatillos and squashes were already gone; the lettuces had long since expired, and the braising greens could tolerate the change in temperature.  All in all it wouldn't take too long to pluck whatever other remnants remained.

And then I noticed the cabbage.  To be honest I had all but forgotten them.  Slow, unimpressive, I have longed for those leafy sprouts to mature but had largely given up.  They seemed to be stalled and waning.  And then there they were -- four of useable size with several more lagging behind. 

Cabbages are curious growths.  A member of the brassica family, the plant begins with a thin taproot and eventually begins to leaf.  And leaf.  In fact, the head that is its offspring is literally the compaction of layer after layer of leaves and time, resulting in a versatile mass of culinary possibilities. 

Which makes me think of memories and experiences and learnings along the way -- the slow and often unnoticed leafing and compaction of life-leaves that result in a similarly useful density. 

I suppose not everybody affirms the usefulness of sauerkraut, but while I rather think a brat is naked without it, there is more to a cabbage than that.  And who knows what gloriously pungent concoctions might come from all these learnings and practices and disappointments and triumphs?  One head at a time.

Friday, September 27, 2013

An Autumn Beginning with a Winter End in Mind

Our very presence on the farm is attribution to Stephen Covey's axiomatic 2nd habit of "highly effective people":  begin with the end in mind.  Comprehending how dependent our food system is on cheap and plentiful energy, I began to wonder what will happen in the very likely eventuality that one or both of those factors goes away.  The only conclusion I could reach was that I was going to get hungry.  Any contrary result would be predicated on my learning how to grow food on different terms.  Hopefully, by the time the draconian eventuality becomes reality I will have learned enough to ward off starvation.

Similarly fore-thoughtful and surrounded by the garden's quietude, I began to think about the coming season and its abundance of tasteless and well-traveled vegetable options.  Present weariness or no, that winter day will eventually come when a fresh salad would taste profoundly good.  And I intend to satisfy that hunger...which means setting in motion the winter greenhouse garden.  Travel conflicts last year delayed the sowing until November 1.  By that time the late autumn cool slowed germination to a crawl and it wasn't until the New Year that anything had matured to the point of harvest.  Fully six-weeks earlier this year I have planted a first round of seeds --

Deep Purple bunching onions
Carmel -- Savoyed Spinach
Winter Density Green Bibb Lettuce
Mache VIT
Rouge D'Hiver -- Red Romaine Lettuce

Yesterday, with that first round already well in sprout, I sowed a second round consisting of more of the same.  Hopefully the time-spacing will insure multiple rounds of harvest.  As long as habitable weather extends I plan to leave the boxes on the deck.  Eventually they will settle into their winter home inside the greenhouse, nestled beneath row cover fabric for warmth.  By that time I will have drained the rain barrels and stored the jugs of water for winter hydration.  If the past is any prediction, eventually I will have to shovel a path through the snow to reach the door.  But if the vegetable gods have chosen to smile on me, the frozen trek will be rewarded, once inside, by leaves of this and that anxious to satisfy the longing palettes of two hibernating gardeners huddled inside by the fire.

That, at least, is the "end in mind" with which I have already begun.

Monday, September 23, 2013

In Autumn's Quieter Embrace

There is a kind of weariness settling in.  Vines that only weeks ago swelled full and green and thickly lush, taunting the trellises with fruited weight, now lean on the same frames with a bleached spindliness; largely spent and languishing.  There are still ripenings in process -- scattered tomatoes of various kinds, peppers at both ends of the Scoville scale, and braising greens.  I planted a fall crop of carrots that are still in their toddler phase, along with some radishes and turnips.  There are cabbages in various stages of growth about which I need to learn when to harvest, and the plums are still softening on the tree.  

But the squash has exhausted itself and all but disappeared; the cucumbers are similarly threadbare.  Okra spears are still coming on, but fewer and fewer; and churned soil is all that marks the place where potatoes and carrots once hid. I gathered this morning the last of the apples that surprised us earlier in the summer, along with a dozen or so tomatoes and a like number of peppers, plus a bundle of collard greens; and I dug up the remainder of the mature carrots.  All that excepted, we are slowing down.

Myself included.  That, blessedly, is the rhythm of things -- imagination, applied physicality, frenzied activity, vigilant attention, gathered reward, and finally rest.  If that sounds rather like the life-cycle in miniature, it should.  Perhaps the garden's accelerated spin on that wheel, in addition to feeding us along the way, is meant to teach us larger lessons about living and aging eagerly and productively and well, and then slowing gracefully until we finally settle in altogether. 

Or maybe fatigue and mortality are simply harder to differentiate in the cooling, wearied days of autumn after a well-spent summer. 

I'll chew on that as I gnaw on one of those carrots newly dug and washed and reclining in the kitchen drain tray.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sharing Like I Know What I'm Doing

Earlier in the summer, albeit after they believed the "sweet spot" of the sales period had passed, a local garden center blasted an email to their customers that all remaining tomato plants were discounted to $0 -- limit 10 per household.  I didn't really need any additional tomato plants, but I'm nothing if not a sucker for deals.  I didn't take advantage of the full complement of 10, but I brought home 3 or 4 plants of varieties not already in the garden.  The catch -- isn't there always a catch? -- was the semi-obligatory promise to share some of the resulting tomatoes with the "Tomatofest" held at the garden center at a date to be determined.

Right up there alongside "deal sucker" on my list of character traits is "trustworthiness", and so when the follow-up email showed up in my inbox a couple of weeks ago announcing the date for that aforementioned "fest", I replied with my intent to contribute.  Of course I had no idea if I could fulfill my promise.  I have evidenced precious little control over what ripens when, and in what condition.  The bugs seem to have their gnawing caprice, and despite my ongoing efforts there have been a few rabbit encroachments.  Anything could intervene and rupture the arc connecting commitment and delivery.  As the day approached I relaxed in the confidence that something would be available, even if only a little.

Tomorrow is the day, which meant that today was the requisite delivery.  I stole out to the garden not long after daybreak, harvest hod in hand as a kind of pretense of confidence.  The first row of Brandywines was promising, and a half-dozen were added to the basket.  The Copias, Amish Paste and Black Krim swelled the tally still higher, while the Lolas and Wapsipinicon Peach completed the haul.  Not a bad offering after all.  Back in the house, I sorted and labeled the varieties and loaded them in the car.

I can't quite describe the feeling that buoyed me as I exited the store, having deposited my humble contribution toward tomorrow's festivities.  Pride?  Humility?  Gratification?  Satisfaction?  Some of each, I suspect.  It was, in a sense, the first real public actualization of what I had set out to do:  grow food, and if possible, in ample enough supply as to exceed our family's needs.

