Archives for posts with tag: gardening

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

Critters and Bunnies and Bugs! (Oh My!)

A.V. Walters–

Welcome to Michigan. Gardening in California was a formulaic cinch, by comparison. There we had concern about water, and gophers—but there aren’t many insects in California’s parched climate. Of course, we had the flies from the dairy, but they didn’t bother the garden.

Gardeners here have to be a hardier lot. There are seasons, with their never-ending uncertainties. We had a late May frost that zapped the blooms, and may cost the region much of its fruit this year. It didn’t affect our garden, because I was too chicken to plant with the night-time temperatures dipping so low. Our starts were safe and snug indoors, by the window. Not that we’ve been without garden trauma. The deer jumped the fence and did all that damage to our fruit trees. The trees are slowly recovering, the pears in the lead and the apples trailing. I think they’ll all survive. Deer are a serious garden hazard. At least we think we’ve ironed out the fence issues with deer.

We have gophers, but so far, they haven’t been seen in the garden. Most everything is in buckets (except lettuce and greens—fingers crossed.) Right now we’re trying to figure out how to amend the fence again to keep out the bunnies. We thought we had the spacing right, but somebunny is sneaking in at night and nibbling away at the peppers. Too bad we always have to learn through losses.

That’s true for the bugs, too. We’ve lost almost half of the tomatoes to insects. I’ve been out of area so long, I don’t even remember the names of all of the voracious 6-legged predators. Some kind of leaf-hopper-thingie is chewing through the tomato stems. One solution seems to be that our starts need to be bigger before we set them out. The larger ones have not been munched by bugs. Alternatively, we are considering floating row covers, which will outwit the bugs, and give us some frost protection, too. We lost some squash to cutworms—not a crisis, but the tomatoes came as a shock. In California, nothing touches the tomatoes. Here, it’s a race between the bugs and the bunnies.

The bugs are after us, too. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. We’re sitting ducks out there. The worst are the black flies. Thank God they have a pretty short season and should be gone by July. We mixed up a concoction of vinegar, water and vanilla, which seems to keep most of the bugs at bay. Before we found that, we were swollen and itchy—to the point of under-the-weather.

My father used to shake his head at scant summer clothes. As teens, we ran around in cut-offs and tank tops, oblivious to the hazards. Between the summer sun and the bugs, you were toast. Now, I dress like Dad, long sleeve tees, jeans, a neckerchief and a hat. Sometimes older is wiser.

Even our bees are plagued by bugs! Of our three hives, one has always been a little vulnerable. The ants have discovered the weakness, and are trying to set up shop in the top of their hive. Several times a day, I interrupt their efforts, and squish every single ant that doesn’t move faster than me. There are thousands of them. Rick has a plan for ant-wells*. We’ll get the supplies on our next town run and then we’ll foil those ants!

* hive stand legs in sheltered oil moats. More on that later.

Rethinking Hunting

A.V. Walters

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

It’s been a busy week–construction, completion of the fence, the arrival and installation of the bees, and putting all of the little plant starts into the ground. What a relief when the last yogurt container was empty and we could survey our little garden kingdom without the feeling that something else was needed…immediately. With the fence up, we moved the tomato cages (which had been protecting the new fruit trees) into their positions over the baby tomato plants.

The bees appear to be very happy. Their comings and goings are fun to watch. They have settled in and now they they probably know the neighborhood better than we do. It rained yesterday, and the morning saw a few dead bees on their doorstep. We weren’t alarmed. Bees die everyday. The average worker bee lives no longer than 45 days. By the end of their lives, they’ve done just about every job in the hive, starting with tending the young and moving on to more skill intensive tasks–building comb and maintaining the hive, guarding, foraging and scouting for pollen and nectar, and finally, returning to the hive to again tend to the young (and to teach new bees the ropes.) What was interesting was that we first noticed the dead bees on their doorstep on a rainy day. A rainy day is an opportunity for a little housekeeping. The bees can be crabby when they have to stay inside.

Yesterday was an eye-opener. Rick was up early, anticipating the construction crew. We had a dense and drippy fog–so there was the question of whether or not to start the roof. We’re watching the forecast, hoping for a window of dry, so we can safely pull off all the tarps that have kept the weather out of the house all winter. He wandered over to the garden to get a look at how the bees were handling the fog. Bees are generally early risers.

What he wasn’t expecting was the ravaging of the fruit trees. A deer had come right over our new 5,000 volt electric fence and sampled the leaves of of every single tree! Some she liked better than others. One poor little apple tree was completely denuded. The garden plants were unscathed–probably too small to attract deer attention. Still, we were in shock. Everyone we talked to had said that the deer won’t often jump an electric fence. Once they do, though, they’re trouble. What’s up with our deer? We suspect that the fenced area is so large that it doesn’t post a mental logistics problem for leaping deer. We are reduced to guessing at deer geometry.

We think most of the trees can be saved. I immediately zipped over to our neighboring cherry farmer to buy more small “tree cages.” Now, we have fences within our fences. Today, we’ll have to solve the problem of this deer–who now thinks our garden enclosure is his personal dining room. (Just where are those guard bees when you need them?) We’re debating two options: extend the fence higher with non-electric lines (as Rick pointed out, if they’re not touching the ground, the deer won’t be shocked in the air, even if they touch the fence); or set up a lower, perimeter line to interfere with the “jumping zone.” Maybe we’ll have to do both. (Then we’d have outer fences, to protect our electric fences, which protect our tree fences.) This is getting to be the Fort Knox of gardens.

The day was otherwise so busy that we didn’t have the time to work up a really foul mood about all of this. I did see Rick brooding a bit–asked what it was about. (After all, we have so many fronts on which to fret.) He looked up and said that he might reconsider whether to hunt on the property.

(Sorry, no photos, trouble with internet connection. I don’t have the skills to do pics from an internet cafe!)

Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

Beer Garden Blues

A.V. Walters

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We started our little garden plants in tiny peat pots, some weeks ago. We’d carefully researched our frost-free date, and back-calculated the time for germination. I’m picky about such things because one of my pet peeves is vegetable starts that are root-bound at planting time. The date came, and went, and the weather forecast still warns of possible frost, so we cannot plant. But, our little sprouts are ready to roll. To harden them off, we’ve been carrying them outside on nice days and back in again every night. It’s like babysitting.

Though I’ve never been an advocate of multiple transplanting (too lazy), this year I’m won over, if only to avoid the dreaded tangle of strangled roots in the bottom of the peat pots. Yes, I know that peat pots can supposedly be just dropped into the hole, but I’ve never done that, because even though the roots can grow through them, I’ve still experienced them causing a strangling ganglia of roots. And yes, I know there’s a whole school of thought that advocates multiple transplants for tomatoes—almost as gardening gospel. I don’t buy it. Like I said, I’m picky.

We’re going away for a short trip. Added to my root-bound anxieties is the knowledge that the tiny peat pots would dry out before our return. They desperately need larger pots that can hold enough moisture to cover our four-day absence. Transplanting is not an option; it’s a necessity. Since I wasn’t planning on it, I don’t have pots, one or two sizes up, in which to put these little sprigs. I had planned on going from peat pots, direct to the buckets dug into the garden. We’re not talking about a handful of vegie starts here; there are a lot of them.

After exhausting all of our yogurt and salsa containers, each washed and punctured with drainage holes, I started scrounging through the recycling bin for additional pots. I scavenged some milk cartons, a cocoa tin, and the plastic trays in which my co-op sells mushrooms. Still, we were short. What was I going to do with all those tomato starts?

I ran out to our local hardware store. They understood. Though they didn’t have a solution. (Their vegetable starts are in the same frost-free-limbo.) We all thought that the cold weather was done. Optimists, I tell ya! They suggested a trip across the county to a nursery/hothouse operation. Alternatively, they shrugged, there’s always 18-ounce, plastic beer cups. Sigh.

I’m not a disposable-cup-kind-of-gal. But, in the quest for environmentally sound solutions, one must weigh the impact of the nearby expedient, versus the drive-around-the-whole-damn-county looking for appropriately sized pots solution. The local grocery had a small stack of beer cups for $3.19. So, I went for it.

The plants will not spend long in their beer cups. I’ll save them for plantings in the future (along with all the punctured yogurt and salsa containers.) Next week, I’m sure they’ll all be ready for the final jump into the garden. I’m watching the weather site like a hawk. Next year, I’m gearing up for floating row covers. It’s either that, or it’s back to the beer cups.

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.

At Odds, Comedic… Timing

A.V. Walters

Not so much compost, after all.

Not so much compost, after all.

I drove into town the other day and was amazed that, almost overnight, lawns have turned green. There are swollen buds and tiny baby leaves on the lilacs and flowering quince. The tips of the maples are giving it away, too. In early spring, before they actually leaf out, their buds have a rosy glow to them. Across the valley, the areas with maples are blushing. The cherry orchards are blushing, too. Not blooming, but with a sort of out-of-focus burgundy haze. So, the landscape says spring.

The weather report? That’s another thing, entirely. Day-time temps in the low forties, and snow! I kid you not. They’re calling for snow, up to 2 inches cumulatively, over the next two days. It won’t stick; the ground has already warmed up. The Road Commission has lifted the frost restrictions from secondary roads. But we’ve seen snowflakes this morning already. It makes us wonder if we have our timing right.

Last week we had 45 yards of compost delivered. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It looks like we have a really bad case of gophers. We’ll be digging it in deep to prep for the orchard trees (which should arrive next week.) The rest will be for the garden. We are on the threshold of gardening, but for that snow thing.

Spindly

Spindly

But growing by the day.

But growing by the day.

We’re still perched in a tiny apartment, across from our new digs. There are space and light issues here, mostly because we’re now sharing space with building materials and with hundreds of seedlings in peat pots. We used our seed favorites from Two Rock and have been pleased with a more than generous germination rate. (Oh, no! I’ll have to cull!) The only things that haven’t come poking up through the soil yet are the peppers (and, some questionable crook-neck squash seeds.) Peppers are notoriously picky about seedling temperatures–they like it warmer than we keep the house! I hope they’ll pop up soon. Everything else is up and growing. I certainly hope we didn’t start them too early. Like comedy, in gardening, timing is everything. Hopefully the joke’s not on us.

seedlings1

seedlings2

It’s snowing out there, right now. There’s a little anxiety, and a lot of hope, in the mix.

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.

 

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

A.V. Walters

This is my 200th blog. Next week, I’m coming up on my third anniversary of blogging. I’ve been stuck on this momentous event. Somehow, it felt like I was supposed to be profound, or something. Oh well, what you see is what you get.

I was a conscripted blogger. “They” said that indie writers and publishers needed to blog. Apparently, we need an online presence in order to sell books. Ha!

I bellied up to the bar, and started blogging. What does a fiction writer blog about? Everything, and nothing. I followed my nose, tried to stay away from politics (a stretch for me) and focused on chronicling the rich parts of the everyday. I cannot honestly say that the blog has ever sold a book. And then, after about eighteen months, they said, “Oh, never mind the blogging, it doesn’t work for fiction.”

But, by then, it was too late. Like most writers, I live in my head. I am probably most comfortable in writing. In this funny, online world, I have made friends. Political friends (even when I pledged not to go there,) artist friends, gardeners, organic farmers, people who keep bees, people who can vegetables, celiacs, funny people, other writers, editors, ne’er-do-wells and goody-two-shoes. In short, I have found community.

They are everywhere. My “regulars” are as far flung as Australia, Singapore, France, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, and all corners of these United States. In the blogosphere, I travel all over, too. Over the course of three years, I’ve been visited by over seventy countries. I am continually amazed that we can connect across the ether. These connections give me hope. Even as governments fail us, and corporations sell us, we can all be ambassadors of civility, humor and peace.

