Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Nature's Capricious Kiss

Farming, I have concluded, is intrinsically a treasure hunt.  There are buried things already present there -- minerals, trace minerals, fungi, worms, bacteria and all manner of other life forms -- joined at some point by the seeds and transplants that you add to the mix.  With any luck -- and some careful tending -- it all translates into a totally new kind of treasure, buried or out there in full view that both nourishes and delights.

And this is the pirate season -- passing among the rows, pilfering the wealth that you may have nudged along but did not create.  The leaves and fruits are wondrous enough, and we have been consumed with pickling spices, brines, sterilizing, chopping, slicing, stewing, blanching, canning and freezing.  But recent days have literally taken us subterranean.  Yellowing foliage signaled an invitation to dig garlic -- all 120 feet of it.  We dug and pulled and gathered and ultimately arranged the stalks on tables in the barn in the drying breeze of two fans.  And then yesterday, before the rains commenced, a similar clue was offered among the potato rows.

There are eight rows of potatoes -- each about 15 feet long.  Unlike the garlic which, though indeed beneath the surface and out of sight, is nonetheless flagged by a stalk in a one-to-one ratio, potatoes are a true treasure hunt.  A single seed potato might produce a dozen potatoes.  Or not.  It isn't known until it's dug.  In years past I could have competed for the State Fair's "smallest potato" blue  ribbon.  Pea sized, a few marble sized and an ever so rare "real potato" the size of a golf ball, it was more the curiosity animated by sheer determination that intrigued me rather than the elusive harvest.  But I have kept trying -- better preparing the soil to nourish and loosen so that the tubers stood a better chance.  Yesterday was my first chance to see if gold was literally buried there.  Yukon Gold to be precise, and Red Thumb that had been planted in the last third of the row.  Stabbing a spade along the side of the row to break up the cover, I pulled faded stalks and ran fingers beneath the clods; exploring.

And struck it rich.  A five-gallon bucket filled with the Golds and half a bucket with the Reds now, like the garlic, spread before the fans to dry and cure a bit before sampling.  In the coming weeks we will see what might be excavated from the remaining rows, but just this one was satisfying delight.

And then, making one more pass among the tomato vines as the sky darkened and the drops began to fall, I found one more surprise -- a tomato anomaly; a mutant, I suppose, or a twin...or a heart shaped delight -- dangling there to impress upon me yet again that harvest is not a mechanized manufacture -- a designed and endlessly duplicated widget repetitively spit out of a machine -- but nature's whimsically capricious kiss.  And the best fruit of all... the smile on my face as I lug the baskets and the buckets back to the kitchen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Burden of Honoring the Treasure That It Is

It was our first act of "saving the season".  Lori this morning made pickles.  I'm not sure of the quantity -- I was busy weeding among the okra plants -- but based on the number of cucumbers we've stuffed into the refrigerator in recent days a safe estimation would be "lots".  Confessionally speaking, we don't really eat that many pickles, and these are the quick refrigerator pickles that have a chilled shelf life of six weeks.  But what else are you going to do?  We have all this harvest -- the fruit of careful seed selection, sore muscles and hours of attention -- and we are headed out of town for a few days, every passing one of which degrades the value of what we've picked.  And while they are crazy about the occasional cucumber treat, the chickens don't need a steady diet of them.  Maybe it is "kicking the can down the road," but this morning's pickles buy us a little time.

We have yet to come up with concomitant plans for the squash, the kale, the collards and the chard.

All of which reveals the tertiary challenge of gardening.  First there is the locational challenge -- choosing a site and preparing the soil.  Fast on the heals of location comes the environmental challenge -- making sure the plants have adequate water, ample sunlight, protection from insects and disease and encroaching weeds.  And then there is the harvest challenge:  what's the plan for all this stuff that grows?

One can, to borrow an economic example, employ the cash flow model -- simply eating the harvest as it comes in -- and in the early weeks of summer this is an exhilarating strategy.  Pick it, cook it; simple as that.  But unless you garden in a wheelbarrow, it isn't long before the abundance begins to bury you.  Yesterday alone I brought in a dozen large squashes, and a like number of cucumbers.  Similarly, the day before.  And we have been eating our weight in kale.  But there is a limit, and we are only two, plus as much company as we can invite over.  Some savings plan becomes a priority.