My tomatoes wouldn't win any awards -- there are surely bigger ones and prettier ones, and more perfect and perfectly ripened specimens of the varietals.  But these were an effluence that had filtered through my hands, my soil, my perspiration and care.

And I couldn't help but smile.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Colorful Taproots Reflecting Our Own

When we were moving to this acreage almost two years ago, boxes packed with possessions and imaginations packed with dreams, the name "Taproot Garden" sprouted into my consciousness for little predictable reason.  In a sense, I suppose, the garden named itself.  We hadn't talked about naming; I had invested no energies into drafting one.  I'm not entirely sure I knew anything about taproots, short of my passing acquaintance with carrots.  It was a surprise, then, to find this moniker lodged in the center of my awareness, refusing to move until I acknowledged it.  So, with seemingly little say in the matter, we accepted the name's claim on us and our new beginning, and hung it on the door so to speak. 

Shortly thereafter, when I began this running narrative, I noted that taproots were certain plants' instinctual determination to seek an anchoring, stabilizing center from which everything else would emanate.  While some plants send their roots outward, reaching far and wide for those nourishments thriving near the surface, these others reach for deeper grounding.  That sounded a lot like the compelling call that drove us to this fresh initiative unlike anything we had ever done before. 

Little did I anticipate that my most consistent connection with taproots would turn out to be weeds who exerted -- and quite continuously exert -- their prior claim on the property.  Between these deeply moored adversaries under the ground and the rabbits above ground I have ample challenge with which to contend without even inventorying the more pedestrian garden aggravations like soil issues, bugs and weather.  Multiple weeding tools have sacrificed themselves in the offensive; their metal no match for the hardness of the soil and the depth of the roots.  Over time, however, I am better discriminating between the ones that have to go and the ones I can simply ignore.  After all, "nuisance" does not equate with "pernicious."

All of which is preface to the exuberant pleasure I experienced this morning over my first large scale extraction of more desirable namesakes -- the bulk of the "Dragon" carrots (the red ones) I planted this season, and a few of the "Danvers Half Long" carrots (the orange ones).  There are considerably more of the latter yet to dig, and a half-row of recently planted "Purple" carrots that won't be ready until deep into autumn, but the refrigerator is full for now and we need to give their culinary prospects some careful consideration.  In the meantime they are fun to admire...

...and through them, to reconnect with something of the core of our being here; grateful for the deep roots that we, too, are sending down.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Near-forgotten Sound -- and Sight

A gauged argument is underway.  The rain measure on the deck reports 1/2" rainfall last night, while the garden measure insists there was 3/4".  Either way, I'm smiling.

We went to bed last night to the rhythmic pulsations of lightening behind the clouds in the northern sky.  The weatherman during the 10 pm news lamented that the rain would miss us this far south -- this being the last opportunity for showers all week.  The illuminations outside notwithstanding, I resigned myself to a longer dry spell.   In the netherworld of slumber I dreamed I heard some thunder -- and rain splatters on the window -- but I knew it had to be only the precipitation of a longing imagination.  The rain, I knew, was missing us.  The weatherman had said so, and I always accept what the weatherman says as gospel truth (insert "smile" here).

When the dogs dragged me outside for their pre-dawn constitutionals I thought I sensed moisture, but it was yet too dark to see.   The coffee, then, and the paper, and finally the morning light and the rain gauge markings revealed.  Throwing on some clothes, I smiled and thought to use the softened soil as an opportunity for poison ivy control.  The tentacled roots are freer on such occasions and we had noticed a frightening proliferation yesterday near the vegetables.  And I did fill a bucket with miscellaneous weeds encroaching on the dahlias and the offending ivies before the air was alive with a hardly remembered sound, and then the sight...

...of falling rain.  More.  In an instant it was upon the garden and me and for a moment I couldn't decide if I should hurry inside for the dryness or remain where I was and relish the wetness.  I had brought the power wagon down with me with milk jugs filled from the rain barrels by the barn, and I had intended to return it with the gathered branches from our trimming last evening.  Parked there, dripping by the open garden gate I mused that its engine probably didn't need the drenching, so my decision was made.  I turned the ignition, shifted into high, and together we raced for the shelter of the barn.  But I enjoyed the sloshing sprint.

It has been a curious summer.  By this time last year the rain barrels had been dry so long that spiders had spun webs in the faucets.  On the heals of that crippling drought, this summer was ushered in by excessive rains in April and May that flooded crop land all over the state.  And then the floods receded once again into drought -- here, but countered by renewed flooding in other parts of the country.  That, and according to news reports, this year has already seen twice as many "named" tropical storms in the oceans as is the average.  And still there are those who dismiss any concern over climate change.  It could well be that these severe and spasmodic weather systems end up dismissing them, driving the facts of the matter home.

In the meantime, the gauged argument has found some measure of detente.  Both maintain their earlier divergent reports, but both agree that in this light of morning another 1/4" has fallen.  And everything -- bean and gourd and bulb and even ivy -- seems to be smiling and happy.

Most of all, perhaps, me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gloria Gaynor Sunflower

Gloria Gaynor Sunflower by Taproot Garden
Gloria Gaynor Sunflower, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.
In 1978 R&B/disco singer Gloria Gaynor released what has since become an iconic anthem of defiance and resiliance titled "I Will Survive." The song topped the pop charts at #1, and later received a Grammy award in 1980 for "Best Disco Recording" -- what some might view to be an oxymoron.

"Did you think I'd crumble?Did you think I'd lay down and die?
Oh, no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive
I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give
And I'll survive, I will survive, I will survive."

It might as well be the theme song of this sunflower whose 8-inch blossom asserted itself in the garden this morning. This would be one of those sunflowers nibbled to a nub outside the old fence by rabbits or some such critters shortly after sprouting this spring. Indeed, it's not growing where I planted it. This is one of those mysterious growths that has emerged serendipitously in the midst of the potato rows -- transplanted, perhaps, by the same rabbits who devoured its siblings -- or the winds, or the floods, or the garden gods. Safely now inside the new fence, it has had the privilege of growing unassaulted.

As it turns out, it has homogeneous neighbors -- 3 or 4 other sunflowers of equal or taller proportion rising up amidst the potatoes, still holding their colors close to the stalk. But any day now they, too, will take their turn on the disco floor and assert to the rabbits and the deer and the birds and me that they, too, will survive -- indeed, have done so.

Blessedly so, thank you very much. You are beautiful, indeed.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Seeing Beyond the Blemishes

It could be a sequel to the story of Goldilocks -- "Goldilocks and the multiple tomatoes."  One is bound to be "too big." 
The one on top is bound to be "too small." 
Perhaps that one on the side is "just right." 