Not that I’d be considered a “successful” blogger. My numbers remain relatively low. I refuse to play SEO games. I refuse to do internet marketing or advertising. (Aren’t these scams?) I refuse to amend how I title my blogs, just to capture more “hits.” Indeed, learning that the blog wasn’t going to sell books, anyway, was liberating. I am free to be stubborn! I can do whatever I want in this forum; it is my world! (And welcome, by the way.) Despite what my trusty editor, Rick, says, I am even free to use semi-colons.

Our most popular topics are about season and gardening (oh, yeah, and emus.) The single most enduring blog is still Naming Emus. Stories about living on the chicken farm in Two Rock are popular, too. The shock of relocation is wearing off; we’re comfortable in Northern Michigan and revel in seasons (and snow removal.) It’s been an adventure. And you’ve been there, all the way.

We’re hovering on many exciting new ventures for the next year. We’ll finish the cabin and move in (gypsies, no more)—we’ll get the garden started (already I’m up to my ears in seed catalogs), I’ll finally try my hand at beekeeping (after wanting and waiting for five decades!) and, if there’s time and energy, we’ll get chickens. I’ll keep blogging, and sharing, though I may slow down just a bit this spring. I’m trying to get my head back into writing—I have an unfinished novel haunting me.

So, thank you all for following, sharing, commenting and enriching my life. Raise a glass—Happy 200!
(Next time, pictures, I promise.)

 

ooops, here’s the link to the most visited blog, https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2013/03/10/naming-emus/

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

It’s Official, Spring Is Here

A.V. Walters

Almost all the snow is gone. We’re forecasting days of rain this week (“April Showers”), so that will be the end of that. The days are not warm, but neither are they cold. The lawn is turning green. I’ve turned off the tap water!!! We were digging earlier in the week, and the frost is gone. While there’s still float ice in the Lake, it’s nearly clear along the shore. The forest floor is bursting with wild leeks, and now with Dutchman’s breeches, too. I see swollen buds on the trees–they’ll be leaves in days. Spring, better late than never.

We enjoyed the winter. Now that it’s gone, I can be honest about the two things I didn’t like. Six months of hat hair. Six months of a runny nose, everytime I went outside. Otherwise it was pretty grand. I can hardly wait for the best bits of Spring, though. Flowers, many, many birds, blooms on fruit trees (we have a lot of that, here in the land of cherries) and….morel mushrooms! More on that, later.

Yesterday I made up a big batch of spaghetti sauce and used up the last two quarts of my Two Rock tomatoes. I am really ready for Spring.

 

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

We’ve been busy here in Empire. We’re gearing up to build—and hoping that the snow will melt in time for construction. Spring is making inroads into winter’s territory. Here in Empire, there’s a big patch of ground making itself visible in our front yard. Once it gets started, you can almost watch it by the hour. Yesterday, robins appeared. Neighbors whom we haven’t seen in months have started to take walks around town and in front of our house. Spring is here. (But the tapwater has yet to get the memo. It’s still 34 degrees. I can hardly wait for it to warm up enough so that I can turn off the water.)

Of course, Cedar/Maple City (only 15 minutes away) was the season’s big winner in the snow department. We went there yesterday—it took snowshoes to get us to the building site. Snow is still at least knee-deep there, mushy, crusty, difficult to maneuver snow. It’s a case of hurry-up-and-wait. We’ve fetched our tomato cages and buckets, in preparation of the bucket garden–but one look at the site and we just sighed. (We’ll need to fence the garden, the deer here are voracious.) I’m anxious to get back to my gardening.

I’ll report more as the situation develops. In the meantime, perhaps I can update the emu situation from Two Rock.

Ahhhh, Shoes…

A.V. Walters–

I did a laundry run, yesterday. I gambled, and wore shoes. It’s the first time I’ve stepped out of the house, in shoes, since November. What lightness of being! What fleetness of Foot! I’ve loved winter, but at some point, it’s a relief not to have to pull on your hefty winter boots. That’s not to say that the snow is gone—or that it’s warm. But for a trip to town with laundry, it’s finally a safe bet that the roads and parking lots will be clear of the slippery stuff

We’re suffering from faux-Spring. You look out and it’s sunny. We can even see some dirt. There’s a snow-free zone around trees, and on sidewalk areas that have been kept relatively clear of snow. But when you step out, it’s beyond brisk, mid-twenties. I neglected to pull on my thermal layer before heading out for the Laundromat, and I paid for it in chill. Today it even snowed a bit. Winter isn’t finished with us yet.

Shoes, though, that’s a big step. (Pun intended.) And, it gives you big ideas. Gardening. Building. Picking berries. Oh, yeah, and even sandals!

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

The Orphan Garden

Good Enough

A.V. Walters

The garden this year is an orphan garden. Though we planted it, and we care for it, it’s not really ours. We didn’t do our usual big production garden. We cheated and used older seeds (some of which never did germinate.) We transplanted volunteers and moved things around—so much so that now I’m not sure what’s what. Then, late in the game, one of the farm tenants dropped off two orphan tomatoes—of course, root bound, and those went in, too.

Still, watering and weeding it has been a pleasure. It’s that quiet, steady, work that inspires why I garden in the first place.

There’s a chicken in the garden this year—it happens sometimes that a chicken escapes the barn and sets up housekeeping in some corner. Usually nobody goes looking for them and they forage and do pretty well. This one likes snails. If I see that shiny, post-slime evidence of a snail on one of the plants, I root around in the bucket and find the culprit. I’ve been giving the snails to the chicken, and now she follows me around the garden. Somewhere over there, there are eggs, but I’m not looking.

The tomatoes (even the stragglers) are doing well and have baby green tomatoes hiding in a lacework of yellow flowers. The peppers are in bloom and the various squashes are all growing gangbusters. I just wish I knew what they were. I know there are pumpkins, zucchini, acorn, delicatta (my favorite), butternut and maybe crookneck squashes. I’m uncertain about the rest. The cucumbers (3 lemon and one regular) are filling out and reaching up for the sun. I think there’s a French melon plant in there, but only time will tell.

Unfortunately our hot spells have made the spinach bolt. We’re eating it up quick, before it gets too bitter.  We’ve also had some of the basil, and some early sprigs of cilantro. The radishes are almost ready, though they’ve been beset by bugs, we’ll still eat them. Even if this is all it is, it is good enough.

We didn’t plant this garden with the intention of a harvest. We may never satisfy our curiosity about just what’s in those buckets. We know we’ll be moving, but we don’t know when (or exactly where, for that matter.) We’re packing and checking our plans, Plan A, Plan B and Plan C (even Plan C.5!) We’re selling things that don’t need to go with us. And we’re waiting. The waiting is the worst. We have business to finish here, and we’re not in charge of how quickly that will roll along.

In the meantime, there are emus and chickens to feed and gardens to tend…

 

The Last Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s hot in the valley. And dry. This has been on odd year. We had heavy rains in November and December—with an absolute deluge the first week of January. And that was it. Winter is our rainy season, but this year, it wasn’t. After that, we had a few light rains and one storm in the spring. The local farmers are nervous. Over all, the state isn’t experiencing water shortages. There was a heavy snow-pack early this year, so the reservoirs are full, but those that depend on local, well water may be pumping dust by the end of summer.

The past two weeks they’ve been cutting hay. Sometimes, especially here, where we can have drenching fogs, the farmers can get two cuttings, in the spring. Last year it was cool and very foggy—so, we saw three hay harvests. This year, they’ve cut the first time, and it’s dry and yellow underneath. One cut is all they might harvest this year. That means when the summer heat hits, and all the grass goes, (first to gold, then to brown) they’ll be using up the limited hay supply for the dairy and beef herds.

Like I said, the reservoirs are full. Water managers around the state got their snow-pack early so there’s no hew and cry over it being a drought year. In an odd twist of fate, the cities have water, but reservoirs that supply them don’t help the farmers. And, they don’t recharge local aquifers on which the rural areas rely for well water.

Changes in our lives have us wondering how long we’ll be here. I’ve loved Two Rock, and it’s been good to me. But it’s time to move on to build a different future. (Maybe somewhere where there’s water!) So I wasn’t sure this year whether I should put in a garden.

I have been in charge of the farm garden for going on seven years. If we plant it—and have to leave—would someone step up, and care for it? This year was to be a banner year. Over the past few years, the main garden has been shaded by a line of trees Elmer planted to stop erosion from the dairy next door. If ever there was evidence that livestock can damage the land—the field next door is a clear example. The land drops two feet at the edge of our garden—right at the fence. The cows line up and watch me while I garden, and because of the drop we’re nearly at eye level as I bend to dig or weed. It’s a little weird. In any event, late last season Rick spent a couple of weekends pruning and topping that line of trees. This year the garden finally enjoys as much sun as it did when I first arrived.

Early in the spring I asked Elmer how he felt about putting in a farm garden. He hemmed and hawed and finally said we should. We discussed the dry winter and I said that this year we were ready with the drip irrigation. (Rick set it up last year and it was a huge relief in the workload.) I told Elmer I’d get to the garden once he’d plowed. Usually he plows in April, and then again in the first week of May. That digs under any weed seeds that might flourish in the fresh, loose soil. This year he didn’t plow. And, I waited.

Finally, I figured he’d changed his mind. He did plow what we call the “orchard garden,” where he and his girlfriend plant their personal stuff, but he didn’t plow either the main garden or the long garden by the chicken barn. I saw that he’d plowed and tomatoes appeared by the orchard a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime, spring has rolled to summer. It’s hot and digging is getting difficult. With all this dryness, we are getting an early start on the hardpan layer in the soil. It’s a curse and a blessing, that hardpan. If you wait too long to put the garden in, the digging is near to impossible. But that same hardened layer keeps the soils underneath moist. If you water smart—you can do a garden with very little input. That’s the theory behind our bucket gardens. (See https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2012/07/04/the-proper-planting-of-buckets/)

Getting Ready

Getting Ready

Without a word, Elmer plowed Friday night. Late. I woke up Saturday and realized that I needed to put in a garden. I’d already become accustomed to the idea of no garden, so this is an adjustment. The plow didn’t go deep enough to deal with the hardpan, so digging-in the buckets is a lot of work. If you don’t loosen the soil under the buckets, the roots won’t get beneath the hardpan into the moist earth below. So today I dug in enough buckets (and gopher-shielded rings and corn rings) for a modest garden. It’ll host eight tomato plants, half dozen peppers, four cucumbers, some zucchini and yellow crook-neck squash, a couple of winter squashes, beans, some lettuce, spinach and herbs, and corn. That’s enough for the farm tenants, since most don’t cook much and fewer avail themselves of the garden. I’ll plant with seeds and some starts, this week. I’m not planting the long garden this year.

Digging-in

Digging-in

 

 

Gopher proof rings

Gopher proof rings

 

I don’t know if we’ll be here for harvest. (But, we should be able to enjoy some of the early offerings.) With the drip system, the garden will trickle along, with or without Rick and me. It’ll be like a ghost garden. If that’s the case, I can only hope my farm neighbors will enjoy the harvest. (Assuming someone will water it, said The Little Red Hen.)

