Thursday, September 9, 2021

Toward a More Delicious End

An Open Letter to the Garden’s Rotted Tomatoes


I apologize.  


Whatever else I might say, that acknowledgement of guilt must come first.  


I’m sorry.


You did your job.  You fulfilled the vocation assigned to you by the One who ordained that seeds and plants and their successive fruits would perpetuate each other in cyclical reciprocity – a dynamic trinity of essence, expression, and expectation.  You sprouted, first in the warmed greenhouse soil and air amidst the waning bitterness of winter, then rooting deeply into garden soil while reaching tall up trellising frames, finally to blossom and bulge into the red or purple or golden sunlighted acidic orbs that are your delight.  


And you accomplished it against all odds – high winds, pummeling hail, withering heat, drowning rain.  Despite injury and stress, you recovered and persisted and choked forth fruit.  Beautiful, taste-bursting fruit…


…while I got busy with other things.  They weren’t irrelevant distractions, I can assert in my own defense.  There were weeds to pull in other parts of the garden; there were obligations that took us temporarily away or absorbed our available time or otherwise claimed our attentions. There were travels, as well - too-long delayed - that took us even further away, which gave opportunity to still more weeds.  And then the harvest was upon us with its perpetual gathering and slicing and combining and cooking and canning; and the days simply did not offer ample enough hours.  Over the course of recent weeks we gathered as many as we could, but did not get so far as you, which I grieve.


I offer such an accounting not as an aggregate of so many excuses – nothing can finally “excuse” the resulting tomatocide – but more to rebut the understandable but mistaken impression that we simply didn’t care, or couldn’t be bothered.  We cared.  We bothered.  We just couldn’t get it all done.  And you were left to rot on the vine.


There is a sense, of course, in which you couldn’t care less.  As noted, you did your job:  you made fruit which contained new seeds which, even now, are falling to the ground where at least some number of them will nestle into the cracks of the soil, over-winter and, come spring, sprout and produce the next generation of vines.  Earlier in my farming I would not have predicted this, but the proliferation of volunteer plants over the years – including this one – attest to the contrary.  Seeds want to grow, and yours quite likely will even without my well-intentioned ministrations.  


But I suspect you harbored more esoteric ambitions – to occasion the burst of a bite, the ecstasy of flavor, the groans of satisfaction and the dribbles of delight.  You, too, must ache to lie together with crisped bacon and fresh lettuce; to melt into marinara, be spiced and surprised into salsa, or simply to drip your way off the edges of a burger.  


And I let you down.  I left you hanging.  And there you languished, softened, drooped and finally dripped into a rotting puddle at the base of the wire support.


I’m sorry.  You sprouted and matured for more than this, for better than I’ve given you.  You offered yourself in generously delicious glory, but my attentions were elsewhere.  I neglect and miss so many gifts this way.  And I am the poorer.  I give honor to the work you have done – the striving, the ripening, the offering.  You are an exemplar for these days.  


Chastened and inspired, I move toward autumn and the stillness of winter, before the stirrings of spring gives us fresh opportunity to honor and please one another.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

One Big Happy -Larger - Family

We have become foster parents.  To a rooster. 


It was a charity case.  A mercy.  That much is clear.


Exactly on whom this merciful charity is being showered is less clear.  It’s certainly not the rooster, who had been raised since a chick by a loving – indeed adoring – family.  He enjoyed a good and pampered life right up to and well beyond the moment when he was revealed to be a “he.”  Purchased as a “she,” Dwayne (for that has always been his-née-her name) embodies the truism not uncommon with such well-intentioned sales, “accidents happen.”  Eventually the “cockadoodledoo” revealed the truth, punctuated by jaunty tail feathers and cocky strut.  The young flock had one fewer hen.


Dwayne’s curious nom de plum stems from the playful intersection of his breed – Barred Rock – and the favorite actor of the young boy who had selected him – Dwayne, “the Rock”, Johnson.  Hence, “Dwayne the Barred Rock Johnson”.  What had seemed odd for a hen now proves prescient.  “Dwayne” it is.