Maybe, but those three foundational orbs in the picture are the first of the Brandywines -- those almost softball-size freighters of exploding flavor.  The granddaddies of the garden.  The motherlode of summer perfection -- no offense dear sweetcorn -- that strikes a holy marriage of sugar and acid.  The tiny cherry ones are sweet.  The Amish Pastes are interesting.  The Cherokee Purple and Black Krim deserve kudos of their own.  But the Brandywines...  Heart be still!

I certainly have much yet to learn.  The cracking is my fault -- a clumsiness for which I owe God, the universe, Mother Nature and the tomatoes themselves an apology of the highest order.  Too much water, according to today's reading, at just the wrong time -- the common mistake of gardeners and parents alike who want too much from their little ones too soon, and whose impatience prompts them to give too much.  And it's true; I was too attentive and too impatient.  I cracked them with kindness. 

But as can be similarly said of those gardeners and parents, the external blemishes and imperfections only hold our eyes for an instant.  Once the insides capture our attention the superficialities fade into forgottenness like email spam. 

And so it is that summer's tomatoes -- the sunbursting, chin-dripping nectars of heaven -- are re-teaching me precious life lessons about what constitutes perfection... produce...

...and people. 

When all is said and done, the cracks don't really matter.  What's really important is the taste of what drips through them, and leads you further toward the meatiness deeper within. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

More Than the Garden to Savor

Early this morning, in the cool of yet another in this string of mornings that feel more like October than July, we walked the prairie path.  We hadn't been around it in weeks -- heat, I suppose, in those earlier days of summer; and travel and, at the very least, distraction.  It needs mowing -- nature's miscellany has begun to encroach and pop up along the way; intruding branches, sprouting weeds and spreading brush -- but the surrounding grasses are tall and stately, brushed with Queen Anne's Lace and  polka-dotted with wildflower blossoms of yellow and lavender and blue.  We commented as we passed the hives that the bees must surely be enjoying the flowering pantry.

By the time we rounded the base of the circle and turned back toward the house our shoes were wet with dew.  Not ready to end our circuit we opted for the side path that branches off to the east and eventually dead-ends at the fire pit.  It was there, off in that direction and from that proximate vantage point, that Lori called attention to the tree and confirmed what she thought she had noticed from the distant window last evening:
Lots of them.
Dotting the branches like ornaments at Christmas. 
Our delight at their discovery was matched only by our mystification.  This, after all, is not our first exposure to this season here.
Where were these apples last summer? 
Or where were we?
Did last year's heat and drought suffocate their development?
Or were they there and we were too distracted to see?

They aren't questions we are likely to answer.  But this year we noticed, and will continue to do so as the fruit hopefully ripens and eventually add themselves to our harvest basket that is more presently dominated by squashes and tomatoes and the rest of the treasures inside the fence.  They are precious enough and I am unspeakably grateful for them.  But these surprise ones, unprotected and unsolicited, out on the isolated tree and heretofore unseen, may well, for their unexpectedness, prove to be even sweeter. 

It sort of gives me pause to look around more carefully and wonder what other fruit might be hanging where I least expected it to be.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Tighter View and a Good Night's Sleep

The world looks different when viewed through the lens of a garden trench.  Eight inches wide, six inches deep, 25 feet long, seasoned with manure and webbed with weeds and vine or stalk or leaf, it is a narrow frame, viewed from the knees and in close detail.  From that vantage point it is the basics that take center stage -- what belongs, what is encroaching; what's vigorous and what has wilted or been chewed; what needs lifting and tying and what prefers to be left alone.  Are the bugs present beneficial or destructive?  What needs more time on the vine and what should be plucked and brought inside for dinner?

They are simple, ground level questions, answers for which drive toward still more elemental concerns about moisture, soil content and character, microbial activity, spacing and sunlight.  What are the needs, how does nature satisfy them, and what are the inhibitors in the way?  The latter might include this spring's overly generous rains followed closely by last month's high heat and stingy clouds; Monday night's fierce winds and the ever-threatening battalions of rabbits and deer and beetles and worms.  As to the former, there are the obvious fertilizers and rains, sunlight and time, the incredible will of the seed to sprout and flourish and fruit, and of course me.  I have, in the planting and tending, fitted into that ground level economy and try to do my part, as the sweated through clothes and empty Gatorade bottles bear witness.

I track such elemental questions and considerations back across the rest of my experience along with the mud on my shoes, creating something of a mess.  It's harder to get interested in the miscellany that fills the newscasts and conversations.  I don't care what they name the new royal baby.  I have not invested time parsing Miley Cyrus' lyrics; I have mustered neither curiosity about the Kardashian's latest forays in fame nor concern about Lindsay Lohan's current well-being or legal status.  Congressional melodrama doesn't even rise to the level of a bad sit-com.  And if the government wants to waste time listening to my phone conversations or reading my emails I can only apologize for the boredom that will inevitably ensue; I can't seem to muster either righteous outrage or patriotic defense.  When held up against the health of the soil or the miracle of growth or the ecstasy of that long-awaited BLT, all that other seems thinly trivial if not altogether silly.

And I have to admit that it feels like a gift to be so tired at the end of the day to simply fall asleep without the least bit of appetite for the 10 pm digest of the day's earth-shattering events.  After all, there will be weeds to pull in the morning, water jugs to fill and dispense, and, with any luck, tomatoes and peppers and squash to pick.

Which sounds far more earth-shattering to me.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Freebies Flourishing Near the Back

The potato corner of the garden has been a surprise and a wonder. Occupying the five northwestern most rows, they include a like number of varieties -- "Yukon Gold," "Yukon Gem," "German Butterball," "Red Thumb," plus some unlabeled variety that was left over from last year and allowed to sprout in the basement storeroom like a Medusa village on the countertop.  At least those are the plantings that I knew about.  Those trenches, it turns out, have more to offer than spuds alone.  

I had noticed aberrational stalks and leaves as the plants began to emerge.  Different shapes; different growth patterns; different colors than the rest -- in virtually every row.  I didn't think much about it earlier in the season, chalking up the variations to the vagaries of "nature" where, after all, not everything always matches.  Eventually, however, the more fundamental dimensions of the differences refused any further glossing explanations.  Something besides potatoes were presenting themselves.  "Some-things" actually.  Popping up here and there were plants that looked conspicuously squash-like.  And then there was something else -- familiar looking, but (incredulously now, looking back) I couldn't name.  I watched; and waited.  And all of it grew -- the potatoes, the unidentified squash-like vines, and the mystery foliage.  There is, I now recognize, even a marigold variety popping up that I had grown from seed last year in the greenhouse. 

