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.