But therein began the problematic considerations.  Not everyone is infatuated with roosters.  Neighbor relations can fray.  Restrictive city ordinances can prohibit. That, and for those who get into chicken keeping for the eggs, roosters add little return on investment.  They consume but don’t produce – unless, of course, you hope to hatch your own, which intrudes its own level of complexity.  None of these were concerns for the family or their sole neighbor – they loved Dwayne.  He was a treasured member of the flock.  There was, however, that pesky ordinance.  Keeping Dwayne would be a rather voluble violation of the law.  


Enter Taproot Garden. 


We have chickens, the family well knew, and remotely situated as we are – well beyond the reach of the restrictive anti-rooster law – they knew as well that we had once included two such stately and similarly accidental residents among our flock before meeting an untimely and tragic end in last summer’s raccoon wars.  They had even heard us lament their absence.


“Would you possibly be interested in having Dwayne come to live with you?” they wondered.


I have to admit that we smiled at the offer.  It hadn’t been long before that we had cursed the gender reveal within our own flock.  We didn’t want roosters – one, let alone two.  We were not interested in enduring the crowing, refereeing the aggression, dealing with the fertilization, or disturbing the neighbors. Roosters would have no place in our flock…until they did.  We came to listen for their calls.  We chuckled at their demonstrated pride.  We almost saluted their soldierly protective vigilance.  Our hearts melted at the eventual chick that hatched from a craftily hidden egg.  And when the chicken yard fell silent with their absence, we…well…missed them.


And so what might charitably be called the “reciprocal mercy.”  A twin generosity:  our friends needed to give, and as it turns out, we needed to receive.  And at the center of it all, Dwayne moved from happy home to happy home; loving hands to welcoming ones.  All with visiting privileges anytime.  


A happy resolution.  Once or twice I have seen our older hens rolling their eyes as they hop up on the parallel bars, out of reach.  As if to say, “Here we go again.”  


But they don’t really seem to mind his spreading around the largesse of his love.  


His reliable crowing – morning, noon, afternoon and evening - like Benedictine prayer, remind us that life is larger than we settle into presuming, and is animated by a community of affection, receptivity, and mutuality.  


We genuinely are better together.  




Thursday, July 29, 2021

More Than Meets the Eye

Hidden gems.


Ever since the hailstorm rained destruction on our garden in late June, we have repaired what we could, pulled up what we couldn’t, and valiantly hoped for the best.  For the most part, our hopes have fared better than our expectations.  Squash plants and chard – the broadleafed bullseyes of the storm – resiliently revived, as numerous recent mealtimes can attest.  Our coolers are jammed with beets and turnips unfazed by the battering, and early evidence portends a bumper potato crop in the making.  We’ve harvested enough garlic to keep all of Transylvania “vampire free”, and the broccoli, kohlrabi and peppers are well on their way with downpayments on future harvests already in hand.  


Tomatoes, however, incurred a more enduring setback.  Though most of the plants survived in various states of woundedness, the fruit that was already maturing on the vines was knocked to the ground or pocked into disfigurement.  Gratefully, more have come along to whet our anticipation, but the few we have brought in, reddened and ripened, wear their scars.  “The spirit is willing,” the old saying tells the truth of it, “but the flesh is weak.”  We have passed the subsequent weeks trimming off broken branches, clipping to trellises drooping ones, scavenging for beans and zucchinis and the occasional pepper, and weeding.  


Weeding, indeed.  The hail occasioned scant interruption for the purslane, miscellaneous grasses and intrusively choking “this and thats” which, if evidence is to be counted, found the onslaught stimulating, even vivifying.  Row by row we have worked our way from one end, across the center aisle into the next section, and then the next before arriving this morning at the final row, bordering the easterly fenceline.  It was, after all, the least urgent – occupied by the newer asparagus plants that have long since completed their springtime flourish.  It turns out, however, that the asparagus was not alone.


Lost amidst the overgrowth was a volunteer tomato plant, an echo of last year’s crop.  Deprived of a cage or a trellis, its vines were left to meander among the grasses…





And there, revealed by Lori’s yanking and clearing, were two perfect and perfectly ripened tomatoes.  