When tomatillos began to emerge from the branches of the mystery bush that "mystery" was solved.  How I failed to make that identification earlier baffles me since there are multiples of them growing elsewhere in the garden.  But that "elsewhere" qualifier is an equal part of my surprise.  There were, indeed, some tomatillo bushes planted in those rows last summer, though they never amounted to much.  In fact, I counted the 2012 tomatillo crop a failure.  Apparently the remnants rallied over the winter, in search of horticultural redemption.  

The other interloping plant is more of a puzzlement.  They are, indeed, a squash-like plant, with bright yellow blossoms just like the zucchinis and yellow straight-necks, but nestled low and largely hidden by the vines and the encroaching grasses I discovered maturing several white pumpkin-like fruits.  Thus far the size of a baseball, I haven't a clue what to make of them.  I planted no such varietal last year or this.  There were some winter squash seeds I planted far too late last fall, but they were sown on the front side of the garden 50 feet away, and were ultimately ravaged by frost shortly after blossom set.  I neither recognize this fruit, nor fathom how it came to grow in this spot -- in multiples.  Rabbits, I suppose; or birds moving things around in one way or another -- but from where?  And when?  
The questions, of course, are curiosity rather than concern.  I count the misplaced plants a grace -- like discovering an Easter egg in October.  Seeds, after all, are meant to grow and these have miraculously managed to succeed at it.  I am only grateful that they found a habitable soil and hospitable neighbors, and will look forward to enjoying the fruitful precipitate of their sojourn.  

And in the future I will put an asterisk in my garden planner beside the names of seeds I've purchased and sown.  "These," my footnote will clarify, "are only what I know to be planted.

It's anybody's guess what all might really emerge.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Already Thinking Ahead

With the violent storms of last night came a pleasant change in the weather -- highs today projected to only reach 80 instead of the mid-90's, with nighttime temperatures down to the 60's.  After a few weeks of sweating through all my clothing by 9 a.m. each morning, it is a welcome shift.  We had the presence of mind, last night, to fill up empty gallon jugs from the rain barrels while the lightning was still flashing in the distance.  This morning we rose to barrels once again refilled.  Grace, indeed.

In the coolness of the early morning, then, the dogs and I headed out to the garden.  I began with a closer inspection of the burgeoning rows.  Yesterday I discovered two okra spears almost 8-inches long.  I had seen the tiny nubs last week, but foolishly I hadn't thought much about them in the ensuing days.  I should know better.  As with squash, you'd best not turn your back on okra.  Blink your eye and it has morphed beyond usefulness.  I had a similar experience with a cucumber today, although it was one I hadn't even noticed before.  Discovering it just today it was already the size of a salami.  It will join the okras in the museum of missed opportunities.

The harvest continued with another handful of cherry tomatoes, a couple of useful cucumbers, a pepper or two, and the first full-sized tomatoes of the season -- one "4th of July", a golden, and several "Cherokee Purple".  Life just keeps getting better.

With the garlic harvested, seven rows have become available for a fall crop -- these, added to the couple of rows planted in the spring that never delivered.  That "availability", of course, means hoeing, fertilizing, tilling and broad forking.  And then actually planting, lest I forget.  Today I finished the bulk of those preparations -- with a brief surprise.

A couple of weeks ago I purchased plastic tubs in which to store the various ingredients of the "Complete Organic Fertilizer" that I loaded home this spring in 50 lb sacks.  A bag of linseed meal.  A bag of soybean meal.  A bag of kelp meal.  A bag of agricultural lime.  A bag of gypsum.   A bag of bone meal.  A bag of bone and meat meal.  A 50 lb sack of each.  Of course I was working from memory when I bought the tubs, which naturally means I brought home one too few.  For the past few weeks, then, the bag of kelp meal sat homeless atop the other tubs until this morning when I wagged the requisite tub out to the shed.  Preparing to dump the meal into the tub I opened the sack and discovered a thin layer of shredded sack, and two dead mice who had apparently and quite literally eaten themselves to death.  Choosing to label the carcasses "organic matter" I ignored them and poured away.

I am still expecting a few more packets of the fall seeds that I ordered, but the rest are already in hand -- along with concomitant visions of their anticipated harvest.  And the rows are officially ready to receive their new residents.  Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night's sleep, the resting of some sore muscles, and the invitation of another cool morning.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Accepting the Bad with the Good

Summer 2013 by Taproot Garden
Summer 2013, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

There is, of course, a pricetag to this summer bounty. It's hot. In the springtime, when the seeds are shaking with anticipation in their packages, and the tiller is reopening the rows between the neatly spaced rain showers, the air is fetching and cool. After a winter's bitter hibernation it's hard to find a compelling reason to remain inside. There is a kind of horizontal gravitational pull to draws us outdoors. It is the fresh-scented glory of relief and anticipation all rolled into one.

By mid-July, however, the rains have become more circumspect and the sun more assertive. In the 90's by noon, any activity in the garden is divided between the early morning and the late evening, with even those demanding their due. It's hot -- did I say that? -- and this week drippingly humid. Rivulets of perspiration stream from my scalp and pool in my ears and eyes. Brushing away the flow leaves a mud streaked camouflage from hands more recently in the weeds.

Humid, and did I mention hot?

But if the heat puts the brakes on me, it toes the garden's accelerator. The squashes are popping -- 10 zucchinis and 4 yellow straightneck and 5 sunburst brought in just this week -- and the peppers are adding their numbers. It won't be long before the tomatoes are crowding the counter...

...and today I started digging garlic. Thirty-six heads of German Extra Hardy came out of row 1. In the coming days I will continue with the remaining 6 rows swelling with 4 other varieties. And then we'll start figuring out what to do with all that flavor.

Which is to say that the price of mid-summer is easily paid.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When the Rain Barrels are Empty, It's Better Than a Hose

There are inevitable compromises.  I would prefer a garden that stands free and unfettered, diligently if inelegantly carved from the prairie.  Nibbling rabbits and grazing deer, however, necessitate a fence if we are to harvest anything at all.

I would prefer that the emerging stems and spreading leaves simply have the freedom to grow unmolested.  Last year's holocaust wrought by invading beetles, aphids and miscellaneous worms convinced me that some defensive, albeit organic, measures were in order.  

I would prefer to simply cut the soil and sow the seeds and let nature do the rest.  Heat and drought and unpredictable rains, however, mean some hose time is inevitable.  The rain barrels, after all, can only hold so much. Last year that "only so much" was exhausted in a matter of days, meaning the hose and I got very well acquainted -- a hundred feet of it plus a spray nozzle, row by row by 40-something rows.  This year, then, I compromised yet again.  Surely there is nothing particularly salvific about standing there for hours holding a hose and guiding a spray.  Surely my time could be better and more productively spent if water could be delivered a more automatic, less mind-numbing way.  I could do something weed or...perhaps even read...or write.