Hence, the pickles.
And the blanched chard stowed in the freezer.
And, when they ripen, pounds of tomatoes converted into salsa, ketchup, tomato paste and marinara cooked, canned or frozen.

The old books speak of it as "putting food by" and at the very least exemplifies the Aesopian ant's wisdom of planning for the future so as not to go hungry when the pickings are more bare.  It is, indeed, prudence, and winter surely is coming -- never mind this morning's sweat-soaked shirt and regardless of what the meteorologists are forecasting for the next 7 days.  But I suggest the more descriptive and relevant virtue of this discipline is stewardship. 

Our culture doesn't have a lot to show in this regard.  We manufacture cheaply, assuming we'll soon throw whatever it is away.  We buy huge jugs of milk because it's cheaper that way, but let it sour in the refrigerator door from disuse.  By the time we've pared off the skins and blemishes and ends and stalks of the vegetables in our recipes our trashcans contain more than our skillets.  We live amidst great abundance, but the curse of surplus is the absence of any real compulsion to squeeze the most out of what we have.  Even our pioneering forebears who, it must be said, certainly didn't have a lot, cultivated a field until they used it up and then abandoned it and moved a little further west because the one abundance around was land.  Municipalities invest precious resources into roads sidewalks and bridges and sewers and then fail to set aside the funds to maintain them.  A careful and critical walk around most church buildings -- liturgical gold spun from offertory straw -- will have little difficulty noticing stained ceilings, crumbling plaster, frayed carpet and worn floors.  As stewards -- those who take responsible care of what we have -- we have more to learn than to teach.

And the garden, right now, is ringing the school bell.  "What," it is asking me, "will you do with all I am giving you?" 

The ant, I suppose, would have thought this through in the spring when the seeds were first in the ground.  But I still have time to think my way through the possibilities -- but only a little.  Today it's the cucumbers and the squash and the greens, but it won't be long before those okra plants I weeded around this morning start calling my name with an urgent note in their voice...

...and the beets and the peppers and the cabbage and the potatoes and the tomatoes and...

Because it only starts with the planting and the growing.  The deliciously burdensome and exciting but also sacred work settles in with the harvest.

Putting food by. 

Honoring the treasure that it is.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Choosing the Space At Hand

It's a weed, really, sprung up between the greenhouse and the barn.  We've tried to keep such areas trimmed and cleared through the months, but recent weeks have narrowed the focus of our extrications to cultivated rows.  It's summer, and the garden is a pretty busy place.  In fact, if you turn your ear just right and listen very carefully you can hear the weeds growing through the garden rows, overtaking like some scary science fiction thriller.  We don't use chemicals to suppress the invasion, so hoes and hands in liberal amounts are required to give the seeds and stems we've actually planted a fighting chance.

A couple of days ago, however, we needed a diversion and focused on a different part of the property -- planting several frilly and flowering trees and shrubs in a corner we are just developing for looking, this time, rather than eating.  Afterwards, but in that same spirit of beautification, indulging a fit of horticultural bloodlust, Lori was in the midst of whacking down some unsightly encroachments when something caught her attention in this particular head-high weed and stilled her loppers.  A closer look revealed a nest.
Nestled in this weed.
Populated with hungry and gaping mouths.

Let me review the relevant data:  a 5-foot weed, having sprouted in the 2-foot gap between the greenhouse and the barn, hosting a nest that cradled newly hatched birds. 

A few years ago we spent a week in a cooking school in a small Italian town, taught each day by the women of that ancient Tuscan village.  Their kitchen equipment reflected the same philosophy as their recipes:  "Use what you have."  Utterly foreign was the thought of cluttering up the kitchen countertops and cabinets with single-use gewgaws -- as foreign, we would learn, as narrowly insisting on a specific set of ingredients for a recipe, or throwing away leftovers.  "Use what you have," we heard time and time again -- or at least that's the way the translator rendered it.