Delivered lovingly into our disbelieving hands by these grassy Good Samaritans who had taken the errant vines as their own and kept them, protectively safe, until they could hand them, trustingly, into our care.  


As if to say, “we’ve done what we could.  The rest is up to you.  Enjoy.”


Of course, we will.                   

With amazement, delight, and slightly chastened gratitude.  

For the “good” that has been accomplished by that which we were convinced was “evil” - 




pernicious, and...


As with so many things, it turns out that there is more to be seen than what is readily seen.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Crowing, Exploding, and Concern for Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot, this week, of Sam and Gallo – our two unintentional roosters who both perished last summer during the “Great Raccoon Invasion;” the rooster, and the notion of community. As indicated, we hadn’t planned on having the cockerals.  They were, so to speak, an accidental acquisition.  By the time we recognized their true identity, however, they had wheedled their way into our hearts – the crowing, notwithstanding.  In truth, we adjusted to their daily vocalizations, and once the chicken yard suddenly fell tragically silent, we missed them.  There was something grounding about their antiphonal song.  


We don’t, however, live in a vacuum, and we had talked with our neighbors.  We place a high value on neighborliness, and the last thing we wanted to do was alienate those who share our adjacent space.  It is a fiction, after all, that roosters only crow at dawn.  They do that, indeed, but they don’t stop there.  They crow when they are feisty, they crow when they are bored, and if there happen to be two of them they crow when they are feeling especially competitive, mounting a “call-and-response” chorus to rival any gospel choir.  Our neighbors scoffed at any perturbation, and even lamented with us when the crowing ceased.  They said they missed the sound. But still, one never knows.  The birds can be precociously loud.  In truth, we couldn’t help but guess that the roosters made significant withdrawals from our relational bank account, with few enough compensatory deposits.  


The roosters have been on my mind this 4th of July holiday weekend.  It is fireworks season – fireworks having become synonymous with independence for some unknown reason.  Nothing apparently says “freedom” like artificially colored gun powder.  Once upon a time, fireworks were prohibited in Iowa, what with the obvious nuisance of them, the fire hazard and susceptibility to personal injury and property damage.  All that changed a couple of years ago, ostensibly for “libertarian” and recreational reasons, though I wouldn’t be surprised if potential tax revenue had something to do with the loosening of restrictions.  And so we have it now that fireworks are sold by licensed merchants within some calendar parameters that are presumably honored, and exploded by citizens according to other parameters that are largely ignored. 


I’ve got no vendetta against fireworks, by the way.  I have a sentimental spot in my heart for fireworks for unrelated reasons having to do with the opposite of independence.  But it is an interesting phenomenon in the context of what it means to be “in community”.  Like our roosters crowing, they don’t explode in a vacuum.  They have a social impact – on pets, on combat veterans, on those who simply prefer quietude.  A community fireworks display, at a designated time and place, is one thing.  Random neighborhood explosions are another.  Exclamation points on the notion of personal freedom, they are, with their percussive disruptions – like the willful truck pulling a long flatbed trailer hauling some piece of heavy machinery that pulled into our driveway recently in order to turn around by backing out and into our mailbox with both destructive consequences and apparent impunity – an exercise in not giving a damn whether anybody else gives a damn.  


We are in a public time in which it is hard to be bothered by anyone else’s bother.  We are, after all, “free” – from what is pretty clear; for what is harder to discern.  But we are pretty sure our patriotic forebears died so that we could be free to annoy each other.  Perhaps when the fireworks sales tents have closed and the darkened skies have cleared and the night has finally fallen silent, we can concentrate enough to think about it, and come to some clearer understanding about the tension between freedom and responsibility; between the relative significance of me and you and us together.


In the meantime, “Bang!”  And “cock-a-doodle-do.”  Sleep well. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Humble Acceptance of How Little We Can Do

And then the hail fell.


Since early March we have been diligently sowing seeds in the greenhouse, watering and watching, coaxing and smiling as the stems curled up through the potting soil and stretched their way into true plants.  With spring came clearing and reviving beds in the garden, loosening the soil, spreading compost; readying.  Since mid-May we have been transplanting seedlings from the protection of the greenhouse to the expansive vulnerabilities of the garden – row upon row like a marching band in careful formation.  