This spring, then, with the kind assistance of a patient retailer who listened to my description of what I thought I wanted and morphed it into what he could tell I actually needed, I became the proud owner of a drip irrigation kit.  Consistent -- even excessive -- rainfall gave me permission to avoid opening the box (these sorts of mechanical forays not being my forte) until recent days.  To my surprise and relief, assembly and installation turned out to be simple...and successful.  This, with only minor grimacing, jabs into that, with the strip of the drip tape rolled out into the trenches and tied off at the ends.  As of today, both sides of the garden are outfitted and, with a simple quick-release of the hose to shift between the two, the entirety can be effortlessly slaked while I go about my business.

There is, of course, yet another compromise.  All this tubing laying around makes it precarious to mow between the trenches.  Alas, nothing is completely easy.

This is, after all, a garden.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dinner as an Exercise in Partnering

There is something inherently winsome about filling your dinner plate with food that you have grown.  And suddenly that is easier to do.  The lettuce has been looking for an appreciative audience for a couple of weeks now; the squashes and tomatoes are just beginning to offer themselves.  We snipped spinach and kale and chard last night for the first time, and plucked several peppers along with a single prickly cucumber.  All that, and it is clearly just getting started. It's as though the garden has taken a cue from the marketing slogan used by my beloved Blue Bell Ice Cream made at that "little creamery in Brenham, TX" -- "Eat all you want; we'll make more."  The miscellaneous bushes and vines are industriously making more.

It's time to dig the garlic.  The potatoes and carrots are well underway, and the okra is beginning to come on -- miniature spears, at this point, that in no time will be finger-long and aching for the skillet.  And the tomatoes are taunting -- heavy orbs sagging the branches, tenaciously green and aloof; indifferently, or perhaps defiantly waiting for their day.

But that day will come, and it will have been a partnership.  Nature will have done the lion's share, of course, but I have done my part -- seeding, warming, watering and lighting; transplanting and transplanting and tying and and protecting.  And watching.  Of that I have done more than my share.  Watching and waiting and tasting in my sleep.  Once upon a time, I have read, the seeds grew wild and free -- independent and reckless.  The fields were a salad bowl; the ditches were a tray; fence rows trellised whatever the birds had planted.  But with our domestication of the varieties has come a certain dependence.  They need us if they are to productively grow.  Which is only appropriate since is becoming more and more plain that we need them to productively thrive.

Clumsily, then, I'll do my part -- at least the parts I know to do while hopefully stumbling onto the rest of things I need to do.  I will feed them in the trust that they, in turn, will return the favor.  Thus far, I think, I am getting the better end of the deal.  I can't wait to see what will be ready for dinner tonight.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Remembering to Enjoy the Fruits of the Labors

It has, after all, been busy.  I won't go into the details but it has been hard enough just keeping up with the basics -- mowing, trimming, weeding and the like.  Blessedly, periodic rain showers have thus far taken irrigation off the task list, and so far the bugs have kept their distance.  Still, attentions have been squeezed.  Some key opportunities have been overlooked -- like enjoying the fruits of my labor.  There is lettuce that needs cutting and consuming.  Spinach is almost ready to enjoy, and the radishes -- planted quite late as something of an after-thought -- are swelling pink above ground.   I spotted a juvenile cucumber yesterday, and any day one or another of the squash varieties will push itself from blossom to bulge.  I will need to keep more careful watch.  Harvest, after all, is the point of it all.

That said, we plucked our first "Egg Yolk" tomato from the vine on the deck last evening -- bright yellow and  bite-sized -- and slurped down its heavenly first-of-the-season sweetness before I could even take a picture of it.  More are mustering their colors.

It's time to commence some seriously savored eating!

So I need to start paying better attention, and better organizing time.  The garlic planted last fall was the first to show its foliage, and I have been mindful of the graceful scapes spiraling from their centers for several days now.  But it has stood their bereft and ignored -- an inexplicably low priority.

Until this morning.

Dripping from the exertion of some post driving in the humid heat and late for an appointment in town, I was hurriedly closing up the shed when the scapes, in the back of the garden, waved their hands like eager school children imploring the teacher to "pick me; pick me."  And so I did.  Retrieving the knife I had set aside for precisely this purpose, I slashed my way down one row, then another.  There are more to cut -- there was time for but two of the seven rows -- but it's begun.

And tonight there will be garlic pesto to show for it.

You'll want to keep your distance --unless, of course, you are hungry.

Friday, June 14, 2013

It's Only Excessive If You Keep it All

I suppose I should take it as a compliment.  After all, the stretching stems and healthy leaves look beautiful -- and tasty -- to me.  The rogue rabbit or two breaching the defenses have long since weighed in with their opinion.  But last evening, while enjoying dinner in the sunroom overlooking the garden, Lori spotted a deer -- first on one side of the fence, then beside the garden shed, and before long inside the fence.  I have known from the outset that my flimsy little fence represented precious little defense -- more of a comfort to me than a deterrent to anything that really wanted in.  And deer had explored the garden space all winter.  This, however, was the first encroachment of which I have been aware during growing season.

I am perhaps over-zealous.  Down the road from us just a little way is a farmhouse with a nice size garden situated between the house and the vast acres of crop rows.  Wide open; not a stick of anything erected to keep anything away.  It is the portrait of horticultural hospitality -- as if to broadcast, "come and get it; supper's almost ready."  From the looks of the house and the field and the garden itself, they have been at it considerably longer than I have, and quite likely know something I do not about the vicissitudes of garden sharing.  Maybe it is the drift of pesticide from the fields nearby at which the rodents and rabbits and deer turn up their noses.  Maybe it is a corollary to the ancient parenting wisdom that "kids" only want what they can't have, and are completely disinterested in that which is freely available.  Or perhaps they have a rifle perched in the window.  I'll be watching through the season to see what I can observe.

We, on the other hand, sprang into action -- Lori first, flying out the door to the deck to clap her hands and speak a loud and discouraging word.  Ex-principals are good at that sort of thing.  The deer paused its culinary survey, returned Lori a sullen stare, and finally obliged -- leaping from a standing start and effortlessly clearing the fence, then sauntering without concern into the woods.

No doubt to return sometime after dark.

Perhaps, as with the poison ivy that has begun to trouble us, it is a not-so-subtle reminder that we are not in charge here.  We share this place with nature -- which, of course, was something of the point of moving here.  We co-exist -- sometimes happily, sometimes bucolically, sometimes symbiotically, and as just now, sometimes competitively.  The challenge, I suspect, is less about prevailing -- "winning" in any conventional sense -- and more about adapting; finding here, even in the garden, some expression of common space.

As I have confessed from the beginning:  I don't "know" anything about what I am doing out here -- other than this humbling recognition of how much I need to know.  I was prepared for the books and the mentors and the internet and seed packets to teach me.  It hadn't occurred to me that the wildlife would take their turn at the podium as well.