Ready for plants

Ready for plants

It’s that time of year again…that time when we roll up our sleeves to volunteer as amateur builders (well, I’m an amateur, but Rick’s a pro) and spend a couple of weekends fixing up the homes of seniors and those on fixed incomes, so that they can remain comfortably in their homes. Rick and I are House Captains on a big project this year–so for the next week or so, there may be scant activity on the blog. Bear with us and our aching muscles. We have an entire yard to transform, two porches to rebuild, a bathroom to remodel. wiring to upgrade, a chicken coop to build, a garden to put in, fences all the way around….it will be transformative for all. But don’t worry, it’s not just us. This organization (Rebuilding Together) recruits a zillion volunteers for the ‘big day.’ Our project alone will probably have 40 volunteers who show up, work gloves in hand, ready to pitch in. (And we’ll need them.) On a large project like this, one day isn’t enough, so Saturday we met with 15 volunteers to set the fence posts. We cleaned up a lot and cut down some out-of-control trees (so there can be sunlight in the garden.) One of our volunteers yesterday was 83! (He’s worked on several of our projects and he works so hard he puts the kids to shame.)

This week is planning and logistics. Then, next Saturday our army of fresh-faced, muscle-flexing, angels will descend on the site and, by days end, our exhausted crew will go home with amazing images of before and after dancing in their heads. It’s incredible what you can achieve with good will, doughnuts and coffee! See you soon when things are under control and Rick and I can return to our own dreams of building a future.

Don’t worry about the emus–they’re thigh high now and spending their days munching away on the greens in my front yard.

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

I don’t usually stoop to political pandering, but here’s a message I truly value. As a gardener, and a lover of bees, this is an important message from Credo. Later today, I’ll get off my soapbox and post a regular Two Rock kind of post.

A.V. Walters

Subject: Tell the EPA: Immediately suspend the pesticide that’s killing bees!

Dear Friend,

A blockbuster study released this week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has for the first time labeled the pesticide clothianidin as an “unacceptable” danger to bees.

Scientists have long thought that clothianidin is at least partially to blame for the alarming rate that bees have been dying off in the U.S. – nearly 30% of our bee population, per year, has been lost to so-called colony collapse since 2006.

But the EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban its use, citing lack of evidence.

Now, the EFSA study could be a major breakthrough to convince the EPA to take emergency action, and suspend the use of clothianidin to stop the precipitous decline in global honeybee populations.

I just signed a petition urging the EPA to take action. add you name here to speak out for the bees:

http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/efsa_bees/?r_by=53573-44197-rKQIoXx&rc=confemail

Paris rain

Between Seasons

A.V. Walters

The first serious storm of our winter rolled through last night. We were forewarned— forecasts of power losses and flooding in low lying areas made us tidy up and hunker down. It’s not cold though, and so, it doesn’t feel like real winter. The storm blew in from the southwest, with temperatures in the mid-50s (F). I went out to the garden for (yet another) last tomato harvest. I keep saying that, but the tomatoes aren’t listening, and keep ripening. I suppose only freezing will end the bounty. The garden looks bleak but tomatoes, scallions, peppers, beets and the occasional winter squash still make the garden walk worthwhile. No more canning though. These tomatoes go directly into daily meals, or into the dehydrator.

The idea of a power outage had us worried. It’s the downside of usurping nature in the incubation of emu eggs. Once undertaking the task, what do you do if the power goes out? It’s not like Mr. Emu will jump back into babysitting once we’ve disturbed his paternal, confinement trance. Now, we’re watching him, and the Mrs., to see if they go back into breeding mode. In the meantime, there are nine eggs in that incubator. What could we do to keep them viable if we go dark and the incubator goes cold? So, despite the fact that it wasn’t all that cold out last night, we fired up the wood stove to chase off the gloom and to test the temperature range to see if we could step in should the utilities fail. It turns out that the space under the stove, where Kilo usually sleeps, is exactly in the hatching range between 95 and 99 degrees, Fahrenheit. (What are the odds?!) As long as we don’t sleep through it, we’re covered for an emu power emergency. Of course, this morning the house was a toasty 68—about six degrees higher than our standard, indoor, winter norm. I should be happy to be within the range that most folks set as their low-normal, but I’m accustomed to my winter chill.

The winds have died, but it’s still raining.  A few small branches are down, the last of the fall leaves have been stripped from the trees and the valley below us is a new lake. That’s standard for winter, the pastures that frame our view, fill and drain to the rhythms set by the storms. The hills are a lush, eye-popping green. Now that the peach tree is leafless, we have our full-range view back. It’s not winter yet, but it’s coming. December will likely bring more high winds, rain and cold.

It’s also lambing season. I always thought it odd that the farmers’ timing ran opposite to what you’d expect. The calves and lambs here are born into our coldest weather, to take advantage of the free and healthy feed offered by our green hills. By spring, they’re ready for market (or nearly) and the farmers keep and feed only their breeding stock during the long dry summers. Good thing those lambs come in wearing sweaters! The baby emus (should we be so lucky they hatch) are a different story. We’ll need to keep them warm for about a month. We’re devising an emu-baby corral, out of straw bales, to be warmed by a heat lamp. Then, if the power goes out, we’ll really have a conundrum because they’re sure as heck not going to fit under the wood stove. What do you do with a passel of shivering emu-babes? Bring them in? A house full of them? Bedlam, I tell you. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope the power holds. We’re between seasons, autumn and winter, California and the emus’ native home of Australia.

A.V. Walters

I know I said I was finished canning for the season. And then, there was the threat of frost, so we decided to do one last harvest before the more delicate items perished. We brought in peppers, the last eggplant, basil (but unfortunately, not enough of it), a bunch of late-maturing winter squash (spaghetti, moschata, butternut and one lone delicata that was hiding in the foliage) and then we took a hard look at the tomatoes. Sure enough, many had split and rotted after the rains. But looking closer, there were still a lot of really lovely tomatoes in there, so we harvested.

And harvested, and harvested. We made an ample last harvest delivery to everyone on the farm and still there were over three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. Eighty-eight pounds of tomatoes—in November, no less. So we pulled out the canning equipment, from its brief rest in storage and set up for one last (no, really) run. Twenty-three quarts later, we are finished. We did extra thick sauce infused with basil (for pizza or spaghetti); we did tomato pieces, most sorted by color—red, orange or yellow, which will be lovely for stews or soups; and we did some fancies—mixed colors in patterns—which are almost too pretty to eat and will probably be gift items. (So if you’re family and you’re reading this, close your eyes on this part.) Then we washed up and put all the gear away again.

It was a welcome reprieve from regular life, which has had some twists of late. Anyone who is the parent of a teenager can relate—a runaway with issues and attitude. As much as you ache for their safety and mental state, you also wish you could can them, too, safely into tidy jars, tucked into the pantry until they’re ready for real life. Once we’d done all that we could do, a little tomato therapy of peeling and dicing and canning was just the ticket. And by the end of the weekend, she was home, safe, and probably already gearing up for her next snit. You wonder, was I ever that young and clueless?

By last evening, the kitchen was clean, the jars in neat rows, cooling, and we relaxed in front of the fire. Winter is coming and the early mornings are decked out in frost. Stupidly, I left a lot of the basil in the garden and the cold burned it to a blackened, limp mess. A day earlier and I could have dried it for winter. Oh well. In the daytime it’s too warm for a fire, but by night the chill is in the air and it’s time for some heat. This morning, I noticed that more tomatoes are ripe. No way. I’m not canning them. I’ve already put the canning stuff away twice. But, I may take some and dehydrate them. I heard from an old Italian friend that the secret of great cooking with canned tomatoes was to dry some too, and then snip bits of the dried tomatoes into the pot twenty minutes before the meal is ready. Supposedly the dried ones bring back the aroma of summer.

Last night, friends called. Their neighbor has an excess of apples—did we want any? Plenty for applesauce or the emus. Applesauce is always a lovely treat in the winter. Oh, on second thought don’t go too far with all that canning equipment; we still have some empty jars. And, more emu news, next time.

A.V. Walters

The rains have come. Those first showers over a week ago, have worked their magic. At first it was just a blush–a wisp of color if you caught it at the right angle. Now there’s no question, our hills are turning green. It’s a funny dynamic that our gardening season is the opposite of our green season. Still, after months of dead brown hills it’s a relief to the eye to see this transformation. There are still goodies from the garden, they’ll go on until the hard frosts hit. This is the seasonal pause, the green relief in still fine weather, before the storms and cold come. It’s a pleasure to work outside in the cool, sometimes grey days.

I’ll be posting a little less frequently this month. I am, after all, fully committed to NaNoWriMo. It could be that Editor Rick picks up the slack. He’s undertaking those end-of-season projects, readying for winter, seed-saving (he’s so organized), tool management, and soon, pulling buckets. All that stuff that I let lag until the storms force my hand. My head is miles and decades away, weaving the fabric of a 1931 speakeasy in Detroit. Outside, the creeping green is putting me in the mood with the intense colors of my childhood. While California is lovely, it is difficult to go without green for five or six months of the year. I’m not saying I miss snow (though sometimes, I do) but I do welcome the return of green.

It’s less than a week to the election–don’t forget to vote. If you’re here in California, and if you value good food and informed choice, remember to vote for Proposition 37. Let’s get those GMO foods labeled.

I’ll pull my head out of fiction at least once a week, to give you the what’s up in Two Rock.

A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.

Who Knew?

A.V. Walters

My last blog addressed the issue of produce theft. Who knew it was a trend? I discovered that community gardens all over the country have been vexed with this garden pilfery. And I thought gophers were bad! Friends sent me the following links.

http://kstp.com/news/stories/s2712848.shtml

http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-garden/2010/08/please-do-not-steal-the-vegetables/#image/1

http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/07/27/tomato-thieves-plague-st-paul-minneapolis-community-gardens

Since then, they’ve hit the corn and more tomatoes. Not that I’m left without; I’m still canning and at this rate it’s a question of what will happen first–the last of the tomatoes ripening or the first hard frost. Still, it’s a shock that garden theft is so common. It never occurred to me that the old organic maxim “And a third for the pests,” meant people.

We’re having one of those hot and muggy residual summer weeks. I’m not complaining, it will help to ripen tomatoes (who, so far have kindly not come ripe all at once.) I can only can so much at a whack–earlier this week my stove was simmering at capacity–a pot of sauce on every burner. Fifty pounds of them cooks down to about nine quarts of sauce and whole canned tomatoes. So the rest of October looks like tomatoes–and then NaNoWriMo in November. (What’s that? Oh, next blog I’ll explain and encourage.)

Tomato Thieves

A.V. Walters

Here it is, October, and the tomatoes are beginning to yield in a big way. Finally, the season catches up. Most all the regular summer vegies are gone, a few lingering summer squash, some cucumbers and then–the tomatoes. It’s October canning again. Last weekend I set the kitchen up for canning, prepped my jars, counted my lids and rings and then headed out to the garden with a three gallon bucket. When I got there, there were hardly any ripe tomatoes. Just the day before those vines looked like Christmas trees and then–next to nothing. I blamed Don. It’s not fair, because I had no evidence. But Don has a reputation for pulling jokes on people–I figured it had to be him. I picked what there was, and plotted my revenge.

Yesterday, I got a call from one of my neighbors. She said that there were strangers in the tomato patch. I threw on my clothes and bolted out after them. Sure enough, a friend of one our residents was there, picking a grocery sack full of tomatoes! This is a tough call. It is a community garden. Granted Rick and I provide most of the plants and almost all of the work, but all summer we regularly deliver the harvest to each of the residents on the farm. We encourage “the community” to help themselves to the bounty from the garden. And, we’ve never had a problem before with having enough to share and to can.

