Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Guilty Pleasure of a Short Day

Releasing the chickens with the dawning I winced, realizing how neglectful I have been these past few days.  They have had food and water, to be sure, but not much attention.  Early morning commitments and the aggressiveness of the garden had claimed what little focus I had mustered since returning from a short family gathering in northern Minnesota -- its burgeoning rows, ripening fruit and precocious weeds considerably more assertive than the gentle clucking of the girls.  Harvest season is in full throttle, which of course calls for some responsive attentions in the kitchen.  A morning of heavy rains yesterday had further sequestered my efforts.  Today, however, my fingers just couldn't bear the thought of another weed, and the harvest can wait a few hours.  The coop deserved some fresh bedding, and the birds had earned their own share of the harvest.

Meanwhile, the morning looked and felt like it needed to throw up.


Every footstep kicked splatters of dew.  Even the hens seemed preoccupied with their own distractions.  I unenthusiastically dismantled the canopy frame left over from recent entertaining and stowed the parts in the shed before gathering up the poultry supplies and lugging them through the gate.  Yesterday's rain had sogged the feeder despite being under the run's cover, requiring some clearing and freshening.  The coop, itself, was begging for serious attention -- the details of which I'll spare the reader.  Those accomplished, I sprinkled in a healthy application of diatomaceous earth, fresh bedding and a scattering of scratch and then tried to buy their forgiveness with some cucumbers and bolted lettuce.

It's easy, I have discovered, to anthropomorphize the chickens -- reading into their behaviors and reactions the kinds of emotions that I would likely feel; translating their expressions into English.  It's a fanciful, even specious pasttime, I know, but I nonetheless felt their absolution.  While they pecked and scratched and hoarded and happily busied themselves with the largesse, I stiffly stowed the buckets and bags until tomorrow and, deluding myself into believing that I had satisfied the needs of the day I shuffled toward the door...

...and felt a drop.

And then two.

And with a resonant, rumbling belch the sky finally heaved its own cleansing satisfaction, erupting with the downpour for which it had been aching all morning.

And blessed with an unmerited but legitimating reprieve, I happily slipped inside.

Until tomorrow, at which time the cucumbers will have swelled beyond use and the tomatoes will be aching with the ripeness of a dairy cow overdue for a milking.

I think about that with a guilty smile as I open the novel that will be due soon at the library and pick up where I left off.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Roots, Pests, and Flowers

Last winter we attended an organic farm conference in Wisconsin -- an epicenter of workshops, tools, products, educational resources and informal conversation.  We did our best to blend in -- Carhartt jackets, jeans, etc. -- and nodded appropriately when the topic turned to fruit tree root stock and insect gestation schedules as though we understood.  As I headed off one afternoon to another pest management session Lori took in a workshop focused on flowers.  She returned enthusiastic, armed with a daunting list of unusual flowers to raise and cut and display.  We happily set to work tracking down the seeds, several of which turned out to be obscure and hard to find.  We did the best we could, ordered what we could find, and when the time seemed right filled a dizzying number of seed cups in the greenhouse with visions of color in our heads.

Our flower launch was unimpressive.  A few of the seeds sprouted, only to wither prematurely.  Early on I blamed some rodent mischief and vandalism -- and I am sticking to my story -- but others simply failed to launch.  The most charitable assessment I can offer is that it proved to be an inauspicious beginning.

By then, however, we had a problem.  The workshop leader had spoken with particular urgency about the value of flowers around a farm's entrance -- at the base of the sign, decorating the approach.  And we were enamored with the idea.  We wanted flowers.  Around the sign.  We wanted color.  Bright color.  But the seeds had not delivered.  Concurrently we had begun working with the Department of Natural Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Service about reestablishing native prairie grasses and pollinator wildflowers on the three acres north of the garden.  We liked the idea of wildflowers and had already ordered a couple of small bags with the thought of simply spreading them in the field.  As the larger plan began to develop and be implemented, we realized those little bags would be available for some other application.

Reenter the conversation about the entry.

We tilled a patch about the size of a full-size bed stretching out from the sign.  We prepared the soil.  we scattered the seed in two sections -- a "yellow flower section" and a "blue flower section" -- and commenced watering.  Given the seemingly insignificant volume of seeds that were subsequently spread over three acres, the seeds we scattered into our little entrance bed could probably have covered an acre of land, but we were hoping for dense and impressive results.

And we got them.  Shoots began to appear in stellar concentrations.  As with so much of what we are doing around here, however, we had no idea what was sprouting.  Weeds?  Grass?  Wildflowers?  Who knew?  Drawing direction from the biblical parable of the wheat and the tares, we opted to pretty much let it all grow without interference, divining that the interlopers would be more easily identifiable once they matured.