Perhaps that's the real reason I have planted excessively:  because I will need to share.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Prayer at the Roots of the Row

There is something almost prayerful about weeding.  The posture bears more than a passing resemblance -- down on knees, head slightly bowed.  And like the most enduring of those spiritual disciplines weeding is methodical, repetitious, and centering.  The world, for all its complicated grandeur, shrinks to the size of this one blade of grass that must be extricated in the name of purity.  In fact, purity is the prevailing value and the guiding rubric.  Only the intended is permitted to stay -- although I have come to a better appreciation of the biblical parable's resistance to separating the weeds from the wheat too hastily because of likely mis-identification.  Last year I was ruthless in this regard, tugging out any frilly green wisp that didn't immediately announce its identity as an almost certain interloper.  Which is another way of admitting that I unwittingly uprooted lots of nascent carrots and beets and beans.  This season I have tried to re-calibrate a bit, practicing a measure more of patience, and extending the grace period of ambiguity.  I remind myself that Nature doesn't weed clear rows.  This is required to grow alongside That, companion planting before it was popular.

Of course not everything survives the competition.  As Tennyson rightly noted, nature is "red in tooth and claw" -- an observation as true in the soil as in the forest or the city.  A Darwinian ruthlessness plays itself out among roots and microbes competing for space, for moisture, for nutrients, for light and life.  But there are synergies, and occasionally simple detente.

In prayer, then, and in gardening there is a benevolently careful discernment of what belongs and what interferes; what needs protective nurture and encouragement and what requires excisive action.
de·rac·i·nate  (d-rs-nt)
tr.v. de·rac·i·nat·edde·rac·i·nat·ingde·rac·i·nates
1. To pull out by the roots; uproot.
2. To displace from one's native or accustomed environment.

That, it seems to me, is the work of life -- figuring out what oughtt to stay and what must be deracinated and rid.

And so begins my days in this season of indiscriminate growth -- knee-bound, attentively imposing a little prayerful discrimination on my garden rows...

...and myself.

So far the lettuce appears the richer for it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Set Free -- or at least Set Out

Just last Sunday the Children’s Sermon featured a small bicycle with training wheels, and focused on the guiding and protective care of parents who must eventually detach those extra wheels.  For just over 10 weeks now I have been tending seedlings in the greenhouse -- managing, as best I could, the temperature and moisture and light.  Some withered under my ministrations, but most grew in stature and depth and girth.  This week I finally got them into the ground -- tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and eggplants, lettuces and herbs plus a flower or two.  Over the past week I had been spreading and covering the seeds, but these toddler plants I continued to nurture and protect in their controlled environment.  

But they had begun to chaff at their confinement.  Stems and leaves that only days ago had looked vibrant and virile now seemed to languish in their cells -- not quite wilting, but despondent; as though weary from running into walls.  I am not so old that I couldn't remember the feeling.  It was time to kick them out of the nest.  

By week’s end they had all been transplanted -- freed from their cups and given over to their innate capacities.  And all the good and evil that await them.

The depths of soil.
The movement of wind.
The nourishment of rain.
The crowding and predations of other creatures struggling to survive.

The training wheels are off.  Foreshadowing the inevitable bumps and scrapes, pea-sized hail peppered that first exposed evening.  Yesterday we chased out an interloping rabbit, and this morning the thunder is slinging down the rain -- the first of several days of forecasted rain. Who knows if it will prove too much?

Gardening is a lot like parenting I have heard others say -- the intrinsic tension between protecting and setting free -- and I feel that conflicted twinge of parental apprehension.  There is, after all, a certain security in the greenhouse, but those 2-inch birthing boxes do not lend themselves to bearing fruit.  They can't stay protected --confined -- forever.

And now it is accomplished.  There is still a part for me to play -- weeding, trussing, feeding on occasion and managing the moisture -- but the real work, moving forward, is up to them.  Any fruit will be up to them, and the growing season is barely begun.

Outside, the plants already look somehow healthier; stronger, despite the perils of their first days in the elements -- or because of them.  It’s too early to know what is happening with the seeds, but as for the seedlings, the transplanted children of winter nurture, they -- we -- are off to a good start.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just a Little Help Loosening Up

Though there hasn’t been measurable precipitation now in several days, my work boots kicked up sprays of dew trudging out to the garden early this morning.  Days have been warming, but the nights remain cool and heavy.  That, and the ground is saturated.  it has been difficult to get much cultivating done this year in preparation for the seedlings and seeds.  Perhaps it was the last gasp of winter, last week’s bonus snow fall, but I'll not wager too heavily on that “last” part. It’s not even Mother’s Day; who knows what yet could meteorologically happen?  As some measure of my optimism, however, I did return the snow shovel yesterday to its hook in the garage. 

Anxious to seize this interruption of good weather, I grabbed the broad-fork and opened the fence.  I had managed to till several of the trenches last week before the weather reverted, but there is still much to do.  I concentrated yesterday's available time on mixing up and distributing the organic fertilizer.  Today more muscles would be required.  After bumping into descriptions and recommendations in my readings for over a year now, this winter I took the plunge and ordered my own broad-fork -- a very old, perhaps even ancient, completely manual farming implement designed to deeply loosen the soil.  With its two sturdy handles and claw-like tines, the tool reaches down 14-inches, well below the churning capacity of a power tiller without turning the soil’s basic architecture into a homogenized soup like the tiller. 

But did I mention that it is completely manual?  As in its only power comes from the upper body of the user.  So, in other words, it’s work.  Basic, old-fashioned, physical work -- the kind that makes you sleep well at night, at least after the ibuprofen has kicked in. 

But I rather enjoy the effort.  I can see what I have accomplished, I can comprehend and appreciate the intended value, and it feels at least symbolically like, with all this loosening, I am doing something redemptive.  After all, the whole world is uptight, not just my garden.  Neighbors and families, faith communities and governing bodies -- indeed whole nations -- have become so hyper-sphinctered it’s no wonder we pinball through our days intellectually and emotionally and morally and politically and militarily flipping and colliding without ever really connecting.  We are packed and wound so tight.

A couple of hours later and I have forked all but six of my garden rows.  There is much more work to do, but though I have more time, my strength is spent.  Washing the accumulated mud from the tines, I feel some satisfaction at the good I have contributed and the potential for growth and fruit I have encouraged, sore muscles notwithstanding.  And prying off my dew-wet boots to go inside, I can't help wondering what the broad-fork equivalent might be for Congress and the rest of us who could similarly use a little loosening up.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

First Forsythia

First Forsythia by Taproot Garden
First Forsythia, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

There is a “coming-ness” to the garden these reticent spring days. Though the welcomed cycle of April rains has delayed the commencement of ground work, the lingering night frosts and chilly days have not deterred the daffodils and the sudden lemon-burst of yellow from the tiny forsythia we planted last year which stubbornly, unexpectedly bested the drought. It's dogged will to root and now blossom triggers an itching optimism for last year’s other plantings.