This interloper was accompanied by one of our kids from the farm, a human shield, in my mind. That’s a despicable tactic–to use children as cover in your fiendish plot. I know these kids, they’re good kids, but for the life of me, I cannot get them to eat tomatoes. I held my tongue, that is, until she went after the corn. She pulled several ears from the stalks, pulled back the husks and, determining that they were not yet ripe–threw them to the ground. That was it. I approached her, my eyes fixed on that paper grocery sack near filled with lovely heirloom tomatoes. She had a nervous smile. I initiated the conversation, “So, you know that this is a community garden–for the folks who live here on the farm.” She shifted the weight of the bag in the crook of her arm, nodding. The kid asked about the corn. I explained that it wasn’t ready yet–told her how to tell–and explained that we didn’t get full pollination, so some of those ears would have gaps, like missing teeth where the kernels didn’t fill in. And I told her that the ears they’d thrown down should be fed to the pigs, and not wasted. The kid and the tomato thief nodded.

They didn’t meet my gaze. It wasn’t clear that I’d made my point. “It’s fine,” I said, “As long as the stuff you pick is for farm residents, for consumption here on the farm.”

She paused, “Of course, these are for the kids, here.” She nodded at the kid. The kid nodded, too.

Sheesh, I’ve been trying for three years to get these kids to even try the tomatoes. You couldn’t pry their mouths open with a crowbar. And now this woman is lying and including the kid in the lie. Great training, eh? I sighed, turned and walked back over to my conversation with the woman who’d placed the call. She shook her head. Then she advised me that on Sunday morning there’d been a couple of folks here she didn’t even recognize, picking tomatoes. And I’d blamed poor Don!

I don’t know the solution to this problem. While I’m more than happy to share with my farm neighbors, I also want to get in my winter supply of canned sauce and canned whole romas. Who are these people who would show up at harvest and help themselves, when they’ve not participated in the garden–and who are strangers to the farm? I just don’t get it. My sister tells me I’m the little red hen.

When I came home this morning, I found lovely printed signs which Rick had made.

 

THIS GARDEN WAS

PLANTED BY AND IS FOR THE USE OF

FARM RESIDENTS

PLEASE RESPECT THIS

I don’t know if the signs will have any effect on the tomato pilferers, but already they’ve done wonders for me.

 

 

 

Furry Ground-Blight

A.V. Walters

We do the garden walk everyday. It’s a way to check how things are doing, see what’s ripe and do a little weeding along the way. Admittedly, after last year’s debacle, I’m constantly checking the tomatoes for any sign of (I’m afraid to even say it) blight. By August, you expect a little bit of yellowing or leaf curl, but a true blight is a sight to behold. It can wipe out whole patches in a matter of days. The best you can do is to quickly dig out the affected plants and dispose of them—far away. Do not compost a blighted plant, especially towards the end of the summer season. It can infect your compost pile, which, if it doesn’t get hot enough thereafter, will spread the disease with every innocent looking shovel full of black gold. (By this time of year I don’t have enough high nitrogen materials to keep the compost cooking—especially this year when it’s so dry that even the weeds are gray.) Bottom line: Don’t ever risk composting blighted plants. ‘Taint worth it!

So, it was with some angst that yesterday’s walk revealed a tomato plant in full wilt. A Black Crim, too, one of my favorites. Blight? Too early to tell and it didn’t really have the signs. Was its drip emitter plugged? No. And then, the big question, any sign of gopher? We’ve never had a gopher problem with tomatoes. Last year, a friend of ours said gophers were going after his tomatoes, big time, and we could only wonder if different gophers might have different food preferences. Gophers—picky eaters?) In fact, some of the tomatoes are planted in bottomless buckets—ones that were cut in the early days of bucket farming, before I was aware of the dangers of that Furry Ground-Blight.

Our tomato plants are not small. Most of them are taller than me. They’re held up by our super sturdy, tomato cages but, by this time of the year, they’ve extended well beyond the perimeter of the cage. Rick has had to stake some of them because the weight of the plants has even the super-sturdy cages listing. And, it’s tough to find the cage in that jungle, let alone the bucket. There’ve been no major gopher signs in the immediate environs. So, yesterday afternoon, we did a triage watering to see if it had any effect. Sure enough, by evening the patient had perked up considerably. That’s a good sign.

First thing this morning I went back out to check. I’d left my morning schedule open, just in case I needed to quarantine that wilted tomato. Sadly, it had wilted again. I pushed my way through the foliage to get a look at the bucket and the drip emitter. And, AHA! There it was. The evidence. The loose pile of loamy soil was directly in the bucket. Damn gopher!!!

It is a relief that it’s not a viral problem. But, I don’t remember if this particular tomato plant is in a bottomless bucket. That’s a big issue. Following this morning’s revelation, we resolved to retire all of the bottomless buckets, next season. But, if this was a drilled-out bucket, we’ll need to worry about gophers that have learned to go in from the top!

Next season, we could have a serious problem. Don’s little, field-farming venture (the squash and pumpkin plot) has failed. Undone by gophers, is the official reason. And it is true that his “crop” has been hit hard by gophers. We include his pumpkin patch on our garden walks, and the ground is perforated with gopher holes. Every week we could count more and more of his plants, succumbing. There’s more to it, though. Don wasn’t really ready, or geared up, to harvest and market the produce. That may be okay for the pumpkins—we still have time before the Halloween, pumpkin season, and I’m sure he’ll harvest what pumpkins he has left. Pumpkins will endure enormous levels of neglect, but the other things, zucchinis, crooknecks and cucumbers, require attention and harvesting. Don never stepped up to the plate on this. There are zucchini’s over there the size of Buicks! And the crooknecks look like ancient gourds. He’s given up, and the field is now, Gopherland. He’s got a major case of the Furry Ground-Blight.

From our perspective, this is a debacle. He’s essentially breeding gophers over there and, next season, there will be more of them fur balls and they’ll be my problem. (Thank God for buckets.) So we’ll need to determine whether our poor Black Crim was the victim of a subterranean attack, or whether we need to worry about gophers mounting the ramparts of our defenses. I watered the patient again this morning. With extra water, it may be able to limp to the finish line. It’s a shame, that plant must have a bushel of tomatoes on it—beautiful green ones. During my inspection this morning I got the first two and hopefully, not the last, ripe tomatoes from that plant. We shall see. And, as usual, in Two Rock, we have a late season for tomatoes.

Rick is fuming. (Well, as fuming as Rick gets.) He’s determined to get this varmint, though he’s had limited luck with his trapping efforts in the past. Last I saw, he was muttering under his breath, “Rodenator.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Rodenator is an expensive, propane fed device that explodes, frying underground varmints in their burrows. (“Hold my beer… watch this!”)

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

A.V. Walters

I’ve been tapped…

I’ve been blogging away, quietly, for months now and, suddenly, I’ve been tapped for a bloggers’ award. (A Bloggie?) I’m a little surprised, since my blogging efforts have been, well, quiet. It is very sweet to have someone you’ve never met (but yet, have come to know) reach out and give you the nod to let you know that your efforts are appreciated. Thank you Sarah—half a world away and still a part of this strange, new kind of community.

I understand that there are rules about these things—which has delayed my response, a little. So, for those people that I will, in turn, nominate, the summary of those rules is:

a) You must thank the individual who has nominated you;

b) You have to turn around and tap ten others, to recognize them with the same award;

c) You need to tell seven things about yourself that you haven’t already revealed in your blog, and;

d) You must post the award symbol somewhere in your blog.

For me, the most difficult will be the seven revelations. Blogging was a challenge, for me, from the start because I so jealously guard my online privacy. I don’t do Facebook or the kind of personal, social media that is readily available. Some years ago I had an unfortunate experience with a stalker and I learned how cautiously one had to guard one’s sense of privacy. All the writers and self-publishing folks said I had to Facebook, and tweet, and blog (oh my!)  There was no way I would do Facebook (or, the pictorial kinds of “sharing.” I hate to break it to the Facebook folks, but those aren’t real friends. It took me almost a year to agree to do an author photo and, even then, I did it as a spoof. So, I decided to try blogging instead.

In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I was dragged into it—but you wouldn’t know it once I started. I’ve found that I really enjoy sharing that one little corner of my life—a rural/gardening perspective. It’s an important sliver of who I am. I find solace and warmth and humor in the everyday of rural life. It has almost nothing to do with my more formal writing, so far there’s not even a gardener in any of my books. (What’s up with that, eh?)

I’m not a very good blogger. I am forever getting notices that tell me I need to “optimize my online presence.” I just shudder. I’m not technical, can’t even figure out how to post photos—there’s no way I could do all that technical stuff to “reach out to a wider audience.” I can’t even get the Twitter feed thing going. I have no idea how the people who did find me, did so. I laugh when I read the word searches that brought people to my blog—usually about gophers, or bucket farming, or some poor soul desperate for a solution to those damned noisy mourning doves. (And I have no remedies to offer that don’t come from the end of a double-barrel. Sorry.) But blogging seems to have stuck and, whether it sells books or not, I seem to be here, to stay.

Thank you

As for this award, I’m touched to have been recognized. (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”) So, thank you, Sarah the Gardener. I’ve loved watching and hearing about your garden, in its Down Under oppositeness. I’ve learned from you just as I hope others may have picked up a tidbit or two from me. (For example, until your last entry I didn’t know pepper and eggplants were so temperature fussy for germination. I thought I had bad seeds! One of this year’s eggplants seedlings came up after eight weeks, and there was Sarah, explaining to me just why.) So thank you, thank you, thank you (and the seedlings thank you, too.)

There are others…

I have come to enjoy many other bloggers. I’ll nominate the ten, but there are more. These ones are special because they showed me that there are others who take the garden pleasures seriously. I am not the only one whose very favorite thing is to go out to the garden to see what’s for dinner. There are some blogs that I follow just because they make me laugh, sometimes uncomfortably so. And finally there are blogs from whom I learn and enjoy a little different perspective, even wickedly so. They are, in no particular order:

1) Soulsby Farm, A Very Small Farm—for giving me faith that there are younger people out there reaching back into our agricultural heritage. http://soulsbyfarm.wordpress.com/

2) Planthoarder—for a glimpse of gardening and what’s in the weather back home and totally luscious photos. http://planthoarder.wordpress.com/

3) A Stay at-home Scientist—for a touch of gardening and a spoonful of science that speaks directly to the heart of this wonk. http://stayathomescientist.com/

4) Cristian, because he’s very, very, young, and yet runs full tilt at writing what matters to him, and because he has his own aesthetic. http://cristianmihai.net/

5) Catherine Caffeinated because she gives out pep talks and dispenses the self-publishing scoop (at least her version) unselfishly and with a dollop of humor. (Though the pink is a little much.) http://catherineryanhoward.com/

6) All the fearless contributors at Fresh Ink, for their bravery and for providing and using a platform to showcase new writers. http://fresh1nk.wordpress.com/

7) For the chronicler of Joe’s Shitty Ideas, because you make me laugh and sometimes wince. http://joesshittyideas.com/

8) Clotilda Jamcracker, because she gardens, she has a wild perspective, she’s a hoot and makes me think. http://www.clotildajamcracker.com/

9) Dianne Gray, because she writes, and writes about writing and takes her characters as seriously as other people. http://diannegray.wordpress.com/

10)  A French Garden, because she has lovely photos, she gardens with sincerity and she’s so brave to have picked up and followed a dream. http://afrenchgarden.wordpress.com/

And now the damnable revelations……

1. I have a cat named Kilo (No, not that! Because when I rescued him he weighed 2.2 pounds) and my cat has a cat, named Bob.

2. I’ve known all about the Hispano-Suiza since was about four because my dad thought it was important and loved to hear us little kids say it. Excellence at all cost!

3. I just learned that you can eat pumpkin greens! (Not that I’ve tried them, yet.)It’s a good use for those creeping vines once you know that you’ve got all the pumpkins you need (and, then a little, in case the gophers get them.) One year we went to harvest a lovely pumpkin, only to find the gophers had hollowed it out and eaten the interior then, stuffed it full of dirt! (It was actually, pretty impressive.)