Gradually the spaces were fully populated, the irrigation tapes positioned, and the weeding undertaken in earnest.  Thick squash stems supported wide leaves; green and yellow bean bushes rose and stretched; small purple kale stems peaked through the veiling grass; and tomatoes wondrously began to swell on the vines.  Never mind the cacophony of weeds and intruding grasses, it was beautiful – perhaps the handsomest garden expanse since we moved to Taproot Garden 10 years ago.  Guests nodded in vegetable envy.  Family marveled at the investment of energy and time and wondered aloud what we would possibly do with all the harvest. 


And after years of waiting and watching, the fruit trees were promising reward.  Apples and pears, apricots and plums were growing heavy on the branches.  And cherries.  It’s hard to say how the cherries had become the Holy Grail of our orcharding, but somehow they had risen to that nobility.  Perhaps it is my affection for a good cherry pie, and Lori’s constant indulgence.  We had planted and waited, and this year the bushes and trees were covered – announced in the spring by profligate blossoms, and answered by plumping berries.  We had tasted them the day before and they were ripe and ready.  We would pick them the following evening – the cherries, and the remaining honeyberries nearby.


And then Tuesday afternoon the sky darkened, the wind whipped, the lightening ripped open the thundering sky, and the hail assaulted the landscape.  Pea-sized, then marble-sized; on and on in a deluge of destruction.  It pounded the deck; covered the lawn; buried the flower bed and ravaged the potted plants.  We stood at the window, silently and helplessly watching the destruction.  To step outside would surely be injurious.  And to what end?  Covering would be futile; there was no way to drag it all inside.  And then, as suddenly as it had begun – what had it been?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirty? – the conflagration of ice was over.  An ominously silent stillness replaced the deafening percussion.  And all around us spread a carpet of leaves and limbs, exploded blossoms and ice. Fearfully approaching the garden, we opened the gate and stepped into a dystopian wasteland.  Stems stripped of their leaves.  Stalks broken into pieces or pulverized out of existence.  And the cherry trees robbed of their sweet promise.  Not a berry remained.  London after the German bombings couldn’t have looked more ruined, nor the scene of a biblical plague.  It was an open-air morgue of the shredded and maimed victims of a meteorological assault.  


In the hours and days since the hailstorm all we have been able to say is, “we’ll see.”  Life, we know, seeks life.  Bodies lean toward healing.  We’ll see what resurrects after this Good Friday affront.  Maybe much; maybe nothing. We’ll see.  The fruit is certainly gone, but perhaps the vegetables will renew.


Regardless, we do not need to wait to see afresh how limited is our control of those things that matter.  We can do what we can do for our bodies, our kids, our careers, our gardens, but neither good intention nor vigilant attention insures a fruitful outcome.  Viruses come out of nowhere.  Choices in which we are not involved change our course.  Hail falls here but not 4 miles away.  If, as Tennyson observed, nature is “red in tooth and claw,” it is also flayed in gale and icy stone.  Standing amidst the vegetative rubble, we comprehend again the essential impetus of our efforts, and the necessary ministrations beyond those beginnings, but above all the puniness of our powers to bring it all to fruition.  Life is infinitely larger than we are; far beyond us, the movements and machinations of the universe – until they reach in or down or whatever their directional approach, and caress or coax into ripeness or twist and crush into oblivion.  


We will do what we can. 


And then we’ll see.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Weeding and Reaping

The summer solstice has passed, and summer officially welcomes us.  The new season arrived with thunder, lightning, rain and…cold.  It’s an ironic beginning – the accouterments of summer having baked us dry for weeks – but the unseasonable break was a welcomed exhalation.  We could relax the seemingly continuous irrigation of the garden and the hand watering of the potted flowers that had depleted the rain barrels, at least for a time.