Indeed, the adolescent lilacs are sprinkled with bulging buds, and the grove of fruit trees reminds me of a Lamaze class full of swollen bellies. Tulips in the front beds are teasing, and poppy foliage anticipates color not too far distant. So far, the three service berry trees I planted last week during an intermission of sunlight are sustaining their buds and leaves, and the grass is Ireland-green.

In the greenhouse are signs of promise. Casualties notwithstanding -- sprouts that emerged and, for reasons I haven't discerned, withered -- there area shelves of green leaves, and in recent days 65 tomato and tomatillo seedlings moved into larger containers to encourage longer, stronger root systems. There is anticipatory movement itching the soil, as if something were about to erupt. Which of course it is.

But not quite yet.

It is, in the waking of spring, that spellbound reverie of semi-consciousness just beyond sleep but before the clarity and cognition of morning. Thoughts form but remain just out of reach; genius, like a butterfly, near but elusive.

It won't be long before it is all unleashed -- the colors, but also the frenzy of plowing and planting and feeding and weeding, watering and worrying and watching and waiting and, if the vegetable gods deign to smile this direction, plucking and finally tasting.

There is a “coming-ness” still to it all -- even to the salivation at the thought of that first tomato. Not yet, but not too far away.

And then we’ll see.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Entomophily by Taproot Garden
Entomophily, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

So the neighborhood is going condo. So to speak. The development has its roots in a phone over a year ago from a local beekeeper who was interested in keeping hives on our property. The heat and drought delayed progress -- apparently even bee libido was parched -- but this spring brought renewed interest. Another few phone calls, installation of rough platforms near the back tree line, and before I was even aware of the move, four hives took up residence behind some trees a hundred yards or so north of the garden.

It remains to be seen, of course, what benefit these new neighbors will contribute. At the very least we should be honey-richer. Though I'll not be involved in the actual bee keeping, honey is the rental currency. That, of course, and the entomophily -- the pollination of flowering plants by insects. At the very least the fruit trees should enjoy the attention. With any luck, a few other things in the garden will benefit as well.

In the meantime we are simply enjoying our minor participation in the diversification of the neighborhood. And who knows, we may even learn something. After all, there is something intriguing about the principle of taking bits and pieces of promise from here and there -- the raw materials of creative possibility -- and spreading them around, eventually giving rise to wonders both fruitful...

...and sweet. Maybe all of us could take a page from this play book and instead of resenting the diversity, relish in it instead, and make of ourselves something sweeter still.

Why should bees have all the fun?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Growth Kale

New Growth Kale by Taproot Garden
New Growth Kale, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.
It's too early to know about May's flowers, but April showers are certainly doing their part. The driveway is once again a muddy river, but the rain barrels are full as the planting season nears -- no trivial matter after last year's drought.  After a weekend of short-sleeve days the past few have been chillier and wet, with new possibilities of freezing.  Winter, in other words, has not completely let go, but the grass, we were commenting just this morning, has never seemed greener; the earth, itself, seemingly demanding spring. Muddy they may be, but these are days of new beginnings.

Beyond the greening lawn, beyond the emergent bulbs in the flower beds, beyond even the willowy sprouts peeking up in the greenhouse, the kale quietly asserts its own confirmation. Seeded in horizontal pots on the first of November, and lodged on greenhouse shelves along with collards and scallions, arugula and romaine, the kale has been small but intrepid through the winter months.  Row covering fabric provided the necessary extra level of protection, sparing me the need of a heater.  The more tender lettuces have blessed us with fresh salads despite the single-digits and the blankets of snow, and we have selectively clipped the sturdier braising greens on occasion, but this latter crop has required more patience. We executed a more aggressive harvest for dinner on Easter evening, and though delightful and tasty I rather assumed that would be something of a last supper for the kale.

Watering, then, this morning and satisfying the trip's requisite survey and inventory, I could only smile at the sight of fresh growth. Jagged and bright green new leaves pushing aside the larger pale ones, the kale has gathered its energies for a second run.

Why would I have thought it finished? It is, after all, Eastertide -- the very season of new beginnings in life.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Nearing the Garden Stage

There is that moment in an infant’s development when he has managed to crawl, managed to pull himself erect, and even dared to momentarily let go of the table leg, but stands teetering -- caught between the urge to walk and the security of holding on.  As spring lurches, by fits and starts, into reliable presence I feel myself similarly teetering between the greenhouse and the garden.  Anxious to begin in earnest with all the fruit and physicality the soil represents, I recede into the relative security of the sunny enclosure with its neatly lighted rows of sprouting seed cells and the concise sprinkles of the watering can.  Not much can happen as long as the growth is confined there -- but that’s just it.  Once transplanted to the garden, all kinds of things can happen; only a few of which are good.  There are, in other words, opportunity costs to possibility.

Since late February I have been tending seeds -- sorting the packages by germination requirements, sowing on schedule according to need, watering, warming, wooing and coaxing.  It is fiercely loving parenting, this pre-gardening business.  Just this week the last of the seeds went into their cups, and the first of the tomatoes moved up to bigger digs.  

Wispy cumin.  
Recalcitrant eggplant.  
Shy peppers
Exuberant chard.
Puppy-eyed romanesco.
Reticent lavender.

Some have crept -- patiently stretching yoga-like into vertical stem.  Others erupted after little more than a kiss of the compost -- animated by a raw and native joie de vivre.  Some teased -- keeping to themselves in subterranean mischief -- until I had abandoned their prospects, condescending only then to emerge.  Still others are, I am reconciled, stillborn.  By now, however, every time the pups and I open the door and step inside that warm and moist horticultural cocoon the garden’s foreshadowing is plain.  And soon the reality of it -- the perspirational, aspirational, and terrifyingly vulnerable work of it -- will begin.  

Which is what I ache for.  
And dread.
All at the same time.

Teetering in the liminal space between safety and soaring. 
Like so much of life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lola Tomato Sprout

Lola Tomato by Taproot Garden
Lola Tomato, a photo by Taproot Garden on Flickr.

Some sprouts emerge like a sentinel, straight and proud; others, like this tomato varietal, unroll, yoga-like, as if emerging from the fetal position. Truth be told, I had essentially given up on this heirloom varietal. The small seeding cells have remained blank and austere since their late February inhabitation. Other seeds had sprouted -- though slowly -- and appear to be gaining strength. These six cells, however, remained quiet.