And so we watered.

And the seeds grew.

And finally flowers bloomed.

Lots of them.


To be sure, we still haven't much of a clue about which are the weeds and which are the wildflowers, but noting that they all look quite attractive, we concluded, "who cares?"  The sunflowers, which we DO recognize, are particularly stunning.  Those, surrounded by other yellows against the backdropping blue.  It really is quite beautiful, and we couldn't have been more proud of the blossoms we intended should they have deigned to grow.  That, plus these should reseed themselves year and year, barring some unforeseen malady.  What's not to love.

So, come to visit -- or at least drive by.  We will be the little house on the left with the beautiful and colorful entry -- just like the workshop leader envisioned.

At least one of us learned something.  I still scratch my head at all that talk about root stocks and pest gestation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Rain and the Gift of a Day

Lori recalls her father's one complaint in retirement:  Fridays.  Throughout his work life as a school superintendent, Fridays carried with them the hungry anticipation of the weekend's different pace.  Post-retirement, the differentiation between weekends and weekdays thinned, draining Fridays of their unique allure.

I thought of his mild complaint this morning as I led the dogs outside for their pre-dawn the rain.  It was glorious.  And part of the glory was its implied day off.

Only an alarmist would suggest that we are suffering a drought.  True, it has been a few weeks since our last measurable rainfall, but prior to that we have enjoyed amenable rains at helpful intervals in beneficial amounts.  All things being equal I would prefer Mother Nature to water my garden, but this short dry spell has given me the chance to put the irrigation system through its paces, including the two new sections I have installed in the past week.  Given my mechanical ineptitude, it's wise periodically to see if all the pieces and parts remain connected.  Having completed that assessment earlier in the week, however, and even catching up on my weeding, I had loaded up my anticipatory agenda with the less daily tasks of farm life like mowing, trimming, and tailoring not only the garden but also the chicken yard and beyond.  All that in addition to the pickling project at which we have been chipping away throughout the week to excavate ourselves from the cucumber bonanza that has befallen us.

But all of that changed in a raindrop.  I have never found the appeal of mowing in the rain, though I see park and road crews doing it all the time.  Maybe it's just an excuse, but I am of the mind that neither the tractor nor its driver function at optimal levels in the rain -- neither the tractor nor the chainsaw nor the push mower.  Pickling could happen, but the yard and garden would have to wait.

And with that, it was Saturday -- here in the middle of the week.  A day off.

For that's what I have come to miss.

Not literally, of course.  The reality is that I can choose any day to relax.  The gift of being my own boss, in a life of my choosing, is that there are no reports to the Board; no ethical imperatives about fair work for fair pay; no supervisor to whom to answer.  There is plenty of work to accomplish -- indeed, more than has ever accumulated on my "day job" desk -- but I am the only one who cares about its accomplishment.  There are price tags on neglect, to be sure, but I am the one being charged.  I can choose to lag behind or get ahead.

But there has always been something magical about a "day off."  Unlike my father-in-law, Saturday has rarely carried the appeal.  Saturdays are too close to Sundays to carry much of any spirit of leisure or liberation.  My day's off have variously occupied Fridays and Mondays and once, for a season, even Thursdays.  But regardless of the positioning within the week, a day off routinely dawned like a kiss of peace and breath of grace.  More psychological than temporal; more about the spirituality of sabbath than the practicality of leisure, days off were the soul's deep breath.

And I miss them every now and then -- the sheer gift of kairotic open space -- even though every day, these days, is available for possibility.

And then this morning, walking the dogs in the wet blackness of day still birthing...

...that interrupted my plans and delivered not just daylight, but a true day off.   The grass and vegetables can wait.  Let it rain.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Serendipitously, Gratefully Rich

For a second year the garden has surprised me with serendipity.

To be sure, it has willingly -- hospitably even -- welcomed without prejudice the transplants that began their journey in the greenhouse and the seeds tucked directly into its folds.  It has settled and sustained the perennials -- asparagus and berry bushes -- that need a little longer to mature and then stake out territory for the long term.  It has drunk deeply from the patient dripping of the irrigation tapes, and digested the soil amendments I have added to the mix.  Like an acquiescent teen at the dentist it has even dutifully endured my row tilling once and in some cases twice each season.

But then I expect all that. 

What still surprises me, however, are the volunteers.  Two years ago I planted tomatillos in what was then the back corner of the garden.  Last year, despite the fact that new tomatillos were planted in the opposite corner of the enclosure, tomatillo plants sprang up as well in their original location.  Two or three volunteer bushes.  It was, I thought to myself, a bonus.  A rogue sunflower sprang up nearby as still another unannounced guest bearing gifts.  I credited birds -- even rabbits, perhaps -- contributing their own garden ideas.