4. I am a news junkie and a policy wonk. Moving to the farm helped a lot because it made me cut back on my news sources. Of course, you could keep busy full-time, just on the net… At least I got rid of the television.

5. I am not a technical person. I can’t even put a photo in the blog! (I don’t have a camera, and couldn’t transfer the photos if I did. (There’s only so much begging one can do… Rick?) I almost rejected this award because of the requirement that you post the award logo on your blog. I’ll have to figure it out.

6. I just sent two pounds of Manzanita ash to my mother in Michigan.

7. In 1974, I was an E.C.S.S.A. cross-country running champion. (Yeah, go a ahead, figure that one out.)

And, that’s it. I addressed all the responsibilities of this awesome honor and I can now go back to regular blogging… once I figure out how to post that darn picture. (Rick?)

 

Water Wars

A.V. Walters

Have you ever noticed how folks are at their very best in times of scarcity? I don’t mean hard times generally, but true (or perceived) commodity scarcity, just warms their little hearts. It’s good to watch it on a small scale because it gives you a better understanding of it on a global level—“Worry globally, obsess locally.” So, I’ll tell this tale, but you must remember that I, too, have a dog in this fight. I can rationalize that my bucket garden is already a water-saver, and that the produce I’m growing is for the benefit of everyone on the farm—it’s all true, but I’m sure that everyone who’s got a pony in this show, has good reasons, too.

So, I’ve said, several times, that it’s been a dry year and that we’ve all been concerned about the wells running dry. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’re all trying to avoid that, but it’s in the air. We’ve all seen the news—the record temperatures and drought back east, the fires in Colorado.

I remember when I lived in the city during one of California’s recurring droughts. We were on water restrictions and it became almost a point of pride to drive a dirty car. Everyone was eager to show that they were conserving water. The lawns on our block were dead and our yards all looked like hell. When things start to get really tight though, it degenerates quickly to backbiting and finger-pointing. I had a little flower garden in my front yard then, mostly santolina, rosemary and lavender (all drought resistant), which I watered exclusively from the cold water that ran in the shower before the hot water arrived. I collected it in a bucket and used it judiciously in the garden.  One woman, whose peonies didn’t survive the watering restrictions, rebuked me for having my lovely, little garden. It didn’t matter that it was already a Xeriscape, or that it was watered with gray water, what mattered was that my garden had survived and hers had not. So, I come to this with some history. It’s why I started bucket gardening in the first place.

The landlord has been cautioning us to conserve. One neighbor has a nice garden—not a thirsty one, but she keeps it up. Elmer has complained to me several times (and to her) that she waters too much. She doesn’t really—she chose good plants and now they’re well established and deep rooted. Those comments have left her feeling defensive, so much so that if there’s any interruption in the water—she makes the point, to me, that “It wasn’t me!” By comparison, my yard looks parched. I water a couple of hydrangeas at my front gate, but I let the “lawn” die every summer and only the truly determined yard plants survive the neglect. I stated from the start that my landscaping water goes to the vegetable garden. Since last year there was produce that went to waste, this year we cut back the size the garden. The garden’s total, water consumption runs about 200 gallons per week. So far, I’ve avoided Elmer’s evil eye. In the house, we’ve always tried to conserve water—such as, fewer showers, fewer flushes. We live in California and that has, for some of us, become a permanent, lifestyle adjustment.

Don, with his field of pumpkins and squashes, keeps telling me I water too much. He says he’s keeping an eye on me. Right, like my little bucket garden compares, in any way, with a field full of water-loving squash! His is watered with drip-irrigation but, even then, just one of his waterings drops the level in the big tank by 8 to 12 inches. (He told me so, I didn’t check.) He asked me not to water on weekends, because that’s when most of the tenants are home—using water. I agreed, but said that I’d still have to water new seedlings or transplants. He wagged his finger at me. Last weekend I transplanted the last of the corn—and of course I watered it. Monday morning he commented, revealing that he knew I’d watered. (I’m not sure if he’s got spies or was bluffing!) I felt I had to defend myself—“Only the transplants!” Really, scout’s honor.

Added to the drought-anxiety is that they’ve been working on the water system (again.) Ever since this spring’s debacle with the pop-up tank, Elmer has been working to “upgrade” and add extra storage to the system. This past week, they took one of the older, concrete tanks (it’s more like a cistern) out of service to repair and upgrade it. As tenants, we never know what’s up with the water. (There have been more interruptions to water service this year than in the previous five that I’ve been here.) We are nervous every time the pressure drops—is this it? Did we run the system dry?

Invariably, the problem is with the switching system. It’s supposed to be an automatic changeover—when one tank gets low it should seamlessly switch to another tank. More often, something fails and, because my house is highest on the property, I’m the first to turn on the tap and… nothing! Then, I get to call and report that there’s no water, which only gets everybody started again—finger-pointing and defensive. We’ve offered, but nobody will teach us, (or permit us) to step in and pinch-hit when the system goes down, so we’re always having to call Elmer, or Don, at a family picnic or dinner out. Of course, they grumble and ask, “Well, you been watering today… was So-and-So…?” It makes us all feel a little guilty. (Which is probably the point of it.) The fact is, we’re in better shape than in earlier years because of the added storage. Don tells me that there’s an extra 10,000 gallons, but damned if he can figure out how to get it fed into my system. Only Don and Elmer understand the system and, more often than they’d like to admit, not even them. The system goes back to Elmer’s dad, parts of it at least seventy years old.

It grates on tenants that Elmer harps about conservation and then pressure-washes everything in sight. Spotless trucks and tractors shine, parked next to the shop, while tenants’ gardens wither. Well, that is the landlord’s prerogative, but I don’t think it’s wise social policy. So, the sniping goes in all directions. (Unlike the water!)

I watered Friday night—everything—all three gardens, because I’d committed not to water on the weekend. The pressure was low (don’t ask), so it took longer than usual—hours actually. Rick finally came out looking for me, wondering where I’d got to.  (He doesn’t much like the water-sniping and chafes a little with the scheduling requests and unannounced shut-downs, for repairs. We don’t use that much water!) Saturday morning the pressure was still low but there’s little we could do—Elmer was called away to a family funeral and Don’s on vacation.

Rick and I did “the garden walk” just to see how things were doing. (The garden looks great, except something’s messing with the beet greens—looks like a virus, probably carried by those little light green beetles with the dark spots.) We walked over to check on Don’s squash field. We do that from time to time—mostly because he’s got quite a gopher problem there, and we’re watching to see what, if anything, in his anti-gopher arsenal, might be working. Sometimes we just go and pull weeds there. Lo and behold, Don’s zucchinis have taken off. He has baseball bat sized squash. Don, who last year scolded me for letting the zucchinis get too big, has a field full of them. Apparently eight inches is the commercial standard (insert your own joke, here)—or so he chided me last summer. All of these squash will have to become animal feed. Partly, this is because Don’s on vacation, but it’s also because he planted a crop for which he didn’t secure a market. (I can see Rick’s blood pressure rising.) We’ve been conserving water so that Don could plant a crop that he’s now letting go to waste. (Insert your own profanities, here.)

Well, that night, the taps ran dry. Of course, nobody who knew the system (you know, the members of the secret, Only We Know the Water System Club) could be summoned—I called Don on the cell phone, cutting into his vacation, and he walked me through a manual switching to a reserve tank. As you know, I’m not supposed to know how this is done, and Don commented that he’d catch hell for letting out water secrets. (He may have to kill me.) What’s goofy is that there’s all this secrecy and water paranoia. There’s no shortage. We have an extra 10,000 gallons more than in previous years—we’re just working out the bugs on delivery. Still, there’s a perceived shortage and it’s bringing out the worst in everyone. Tenants bridle because they think Elmer is cowing them into a ridiculous level of water conservation (one man invited Elmer to live with his wife when she hadn’t showered in days.) We’ve come to the conclusion that the bee in Elmer’s bonnet is probably not the amount water being used, but the amount of electricity he’s paying, to pump it.

What’s really worrisome is how badly people behave when there’s a shortage—even when it’s not a real shortage. What happens if the wells really do run dry? Not just here, but everywhere. We really need to look at water issues in this country—nothing is more important, to keeping our world safe and sane, as a sound water policy. (So, why on earth are they permitting “fracking” without safeguards for critical, aquifer protection? We can survive without oil for a lot longer than we can live on poisoned water.)

Anyway, not everyone behaves badly. Sunday morning, Rick got up and installed drip irrigation in the long garden. Smart use of resources is half the battle.

The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.

Spiders and Flies and Cows, Oh My!

A.V. Walters

Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions that may be offensive to sensitive readers.

It is that time of year when gardeners, plants-in and waiting, are beset by bugs. I live next door to a dairy. Dairies attract flies. (Let’s not go there. It’s enough to say, it’s about the cows.) Flies attract spiders. I live in what must be the spider capital of the universe. If I don’t “sweep” or power-wash my house a couple of times a year, it looks like the wicked witch of the west lives here. The entire shadow area under the edge of the clapboards is completely filled in by spider webs. The eaves are, well, scary. My car is home to countless arachnids as well, and gets so covered in fly specks that people comment when I go into town. While I’m not fond of spiders, living here has helped me put them in perspective. At least they help keep the bugs (flies!) in check. Our plethora of insects also feeds an enormous number and variety of birds. Hey, I’m looking on the bright side here.

At about this time every year we get The Invasion of the Leaf Hoppers. They’re after green, anything green. Wave your hand over my radishes and you’ll see a cloud of them. As the green dries out of the surrounding landscape, gardens are left to absorb the bugs from everywhere else. This past week the valley farmers cut and bailed the last of the hay from the bottomlands. The hills are golden and dry. All those bugs are on the move—looking for their next meal.

It would be easy to panic and reach for a chemical solution. I think it would also be a mistake. Organic growers have options for a real emergency, but the basic framework calls for patience. Over time, the mantra, feed the soil not the plant, should lead to soil and plants healthy enough to endure the annual onslaught. This is a natural, seasonal event and agriculture over the centuries has survived pests. I guess I can, too.

Left to their own devices, plants are not defenseless against insects. When insects nibble (or chomp), plants respond chemically by making their leaves a little more bitter. It’s not so much that we’d notice (though I have tasted some overly stressed and, resultingly bitter, greens in my time) but enough to dissuade the bugs. It takes a little time. I know that when the leaf hoppers first arrive, it looks like an emergency. Hold off! Don’t reach for sprays or toxic powders. Let the plants do their magic. (The same can be said of white flies—though with them I’m inclined to reach for the Safer Soap earlier on.) You can help. Make sure they have enough water, especially if it’s hot. One year I fed my garden manure tea, but I can’t say if it was any more effective than water—but I felt better. Probably with that little extra bit of care the vegies will be just fine.

Of course, from time to time there are infestations that threaten the survival of the garden, or maybe just one of your crops. The watchword there is Know Your Bugs. We do have natural methods for most pests. For larger marauders, there’s hand-picking. This is not for the squeamish for faint of heart. It is very effective, particularly for slugs, snails, caterpillars (especially those amazing tomato hornworms, which you can feed to your chickens) and squash bugs (which I always thought was an imperative command.) These larger pests can do damage quite quickly—a tomato hornworm can defoliate a plant in days. I just squish them in my fingers, which makes the kids on the farm recoil in horror. You can also throw them in soapy water, or gently relocate them to a different environment (yeah, right.) Check the undersides of leaves for eggs, which you can squish, or wash off (or spray) with soapy water. With squash bugs, if you stay on it early in the season, you may solve your problem early on. In any event, make sure you exterminate them at the end of the season (they’ll congregate on the last remaining squash and pumpkins, or their leaves) or you’ll see them again next year. In a bucket-garden, handpicking pests is easy. When you fill the bucket reservoir, they all head up the plant for high ground. And there you are, waiting…

For little winged critters, there’s soapy water spray, both for them, their larvae and their eggs (in particular watch for those voracious cabbage moths and their larvae—sure they look like pretty white butterflies but they can do real damage.) For crawling critters—especially at the seedling stage, there’s diatomaceous earth. And if things are really bad, you can treat with Bt (bacillus thurengensis)—the organic gardener’s ace in the hole. Probably you won’t need most of these tactics.