I had selected these seeds for more than horticultural reasons. The variety is, indeed, an heirloom; and only a few seeds were included in the tiny envelope secured in the larger package. There apparently is something special about the breed. But this particular tomato shares its name with my paternal grandmother -- Lola -- and I couldn't resist the purchase and the chance to cultivate this symbolic way of bringing her back to life.

But the weeks have passed, and the soil remained still.

Perhaps it is the past couple of warmer days that have stirred the movement; perhaps these particular seeds have taken their own peculiar time. Whatever the reason or the prompt, this afternoon the upper back and shoulders of this fragile stem broke through. By tomorrow morning I suspect it will have straightened and found its better posture. Perhaps then, a neighbor or two to join it. Indeed, in the last 24 hours the shelved neighborhood has shown considerable activity and progress.

I have often observed that it doesn't take very many birdies to keep a golfer coming back. I suppose the same can be said about sprouting seeds for a gardener.

Already I feel like coming back -- like spring might offer something promising after all.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Gift of Even Tiny Signs of Life

It still seems unfathomable to me -- as ineffably mysterious as Jesus turning water into wine.  How is it that those tiny seeds can become stems and leaves and edible things?  I'll admit that I was losing faith.  Since February 25 I have been talking, with no indication that any horticultural ears were listening.  For two weeks now those compost-filled cells into which I had secreted various vegetable seeds have greeted me each morning with the same blank landscape, though I have dutifully -- albeit less and less optimistically -- sprinkled saved rain water onto their surface. 

Until today.  Checking back in my notes from last year's first season, the first sprouts of green emerged 12 days after sowing, with subsequent varieties appearing in successive days.  Monday -- this year's comparable benchmark -- passed without even a hint of stirrings.  Today, however -- day 14 -- just as I considering vegetable abortion in the interest of saving water, tiny green shoots emerged from the jalapenos and tomatillos.  Looking still closer, signs of life are insinuating movements among still others of the "crop."  Though it is still too early to tell what all might eventually mature and what might still fizzle beneath the soil, nature has yet again afforded me a helpful and humbling lesson in patience.

Everything in its own time.

Savoring, then, the memory of the salad we enjoyed earlier in the week from those seeds I sowed in November, and taking inspiration from these tiny nudgings of progress, I settle back down to the satisfying anticipation of a garden that just might happen this season after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Grace of Heavy Snow

There are, of course, occasional "special assessments" charged against this lifestyle.  Not that that can't happen anywhere I suppose, but elsewhere they generally fall into the category of "emergency repair or replacement." 
A leaky roof.
A cold hot water heater.
A spent furnace.
A ruptured pipe.
Here they are the presumptive, albeit unpredictable labors of remote and relatively self-contained living.  Like snow removal.  Two years ago, as but one household among a couple of dozen in our townhome association my only winter exertion was complaining when the hired road and sidewalk crew didn't arrive as early as I wanted them to.  That, and an occasional hike up the entrance road when my car couldn't find the traction to best the icy incline and had to be parked down below.  Now five miles out of town on county roads, the last third unpaved, I am that crew -- with no one to complain about but myself. 

But we prepared.  A large hydraulic snowblower attachment replaces the lawn tractor's mowing deck in the winter, and we have gradually accumulated appropriate shovels and pushers, along with the thermal outerwear to encase us while using them.  And I'll admit that at 5:30 a.m. I had other things on my mind than snow removal -- especially since I had just accomplished it all pretty thoroughly yesterday.  As it turned out, however, yesterday's 7-inch snow was only the beginning, never mind the alluring pause that seduced me into thinking the storm had passed.  The early hour notwithstanding, Lori needed to get to work, and though I had no influence on county plows that would be needed on the longer stretches of road, the driveway was in my job description.  And the front porch and sidewalk -- 3 separate times now by this point in the day.  

Strangely, however, I don't mind the effort.  There is something almost meditative about the throbbing engine, maneuvering the tractor through the accumulated layers, aiming the plume of snow in harmless directions and mechanically painting a clearing through which the cars can pass.  The hand tools leave a clear record of accomplished good.  More importantly, after more than a year of drought I look at the snow as a gift to celebrate rather than a hassle to curse.  Though the experts in such matters caution that it will be almost impossible to fully recover moisture levels by summer, I figure every little bit helps.  In the same way that hog farmers sniff the stench and report that it "smells like money," I look at these 12-14 inches of snow and observe that "it looks like irrigation." 

The sky is brightening, and nothing seems to be falling.  The storm seems to have passed, though I've left the shovels on the front porch just in case I've been deceived again.  It's true that my muscles are hoping they won't be needed for awhile, but I feel a certain melancholy about the calm.  It's nice to be "dug out," and the road crews deserve a chance to catch up and then take a break.  But there has been something profoundly gratifying about this price I get to pay for the deep privilege of living here. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Blessing Prayer of Evening

As of today it has officially begun.  Fully a week earlier than last year I began to sow the seeds of summer.  Yes, the move is partly impatience.  The packets of seeds, ordered and delivered weeks ago, were indeed burning a hole in my closet where I had secreted them away out of Tir's canine reach.  I was anxious to get started.  But there is more to the progress than that.  Backing up from my anticipated garden opening in early-to-mid May, several of the seeds prefer that much time in the greenhouse.  Additionally, I intend to be smarter about staging the transplanting over a period of weeks to spread any hypothetical harvest.  All that, and those that are truly on the early side will have enough time to germinate and show themselves with adequate time remaining for replanting those that prove to be only shooting blanks.

There was, of course, more to it than simply dirt.  First there had to be electricity reconceived after a year's disassembly.  There are warming lights to power beneath the trays, and growing lights suspended above.  The former need to always be on, while the latter need a timer's intervention.  The heater went back in at least for these early weeks, and it needs it own electrical consideration.  Engineering is not my forte, but tonight's gala premier inspection evidenced a successful installation until it all blows a fuse.

After heating the barn, setting up work tables and organizing the packets by timing I tore open the first bag of compost and scooped full the trays.  Finally, with a deep breath and a steady hand, I nestled the tiny portents of life into their temporary home and shuttled the filled cells next door and onto the greenhouse shelves.

I wouldn't presume to know the silent broodings of a woman when she first confirms that she's pregnant, but I suspect there are both giddy anticipations and wordless fears -- of all that flourish and all that could endanger beyond the opaque curtain of that which is to be for this that is still barely more than a seed.  And I wouldn't presume to equate those stirrings of natal life with composted tomato seeds.  But, still, as I checked the lights and misted the surfaces and cast an evening's final glance along the shelves, it was a prayer that spontaneously rose as the door latched behind me.

An invocation of sorts.

A blessing prayer for nourishment, safety and, yes, growth.