We are now well into the first harvest of the season:  weeds.  Having been preoccupied with filling the next row – sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse, caging and trellising tomatoes – the first rows were left vulnerable.  Reaching the end of the planting and looking back to where we began, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the profligate precociousness of the more native species resident in the soil.  That, coupled with a period of other-focused neglect, the garden is a riot of this and that threatening the viability of all our good intentions.  Grass is choking the chard.  Dandelions hide the okra.  Ragweed towers over the potatoes, giving them full view of the Colorado Potato Beetles that have chosen this moment to nibble at the latter’s leaves.  There is reclamation work to be done.  I know that scripture says, “what you sow is what you reap,” but that is only superficially accurate.  With all due respect to the Apostle Paul, I might amend his truism to say, “what you weed is what you reap.”  


Newly refocused, then, we lean in.  Pulling.  Hoeing.  Piling extracted encroachments.  I rediscovered beets yesterday, and curly kale I had forgotten I had planted.  And turnips actually ready to pull.  The initial sowing of carrots is likely lost, choked out by the competition, but there are additional seeds in reserve to which we can now pay more attention.  We often read how “nature abhors bare soil”, but it is always a marvel to witness afresh how many weapons nature keeps in its arsenal.  It’s impressive, even if its effectiveness means constant vigilance and labor.


In the end it is a valuable discipline – a reminder that starting is no predictor of finishing; that the giddiness of sowing and harvesting must be matched by the tenacity of tending throughout the season between. 


Paying attention.





Breaking a sweat.


Because the gardener who can’t be bothered with the hassle of the hoe won’t be bothered by any happiness of the harvest.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Blind, But Beginning to See

 We are drawn to the prairie.  Intellectually, we know it to be habitat for any number of species, and forage for a range of pollinators.  But there is more to our affection.  There is the graceful ballet of the tall grasses in the breeze; the complex diversity of its plant population.  There is the echo of Iowa’s past when most of this state was covered in this way.  There is the allure of its opaque mystique, veiling any real certainty of what might be hiding, sheltering within its reaches.  


And so it is that we found ourselves wanting more.  We feel no devotion toward conventional lawns, and our property supports more than it needs.  That, and there is a hillside we thought could use some “dressing up” with native flowers and bluestems.  The prairie contractor whose skills and knowledge we routinely leverage stopped by to review what we had in mind.  “This area gets too little sun,” he observed about one targeted area; “this section will take multiple rounds of attention,” he qualified about another.  “And this one…” he paused to wade into the foliage for a closer look, “…this one is filled with wild bergamot.  Your bees will love them.  And these wild legumes are good for the soil.  This is Illinois Tick Trefoil, and that's Canada black snakeroot, and there is goldenrod.  Even this variety of thistle is important, though the farmers don't like them in their fields."

Time and again he pointed out, and gave a name to, value.  "They are the same species you would be planting with the prairie mix.  You want them.  It doesn’t make much sense to clear them out only to reseed them.”  About still another he matter-of-factly asked, “haven’t you noticed it blossom?” – as if to wonder why we would destroy what so generously offers up its natural gifts.  For me, still lamentably stuck in the banal binary of “good” plants and “bad” plants, it was helpful to have these native stems reframed.


Blindness is the result of any number of conditions, I know, but ignorance is likely chief among them.  It isn’t, of course, blindness of the literal, physical kind - my corrective lenses compensate for any of those current deficiencies; simply the inability to actually see what you see.  Jesus, as I recall, warned against such a condition.


Ignorant, then, and thusly blind, I sheepishly thanked the contractor for his knowledge, his patient instruction, and his integrity.  He could have simply taken our money, after all, and done what we were asking him to do, never mind the idiocy of it. Instead, he invited us to actually inhabit the world that presently surrounds us; to see with more appreciative eyes; to eschew the fiction of what we wanted, in favor of wanting the beauty we already have.  That serving as such an environmental, horticultural “Sherpa” for us wouldn’t put money in his pocket didn’t seem to bother him.  The land, itself, is apparently more his employer than two aspirational farmsteaders. 


We smile now, passing along these trails; more appreciatively curious than aesthetically judgmental.  Even when we can’t identify what we are seeing – which is, yet, most of the time – we start with the assumption that this or that stem or petal is, for its own expression of life and beauty, worth noticing.


Even the thistle.  


And I wonder to what other and broader beauties my ignorance blinds.  Hues and shades.  Shapes and stories.  Wonders that my pre-conceived delusions about loveliness prevent me from seeing.