The internet is an incredible resource, both in identifying the pest of the moment, and in suggesting treatment alternatives. Check there first, before resorting to the hardware store.

I have spiders in my garden, too. They are honored guests. I try to water and weed without disturbing them. They are my plants’ guardians. My family will be surprised that I have made my peace with spiders. From arachnophobe  to arachnophile in just a few short garden seasons.

Now if we can just do something about the gophers.

 

A.V.Walters

We have settled into our normal summer weather pattern. That’s warm (80s) days and cool nights, fueled by ocean fog. It slows down the garden some, but makes this valley extremely livable. You can watch its magic, just before dusk when the winds from the west sweep in a low ‘cloud’ layer, that’s really high fog. Some evenings the sunlight streams in, below the fog, and its raking light illuminates the fields, revealing things you never see in mid-day.

This pattern lets us reap the benefit of old-fashioned air conditioning—we open the windows at night and close them in the morning before the first glimpse of sunshine. It keeps the house in the 60s and 70s, regardless of the daytime highs. Each day the overcast, fog really, clears by about 10:00 am. This gives us marginally shorter daylight exposures, and, sure, that makes for a slightly longer number of days to harvest. It’s worth it. Because our daytime temperatures are also mediated by the ocean, we don’t get the blistering summer temperatures of the inland valleys. It keeps the grapes away. The grapes like really hot days.

Now, doesn’t that sound catty? The NorthBay area, famous for it’s stellar wines and acres of rolling vineyards, has agricultural flair, but sometimes lacks the depth of real farming. It is boutique and/or corporate. Throughout the north bay counties our organic farmers and Farm Trail participants keep it real. It’s only my opinion, but to keep the farm atmosphere, I think the investment side needs to have a stake in the game. Put simply, I like to see dirt under the fingernails. Elmer doesn’t do dirt, but, at an age when most would’ve retired, he still sweats the details of chickens and sheep. If the coyotes yip and howl at night, he wakes up to listen—are his flocks at risk? And he’ll roll out of bed to pull on his jeans and shoes if there’s something to be done about it.

I’m not against vineyards, but when I head inland and see those valleys covered with endless rolling fields of vines, I wonder just who is going to drink all that wine? And, from a gardener’s perspective, monoculture often means too much of a good thing. I believe in diversity.

These past four years have been telling for the grape growers. In this economy, who can afford twenty-dollar bottles of wine? It’s been a boon to cheap wine drinkers, but has put the squeeze on the vineyards. As the high end wines lost market share and reduced their ouptut, the quality vineyards have been forced to sell their grape juice to some of the lower end producers. For the savvy shopper, that spells pretty damn good wines at very reasonable prices. (She smiles as she licks her lips.)

Still, I like that our valley’s climate has kept us in more traditional agriculture. Even though we have great soils, our cooler climate makes real crop/vegetable farming a challenge. So these rolling hills are still host to chicken farmers, rangeland for beef cattle, and dairies.

A dairy is a strange kind of range. Around here we see old-fashioned dairies, where the cows primarily eat grass and the size of the operation is limited to how far a cow can walk twice a day. The dairy next door rotates its fields, and has extra land for harvesting hay. That hay feeds the cows once our dry summer hits and the green drains out of the landscape. We watch out the windows as the cows move from field to field, and every night and morning head in for milking, like city commuters. Right now the only green grass in sight is in the very bottom of the valley, which currently is crowded with cows.

The garden is in. Now we just water, weed and wait. We are behind, but I’m not worried about it. It’s not like last summer, when the fog lasted through the days and the garden just didn’t mature. Even with our late start, things are perking along nicely. We’ve had a couple of crook neck squash, tomatoes and cucumbers so far, with the promise of many more—copious flowers and many many baby green vegetables in sight. It’s a nice time to pause, count our blessings and catch our breath. After all, in a few short weeks we’ll be starting in with some of the winter vegetables, and there’s harvesting and canning to come. For now, we can let the bees do the work.

Food Fight!

A.V. Walters

We share this house with two cats. Both are rescue cats—one urban, one farm. They get along famously; indeed, the fact that they were already friends figured into Bob’s being invited to stay when his own home options dried up. Kilo is still king of the roost, but he is a benevolent ruler and the two get along like littermates, even though they met as adults with very different backgrounds. When I first moved here, Kilo was a sheltered, city cat. Bob, already a farm resident, would come down to visit, both me, and Kilo. Soon, Bob started teaching Kilo how to hunt gophers. Clearly, Bob won a place in my heart that way.

One thing they have in common is food issues. Kilo is allergic to most cat foods. It’s one of the reasons I kept him, after rescuing him. I, too, have many food allergies, so I stuck with him until we found a brand he could tolerate. I suppose, if I’d had to, I’d still be making him chicken & brown rice mush. I’m a softy that way.  I also had to recognize the marketing limitations of a cat who could only eat one brand of kibble. Kilo took to his limited diet with gusto—maybe too much so. After a scrawny kittenhood, he’s developed into a cat that Rick calls Butterball.

Bob loves to hunt and eat gophers. It’s an honorable farm cat tradition. The only problem is that gophers don’t agree with Bob. Poor Bob can’t keep a gopher down; he’s a gopher-barfer. If I see Bob with a gopher in his mouth, I run to close the cat door. If he insists on repeating the gopher-in/gopher-out performance, he has to do it outside.

Probably half the country could learn a lesson from Bob’s plight. The problem, from Bob’s perspective, is that the consequences of his eating habits are not immediate enough for him to make the connection. Just like most of the rest of us. It took me years to discover my food issues. But we do have the advantage of science, education and news. We can learn from the collective knowledge of the health and medical professions. Still, we don’t do so well.

We’re told that obesity is epidemic. Yet, most Americans fail to change their eating habits even when their health and waistlines are screaming the obvious. A new study shows that our biggest adversary in this may be the food industry. Processed foods are killers. They’ve been saying for over a century that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. According to the makers of highly refined, junk-filled foods, the obesity problem is an individual problem—it’s how much people eat, not what they eat. I call that a blame-the-victim defense. Just recently, science has stepped in to prove that processed foods are a big part of the problem.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a clinical trial by Dr. David Ludwig. On its face, it looked like yet another analysis of weight loss/maintenance diet regimes. The study’s post-weight-loss subjects were divided into three groups. Each group represented a different theory of weight-loss maintenance—a high protein, Atkins-type diet, a standard low-fat diet (the one we’re all advised to eat, whole grains, fruits, vegies and lean proteins) and a low-glycemic diet—lower carbohydrates in total, and those were “slow carbs,” the kinds of carbohydrates that digest slower and convert to blood sugar levels at a slower rate. This diet reduced the available processed foods. Each group rotated through each of the diet regimes and each individual was kept to a set caloric intake for the duration, regardless of the diet at any particular time. The rotation through the various regimes was designed, in part, to determine whether there was a metabolic adaptation to the weight loss, or, put more simply did what the participants ate, post-weight loss, change how they metabolized those calories?

The results were notable. Clearly, regardless of caloric intake (because all the diets maintained the same calorie count), the fewer carbohydrates consumed the more energy the subjects expended—as measured by weight maintenance. The Atkins-style, high protein diet was most efficient at both weight loss and weight maintenance—it produced more energy on the given caloric intake. But this diet also produced adverse health effects, and that made it a poor, long-term choice for a healthy life-style. The low-fat diet was the worst for weight maintenance—belying decades of weight and health expert advice! The best bet for health and weight maintenance was the low glycemic diet. Its low blood sugar carbohydrate approach prevented the insulin-endocrine response that tells the body to store fat. The really interesting thing about this diet is that it completely limits highly refined and processed foods because, regardless of calorie counts, these high-glycemic foods trigger the body’s response to store fats. Processed Junk Foods Kill.

Knowing this, we can still eat well—especially lean meats, some whole grains, and our fresh from the garden vegetables cooked at home without additives—and maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. It makes perfect sense, the “obesity epidemic” has compounded since our culture abandoned fresh foods for the convenience of highly refined, packaged foods. Even more deadly are the “super sugars” —high fructose corn syrups that are abundant in processed foods and beverages. Fifty years of corporate food tinkering have brought us an epidemic of obesity, and all its attendant health woes. These high glycemic foods tap into our innate drives—it was one thing as a hunter-gatherer to crave sweets and calories, another entirely in the land of plenty, a cornucopia of processed sugars and treats.

You won’t see much of this study, out in the light of day. It’s likely to be buried in the boring science files. You see, it flies in the face of the farm-food industry. There’s no money in selling ingredients—only in the “value-added” convenience products, those same refined products loaded in high-glycemic, refined carbohydrates. Big Food is out to make you fat. And, when you get fat, they’ll tell you it’s your fault—that you eat too much. They won’t cop to the fact that their products actually disrupt your endocrine system, tricking your body into becoming a fat producing machine. (They’ve known this for years!)

Knowing this, we are armed with the solution to the Bob problem. We can determine what is good for us and change our habits so that we don’t suffer from our foods. After all, Bob is a cat. I don’t expect him to reflect deeply on his food choices. Faced with a boring bowl of kibble and a warm, fresh, wriggling gopher, Bob is making a hardwired, cat choice. The other part of the problem, the personal discipline part, is tough for everyone. We don’t want to completely eliminate desserts, or fun foods. But we do need a way to keep them in their ‘occasional’ corner. They are designed to tap into our tastes in a way that speaks to irresistible. Food scientists have carefully tinkered with the balance of sweet, salt and fat to create Frankensteins of satisfaction. Most of the time, we must resist.

A doctor friend once told me that genetics was largely responsible for choosing our life spans, that eating right and moderate exercise would only buy us a few months to a year at the end. “Then why do you harp on it so?” I demanded. He smiled, “Oh, you’ll live almost as long, you’ll just wish you hadn’t.” So we are left with the challenge of choice—the result of which will be decades away.

The other day, I was chatting about gopher garden strategies with two of the women who live on the farm. One of them, in the medical profession, paused and then asked, “Do you think you could get sick from eating a bad onion?”

“A bad onion?” I said, startled by the abrupt about face.

“Well, yesterday when I was cooking, I took the last onion. It was a little black and soft at one end, so I cut that part off and used it anyway. Then, later, I got pretty sick.”

The other woman leaned forward, “The part you ate, was it firm and looked good?”

“Yeah, looked fine, smelled fine.”

We kicked it around, but the general consensus was that the onion didn’t seem a likely suspect for her stomach upset. Who hasn’t pruned off the mushy bit of an onion from time to time?

“I guess, then, it must have been the huge piece of chocolate cake and ice cream that made me sick.”

We were quiet for a minute and then, simultaneously the other woman and I said, “Naw, must have been the onion.”

The Proper Planting of Buckets

A.V. Walters

Recently, I’ve come across some not-so-clear-on-the-concept plantings, and so, perhaps, we need some clarification on the bucket farm issue.

As usual, if one first defines the objectives, and communicates (and here I may have failed), the implementation will be more successful.