Which makes me think our birds must be Italian.  Americans are far too picky and we waste almost as much as we use.  Our burdening questions center on what we want, not what we have; on what would be fun, not on what would be most functional.  We pick our nesting places carefully and jealously, with eyes for glitter and rooms with a view.  Not so, this mother bird.  To my way of thinking she had alternative options.  There are, after all, plenty of trees from which to choose -- short ones, tall ones, fruited ones, thorned ones.  But for whatever reason the mother chose this weed in which to build a nest and lay her eggs -- sturdy enough, I suppose, and somewhat protected from wind and mischief but hardly high or failsafe.  But that little corridor, and that tall green intruder was not only what she had but what she chose to use.

I suspect I'll think of that nest, those hungry and parted beaks, and that mother's ingenuity the next time some garden gadget starts calling my name, or the need to have it all "just right."  Wedged into that cluttered space, that weed was the cradle of life.  It may not have been scenic; it offered precious little view, but it sufficed.  It was safe, secluded and accessible, and it was enough. 

Which, of course -- as it turns out to be in most things -- makes it perfect. 

Grow strong little peeps.  May you grow up to be as wise as your mother.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Early Gleanings from Sweat-Watered Seeds

We've been cutting lettuce for awhile now – a salad smattering of eight different varieties we planted in large fabric containers on the deck; lettuce, and the trio of radish varieties. Together, as spring’s early arrivals,  they have been functional foretastes of the summertime feast to come.  Jazzed with the miscellaneous herbs sharing the morning sun on the deck we have savored the tender reward for enduring the grocery store winter.  The kale has likewise been a welcomed addition to the stovetop, both the two varieties planted in mid-spring and the row from last fall that resurrected after winter.

In recent days, however, the harvest has kicked it up a notch – a few cucumbers among the three varieties climbing their trellises; squash of four varieties; and cherry tomatoes. Their larger counterparts are swelling and hanging alluringly on the plants, but are yet too green to even consider frying.  We've learned to wait.  The blackberries are ripening, and surely the peppers won't be too far behind, along with the okra and eventually the potatoes, though it remains an enduring mystery what will – or won't – become of the brassicas. 

Just commencing, I realize with a smile, are the weeks that validate all the planning, all the ordering, all the seeding and babying and digging and hoeing:  countertops covered with the morning’s offering; magical lunches and dinners, and eventually steam rattling the lid of the canning pot when the ingathering overwhelms us, and later, that magical “pop” of the lids securing their contents. 

Just now giddily underway, the season of harvest.

It feels a bit that way about our life here on the farm.  Four years ago we left our lovely town home perched on a hill in the city and moved to these acres we christened “Taproot Garden.”  Moving anywhere from anywhere is, I'm convinced, the hardest work in the world, and so our initial endeavors focused largely on homemaking – unpacking, hanging pictures, rearranging, walking around, exploring, living; the usual nesting investments necessary for transforming a living space into a home.  Eventually we expanded our interventions – trimming branches here, removing a tree there; assembling a greenhouse, accumulating some tools and equipment, and finally sowing a few seeds.  In subsequent years we have reached out a little further and dug down a little deeper into this ongoing education; adding, subtracting, experimenting,partnering, reading – always reading something else to learn something more about what we are doing or to explore an idea for we are considering undertaking. 

And it feels like the harvest is beginning. Some of those early seeds are finally fruiting.  Others look promising.  Scattered on the countertops of our souls is a nice and nourishing collection of early pickings.  And it feels good.

None of which, of course, offers any permission to sit back and wait for the ripening.  I, who yet knows almost nothing about what we are doing out here, have already learned that much.  Incalculable hours of weeding are out there in front of us, along with an eye to the sky and a readiness for compensatory watering; that, plus vigilant anticipation of and preparations for  the bugs that are surely on their way.   

We, and the garden, are really just getting started.  Summer, in more ways than one, is still young.

That said, it's nice to start seeing how our sweat has watered the seeds, and to start eating a few of the things we've planted.