But this year, despite two years of subsequent tilling -- or, I suppose, stimulated by it -- the tomatillos have multiplied.  Almost as many plants have emerged in that original location as I planted this year in a fresh one.  If one sunflower surprised me last year, half a dozen or more -- of multiple heights and colors -- stand sentinel this year over multiple rows.  One has even emerged from the dirt pile outside the garden beside the compost pile.  The biggest surprise, however, are the cherry tomatoes.  Not one plant, but several in multiple locations.  That, after autumn's decline, a winter for the record books, and more tilling.  Volunteer tomatoes.  Bearing fruit.

I am the first to acknowledge how much I have to learn about this growing business, but it still feels magical.  Magical, and humbling -- like receiving a gift from a loved one for no particular reason.  It returns me to the notion of abundance that was the subject of an earlier scribbling.  Grace and abundance gently scolding me for any misbegotten notions of scarcity I may latch onto from time to time.  It's certainly true that not every seed I sow bears fruit.  For the third year in a row my eggplant aspirations fizzled, along with this year's ground cherry seeds tucked in with my seed catalog order, and numerous fancy flowers, cuttings from which we had visions of showcasing in table vases.  It remains to be seen if the broccoli and cauliflower will fare any better this year than last; and leeks were a total bust.

But disappointment is not the same as starvation.  In my previous work, I wasn't called to every position for which I interviewed, but the work I was privileged to do in the settings that made a place for me was rich and satisfying and bountiful.  Out and about, some of my favorite conversations are with total strangers only circumstantially brought together.  And despite my amateurish toilings here in the soil we still have more than we can eat.  We have already been freezing greens, and the water in the canning pot scarcely gets a chance these days to cool.  If the bean pods offer any foreshadowing, we will be busy shelling and packaging those in a matter of weeks.  We are getting creative with ways to use the squashes, and the early treasure trove of tomatoes has already found its way into BLT's and bruschettas and sauces. 

And now the winsome intrusion of a few more that I hadn't even planted -- sauces and salsas and sunflower surprises.  It is, I suspect, just one small, but reiterated, glimpse of the intrinsic wealth of the world routinely budding, but just as routinely ignored by the arrogance of we who are convinced that good things can only emerge from our own cultivation.  At least this once I am unencumbered by the delusion.

And for the humility I am, for this abundant season, serendipitously, gratefully rich.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

More Calmly Reactive

I knew that they would eventually arrive.  The winter's Polar Vortex surely suppressed them for awhile, and the cool spring dampened their enthusiasm while the timely rains added their healthful blessing.  But summer will have its way.  Eventually the arid heat arrives, and on the wings of it:  the bugs.  A few cabbage worms showed up last week, albeit it in small numbers.  Hopefully I nipped them in their bud.  Yesterday, however, the squash bugs were out in force.  Small "herds" of them newly hatched and grazing for supper. 

To the uninitiated, squash bugs can be frightening.  Gray, intimidating, almost militaristic in their shield-like armor, they look as if they could withstand a nuclear blast, under their devastating influence a sturdy, sprawling squash plant can be reduced to shriveled blackness before the zucchini bread is cooled.  A novice gardener wilts almost as rapidly in the face of it.  I know this from experience.

But this isn't my first cucurbit rodeo.  I'm slow, but unlike my first gardening season I am no longer traumatized and paralyzed.  Since then I have read.  I have asked for advice.  I have experimented with responses.  I've battled the little buggers in my dreams.  And despite their Star Wars appearance, I no longer believe they materialized from outer space and are marching on Washington.  Although...  But let's not digress.

As it turns out, there are organic tools to ward off the invasion.  Last year I learned about Surround, a clay-based spray that deters infestation.  If applied early enough, bugs find their supper unpalatable and look elsewhere for their meals.  Unfortunately, it's possible to apply it too late, once the invasion is full-on, and the deterrent coating does little good.  But all is not lost.  Spinosad, another naturally derived tool accepted for organic gardening, is a little more aggressive response. 

That latter I have in reserve.  The former I applied yesterday. It looks a little disconcerting, but hopefully it will have its desired effect and Plan B will not be necessary. 

No sign -- yet -- of the Colorado Potato Beetles or aphids or horned tomato worms or...  But "'tis the season"; and I am ready.

In the meantime, I continue to harvest.  So far I think I am up to 17 tons of cucumbers in miscellaneous colors, shapes and sizes, and 1/4 ton of various varieties of squash.  And so we are eating.  And preserving.  Last week it was bread and butter pickles with Lori's mother and sister.  Last night we worked on Indian pickles and pickle relish.  Tonight, the dill spears.