So, the objectives of Bucket Planting are:

1)   The bucket directs watering directly to the root zone and thus saves water;

2)   If the plant is placed low in the bucket, the top unused area (3”- 6”) serves as a reservoir for watering;

3)   Properly planted (see above), the bucket serves as a wind shield for seedlings;

4)   The top of the exposed bucket serves as a hose curb to protect the plants;

5)   By watering only into the bucket, you keep the area (walkway and unplanted areas) weed free (Since even weeds need water–granted in areas that get ample summer rainfall this is less helpful, but it will still reduce your weeding chores.);

6)   Most weeding is limited to the interior of the bucket, and once your plants are established, they’ll shade that area, further minimizing weeds and reducing water losses;

7)   And finally, properly prepared buckets prevent gophers from eating your plants!

Of course, there are limitations. Buckets can’t protect truly long-rooted plants, whose roots navigate through the bucket’s bottom holes and beyond—but they do buy them time to get established. That way they’re more likely to survive if they get nibbled on.

Here are some basic guidelines to proper bucketification:

I prefer the black, semi-pliable nursery buckets. They last for several seasons, and they don’t get all brittle in the sunshine. Plus, most people just throw them away when they bring their nursery plants home. Sometimes you can get them free from recycling (and even neighbors, “Hey, I got a bunch of them!”) They’re pliable and drill out nicely. A bucket must have enough drainage. If you use just the holes that come with it, your vegetables will have “wet feet” and they’ll suffer rot or fungal problems. We drill three-quarter inch holes (using a sharp “spade” bit) every couple of inches, or so, across the bottom and a row or two around the bottom of the sides. (That’s an editorial ‘we,’ as I am not in the drilling department.) Our hole size is specific to the size of gophers, larger holes can be used if you don’t share this risk. (Indeed, for things gophers don’t like, we sometimes use bottomless buckets, which are much easier to pull out at the end of the season.)

When you ‘set-in’ a bucket, dig a hole as close as possible to the size of the bucket (up to its ‘shoulders’ so you leave a lip above the ground surface—2”- 3”.) Loosen the dirt in the area below the bucket, so the migrating roots don’t hit a solid barrier of compacted earth. Place the bucket in the hole and fill in around it, packing the dirt firmly. Now, refill the bucket, leaving the 3”- 6” inch area, I mentioned before (depending on the level of compaction) at the top of the bucket. You need at least three inches to be a decent reservoir. At the time you refill the bucket, this is a good opportunity to add any amendment. We use well-composted chicken manure because, well, we’re on a chicken farm.

When you plant a bucket, (especially if you’re using starts) make sure you’re not filling in your reservoir area. Take out some of the soil, if necessary. (Your start may look lost, deep in the bucket, but that also helps protect it from the wind—and we’ve got a fair amount of that, here.) If using starts, as with any other transplant, remember to loosen the root ball! I recently had to re-plant some peppers that had been put in too high by a neighbor and discovered that, though the soil in the bucket appeared properly damp, she’d set the whole start in as a root-bound block, and little of the moisture was getting in to the roots through that block.

When watering, especially initially, use a soft, slow watering method. The bucket contains the water’s energy, and if you’re not careful you can erode all around your poor baby vegies! And yes, this is a good opportunity for even more water savings, if you use drip irrigation.

These simple steps should ensure buckets of success.

Farm Surprises

A.V. Walters

You just never know around here—something’s always up. We water the gardens by hand. I don’t mind, it’s a bucket by bucket meditation. We’ve got a couple of good watering wands—with off/on switches—that let you shut the flow between buckets. This saves water and minimizes spillover, which cuts down on weeds. I water each section twice a week, on different days for the three gardens. It takes me four to five hours each week. Usually, I get up early and try to get the watering done before the regular work day, and before the sun is high. I admit, after such a dry winter, the buckets look like little islands of green on a moonscape. The ground is very dry this summer.

Aside from the heightened fire risk, the dry doesn’t affect our garden operation. We are already operating on water conservation mode with the buckets. Elmer is concerned that, before the summer is out, we’ll be trucking water in, but he hasn’t said anything about cutting back in the garden.

That leads to the first farm surprise. About a month ago (while I was still down and out with the cold from hell) one of our pastures was plowed and planted! Not a big pasture, but it was usually occupied by 3 rams who have the thankless job of “servicing” the ewes. As I’ve said before, this is not a dirt farm, but the farm foreman convinced Elmer to let him put in a cash crop of pumpkins, zucchini, crookneck and cucumbers. Whatever possessed him to put in a field crop in the driest year in a decade is beyond me. (And, these crops are water suckers.) Don, the foreman, is conscientious, though; he set up the field with drip irrigation. At least we won’t be wasting water. I don’t know what kind of a deal he worked out with Elmer—we are all sharecroppers in one way or another.

Because of my head-cold, Don’s crop got a head start on my garden. His vegies, looking much more like a farm operation than my silly bucket brigade, are a half-foot taller than mine. Don has always had a quiet respect for my garden over the years, but now, with victory in sight, he’s ribbing me. He pulled up next to me while I was watering yesterday and asked how my midget garden was doing. I smiled and told him we had a long season and I intended to take full advantage of it. It’s a good thing, he said, because his corn is tasseling and chest high. Mine, of course, was only just transplanted from starts and is all of a strapping five inches. Okay, I know I got a late start. But, Don has to be nice to me—I have the tomatoes.

Don is giving me flack about why I don’t use drip irrigation. He sees all this hand watering as sheer insanity. Sure, it would be easier. And, for a cash crop it makes perfect sense. However, it’s a significant investment for the gizmos and tubing and a lot of work to install. I remind myself from time to time that I am a tenant here. I am a gardener, not a farmer. In five years, I’ve never had an offer of help for such a high-end investment of time and money. But for twenty bucks, I got this lovely switchable watering wand. And so I drag the hose behind me. I’m not complaining. I don’t begrudge one minute I spend in the garden. (Except for those two moments this summer, so far, when I stupidly went into the garden barefoot, and both times ended up getting stung by the wasps.)

It was the dragging hose that led to the discovery of the second farm surprise. We are not kidding when we call one of the gardens “the long garden.” It’s over 160 feet long and about 15 feet wide. There’s a hose spigot at one end. At the other end, across the lane there’s a hose spigot at a tenant’s house. I can use that. I have a 75 foot hose, which I don’t mind pulling along behind me. But I do object to having to undo the hose and haul the whole thing 160 feet to the next spigot. Rick suggested that we plumb in another spigot, halfway down the long garden, and then my hose will essentially cover the entire garden without having to move it. We consulted with Elmer, who said it was fine, just get the materials from Number Four.

Rick looked around, no pipe. He checked out the far reaches, behind the chicken barns, still no luck. Then he looked in, under and around Number 7 only to find oversized pipe and—pigs! Yes, surprise, surprise. There are now 4 pigs in a pen in the shaded area, under the far end of Number 7. Who knew? It turns out that one of the tenants approached Elmer about keeping a couple of pigs. The tenant works in a fancy high-end grocery store and brings home the gourmet, ‘unused’ produce—so essentially the pigs eat pretty well, and for free. Elmer said it was okay, but he’d buy two baby pigs, too (so we have four.) The tenant does the feeding and slopping and mucking, and at the end of the season they each get two grown up pigs. It’s a sweet deal, all the way around. I told you we were all sharecroppers in one way or another. Elmer gets his summer vegies from our garden (plus a load of winter squash) and we get to have a garden that exceeds any tenant’s dreams. Like I said, it’s a sweet deal all the way around.

So the surprises are pumpkins and pigs. But these things are supposed to come in threes, aren’t they? There’ll be one more surprise. Last year some wise guy (and we’re betting it was Don. “Who, me?”), planted carving pumpkins in the winter squash buckets.  So this year, somebody’s going to plant strange and exotic squash in his pumpkin patch. (“Who, us”?) It’ll be awhile until he figures it out. But, I can wait.

 

 

 

Tomatoes in Bondage

A.V. Walters

There’s a debate, heated sometimes, about whether tomatoes should be allowed to sprawl or whether they should be restrained in cages. This is a true measure of the farmer-gardener divide. Obviously, tomatoes grown in the field couldn’t be effectively caged. (It would interfere with all that mechanized equipment.) Here, on our farm, there’s no question. Elmer likes a tidy garden. When I came, I decided to solve that with a few cages, and now he’s a convert. (Well, an armchair convert, since it’s us doing the work.)

The garden stores offer a wide, and wild, variety of vegetable restraints. I’ve tried most of them. Any such restraint system must be analyzed in terms of ease of use, strength, durability (season to season), visual impact (yes, it matters), accessibility (if you can’t get your hand in, nothing’s coming out) and cost. Since it’s an investment, the repeat gardener wants something that will give years of use. Back in the city, over the years I tried those wooden stacking cages, standard wire cages, lattice fencing, and these lovely, but expensive, aluminum spiral stakes. Part of the consideration is just how many tomatoes do you have? With just a couple of pampered urban vines you can afford the high end stylish systems. These days, though, with thirty-three bucketed tomatoes, we have to go with industrial strength cages

We made the investment last year. We’d been monkeying around with “tomato-cage-lite” for a couple of years and they kept collapsing under the weight of the plants. So last year, we bit the bullet and bought thirty, heavy-duty, welded-wire, 54 inch cages. (That’s the gardener part of me.) They were on sale, and since I was buying so many of them, I negotiated an even better price. There was no way I’d have paid the original sticker price of over nine bucks a cage. (That’s the farmer part of me.)

Our cages are the envy of the farm. I’m not sure why, because it’s a community garden—so everyone enjoys the tomatoes. But both years that we’ve had them, they’ve elicited comments of admiration and envy. I don’t think it’s a come on—Hey honey, them’s fine restraints you got there—this is real equipment admiration, with just a touch of covetousness. They just are nice sturdy industrial strength cages and everyone who sees them, notices.

I suppose you could put in the cages when the tomatoes were just little sprites. But, that would be too easy. It’s not just that, though, in the early garden, when you’re digging in, there’s so much to do to catch the early season. You do what’s needed so you can get it all done. Then, when there’s a breather between establishing the garden and the onset of weeds, you can worry about the extras, cages, structures for pole beans and cucumbers, etc. Some years I’ve been caught short, wrestling undisciplined, sprawling, teenage tomatoes into cages. It can take up to three people to do it if you wait too long. This year was just right. I needed to sterilize the cages in bleach-water after last year’s blight, so that caused a little delay, but otherwise the timing was perfect. For the most part, the tomato plants were less than a foot tall, so the cages slid over them easily

The installation of the cages brought out the neighbors. It’s a sign; the garden is in. (Hopefully it’s also a sign that there’s no room for any more tomatoes.) We all stood out in the early evening rays, enjoying beers and garden talk. One of the neighbors nodded at how good they look and added, “You know, I’ve got a bunch of beans started…” She doesn’t know if they’re bush beans or pole beans. More buckets to dig in….beans, fit to be tied.

Orphan Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Well, we’re behind schedule but things are finally falling into place. You know that the garden is “in,” when the stragglers begin to arrive. I have a reputation for an open door policy to wayward vegetables. I can’t help it; there is nothing so sad as a homeless vegetable-start, without a garden. They have roots, after all, and need someplace to call home and put them down.

And every spring, tomatoes are the best example. This year we put a limit on tomato plants. (Not that we don’t every year, to no avail.) We dug in twenty buckets, in the long garden, and six in our backyard (for the exiled Romas.) That was it! Right.

The buckets we dug in were supposed to accommodate the ten or twelve tomatoes I had in my sights, six Romas, and then room for the inevitable tomato contributions of my farm neighbors. On our return from vacation, we planted the Romas and eight heirloom tomato starts and put the call out. One neighbor had three, another two. I planted them in short order. I’d thought there would be more, but I was certainly game to pick up a few more for vacant buckets. I even checked with Elmer, because his cousin has a habit of late tomato start donations. No, No, he says, she would only have a couple, and those he wanted to give to his girlfriend for her garden. So the coast was clear and I could pick up enough heirlooms for the remaining buckets. That was ten days ago—I thought the tomato question was finally closed.

But, there are always tomato stragglers. The main garden sprouted it’s own volunteer, so we honored it with a bucket. This week the neighbor who’d had three late arrivals, popped up with four more! I eyed the patch. We’re starting to get heirloom duplicates. Two black cherry tomatoes, two brandywines, two black crims. The new prospects looked healthy and not too leggy. Well, okay, we can squeeze them in without crowding—but no more—I looked right into her eyes. She avoided my gaze. Digging in new buckets this late is a bitch. She held them out and I took them. Our famous hardpan is a challenge if you don’t get the buckets in early. I huffed and puffed and then dropped them into place in their new buckets. It’s been warm this week.

Yesterday, three more showed up in half gallon pots. Nobody claimed them; they just appeared out of nowhere, in amongst the established tomatoes. They seemed harmless enough and, clearly, well tended. Sigh. So, in they went. This weekend we’ll be doing the cages. I can only hope that that sends the message that we are done.

Today another neighbor—this time with two tomatillos! “They’re not tomatoes, really!” (I jammed both the little buggers in one bucket.) We’re up to thirty-three. And, just for good measure, she brought along another lemon cucumber. This is how the garden grows. I’m just glad they’re not kittens.

You heard it here first. The Emma Caites Way has won the Best Literary Fiction Award by the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA.) Formal Press releases and such needed, but we’re still at the jaw-hanging, stunned phase. I guess we should celebrate and, maybe, garden!

A.V. Walters

Garden Starts

I don’t know why I’m surprised by it; it’s the same every year. It’s as though someone pulled the plug and then all the green runs out of the landscape. It starts at the top of the hills, and in just a few weeks, we go from spring green to that golden-straw color that says summer in California.

Last week when we got home it was still green here, but flying in, over the Central Valley, I could see that the hills and everything east of us was already dry. We usually get a longer run of it in Two Rock—through June, usually. But this year’s dry winter is leaving its mark. Between last week and now, our hilltops have turned from green to gold. Where they’ve cut hay has gone gold. Yesterday there were deep ridges of cut hay, showing the contours of the hill. We wanted a photo of it—in the elongated evening light—but before that could happen, they’d bailed it and now the hill is punctuated with lines of square dots like a computer punch-card.

The bottom of the valley is still green, and near the creek it’s even lush. The pond is shrinking by the day, and only a few, stubborn egrets remain.

Today, with our head-colds in check, we finally started putting the garden in. We’d dug in the buckets the first week of May, so I was surprised that the soil in them was still loose and soft. It made planting a breeze. We put starts in 38 buckets—about half tomatoes and then some squash (more to come), peppers, eggplant (more of these too), and cucumbers. The rest will filter in over the next couple of weeks, and then there’s just watering and weeding.

Since we have the advantage of being pre-plowed, it’s odd to be planting and weeding simultaneously. But, the interval of absence, since the early May plowing was enough for weeds and (and quite a few, volunteer squashes) to get going so, Rick hoed the long garden. I have trouble eradicating vegetable volunteers but he’s an editor, amongst other things, so cutting things out (except being a smart-ass) doesn’t bother him at all. We’re not sure what kinds of squashes these were—last year, we turned out a bumper crop of four kinds of summer squash and at least twice that number of varieties of winter squash. But the plow spreads the seeds and there’s no telling what’s what but, judging by general location, we think most were yellow, patty-pans—they weren’t too popular, so a lot were left where they stood. (Won’t be planting them again, anytime soon.)We’ll let the “escaped” potatoes stay to see how they fare with the gophers. They were planted in bins, with bottoms, but in the early plowing this spring, Don wasn’t watching where he was going and he mangled the bins, spreading potatoes throughout that whole corner of the main garden. So, we shall see.

This year’s garden is a bit of a cheat. Usually we start a lot of our own seeds. This year, however, the trip away interrupted that, and we couldn’t rely on folks here to make sure that starts would be watered while we were gone. I know that sounds odd—well intended farm people not taking care of the garden—but, I speak from experience. (I think I’ve mentioned that this is not a dirt farm.) We decided we’d put in store-bought starts on our return. That’s a much more expensive garden approach than that to which I’m accustomed, but there it is. We’ll fill in with seeds—lettuces, radishes, beets and such.

We were running errands the other day and came upon an innocuous sign reading, “Vegetable Starts” with an arrow pointing down a rutted country lane. “Turn there!” I said, but, too late. So, we circled around and came back. We carefully worked our way down a terrible road in a borrowed car with bad shocks. (My car’s not back from the shop yet and, beggars can’t be choosers.) Finally, like a breath of fresh air, there it was. Senk Farms.

It’s a wonderful little operation, many kinds of vegetables, at very reasonable prices, lavender, honey, pick-your-own strawberries, home made jams.  Their starts are healthy, appropriately sized in their containers (not root bound) and lush. They had the widest variety of heirloom tomatoes I’ve seen this year! They had everything except pony rides for the kids. The women running it were very, very nice and helpful. Who knew that that unpretentious little sign would lead to the solution to this year’s garden dilemma? We gathered up the little pots and she came over with boxes. I went to write her a check—and, pointing, she told me just to put in the slot in the wall. They run on the honor system! Did I fall into a time warp? It makes me want to spend my money there. Later, I checked them out online—and they list their vegetable selection for the year, complete with what’s low and what’s gone already. I think I’m in love. We were going to finish the garden up from seeds, but now I think I’ll go back to Senk Farms for one more round.

Late Rains

May 6, 2010

I live in Northern California, where our sunny summers are the envy of gardeners and farmers everywhere. We can grow things here that, in ways,  make our country’s eastern and northern brethren sigh, and reach for chemical solutions.

Decades ago, one of my sister purchased a home on ten rural acres in Northern Michigan. Of that, several acres were planted in peach trees. She was excited to include canning peaches, as part of her repertoire.

Already an urban farmer myself, I was excited for her—wow, an orchard! (Though, I’ll confess that I’m not much of a peach fan, even less so if they’re cooked.) I had my own sorry, little, peach tree next to my kitchen window— badly planted in the worst light in the yard, and sandwiched between two houses in poor clay soil. It was all I could do to keep the poor thing alive.

After my sister and her husband closed escrow, they trouped down to the local agricultural extension office to learn all about peaches. The the good news was—the extension agent was already familiar with their orchard. The bad news—the same; it had a history. It was planted on a north facing slope—in his dealings with the former owners, the agent had recommended against its planting—poor light, and in that climate, the peaches needed a warm, southern exposure to do well. Beyond that, my sister’s new farmette had poor soils—too much sand. Had there been any rich soil mixed with it that it wouldn’t have been a problem, but with just sand, the rains drained right through with no organic soils components to hold the water. As a result, the trees were spindly, required near-constant irrigation and frequently suffered from diseases.

The agent sent them off with a long list of all the sprays and fertilizers needed to compensate for their poor location. Chagrined, but by no means dissuaded, they were still eager to grow their own organic peaches. The first season was not stellar, but the proud owners harvested enough to can and send quarts of peaches to all the relatives. My husband loved them. Cooked peaches, eh? Still, it’s exciting to produce your own food and we discussed it frequently—me with my spindly single tree and her with a spindly orchard. They resisted the chemical approach.

Well, their trees got worse every year. With peaches, the biggest and most obvious problem is peach-curl. They had it—and once you have it, there’s not much you can do that year. The treatment is a noxious, dormant spray that is applied in the winter. On the organic side, it’s important to clean up the leaf litter, the disease spreads from the infected leaves to the soil, and then re-infects the following year when warm conditions and rains release the blight into the air—to once again attack the trees. If you catch it early enough, you can strip all the affected leaves off the tree and hope that the rain holds off when the new leaves appear. Then there are peach-borers that leave your trees peppered with holes and oozing sap like a drive-by victim. I was learning on my own what a pain it is to nurse a plant along in an environment where it didn’t belong in the first place.

The following year, after a beautiful blossoming season, she called to announce that the new baby leaves were curling—again! She was near tears and announced that they were going to breakdown and spray that winter. I was sympathetic. I was in my own battle with borers. The nurseryman warned me that the real problem was that my tree didn’t belong where it was, and so there would always be problems. She and I were in the same peach boat.

With little else to offer, I suggested to my sister that she could try stripping all the leaves.

“Two acres? There’s a couple of hundred trees out there!” She was not comforted. They didn’t spray—and the following year, she started pulling out the peach trees and got sheep instead. I finally cut down my peach tree and landscaped the narrow set back with some appropriate plants.

So, three years ago my brother’s town was hit by a tornado, late in June. The fierce winds stripped every leaf from the trees . It looked like winter! And yet, those trees were able to re-leaf and still create a lush, summer canopy on which the Midwest relies for relief from its hot muggy summers. I was reminded of that sorry peach orchard all those decades ago.

As a tenant here, I now find myself the guardian of another spindly-ass peach tree. To maximize the tree’s visual impact, it was planted on a little knoll behind the house, in a rock garden, with a “water feature” (an old, buried claw-foot tub.)  It’s a treacherous way to plant a tree that’s going to need a lot of tending, pruning and regular maintenance.  (Never put a water feature under a peach tree!) Over the years I’ve been fighting to bring this tree back to health—pruning and trying to rake-up the leaves (in between the rocks and the tub and the ground-cover.) Some years are better than others. This winter I finally got it pruned back to a healthy shape and proportion. With this year’s dry weather, cold nights and strange warm days, it bloomed early. I worried about it freezing and whether there’d be any bees around to pollinate. Still it did very well and the leaves looked pretty good—until the late rains came.

I can’t complain about any rain. We got so little this winter that it’s just bad form to whine about “bad weather.” Whenever it rained, we’d all congratulate each other. Every drop was needed and welcome, except that in the back of my mind, I was worried about my susceptible little ward, the peach tree. And I was right to be worried. Soon, those shiny, spring-green, baby leaves began to pucker. They picked up that weird rosy color and ballooned into thick, twisted, cabbagey-looking shapes. The tree looked terrible. Nothing about peach curl looks healthy. Those leaves cannot possibly photosynthesize the food needed to support the tree. It’s heartbreaking. What could I do? There was no point in attempting anything until the rains stopped—any new leaves would surely succumb all over again in the wet. So finally, it’s clearly the end of the rainy season. And about time, too. That little bit of late rain wasn’t enough to help our soils but it sure did a number on that little peach tree. Too bad, too, since this year it’s laden with little fruit.

So, today, I walked my peach talk. I hand-stripped all the damaged leaves from the tree and hauled them away. Rick helped. I only fell into that damn, claw-foot tub once. The tree looks very spindly, but all the deformed leaves are gone, leaving only the few fresh spring green baby leaves that the tree was already sprouting to compensate for the blight. So, we shall see, what we shall see. I’ll report back in a month or so to say whether it’s worked.

Hard Pan

A.V. Walters

The blessing and curse in this area of Sonoma County, is the ubiquitous, clay layer in the soil. There’s a reason that there’s an Adobe Road in Petaluma. During the rainy season it’s not a problem but starting around June, about six inches down, we get a really hard, clay layer. You plant early here, or not at all. (Oh, I suppose you could use dynamite and break up the soil, and get a handle on the gophers, in one step.) The good news is, that once the garden is in, that subsurface clay layer locks the moisture down in the root zone—making for lovely gardening conditions. No rain in the summer means very little weeding. Since we plant in buckets, we water into the well of the bucket and don’t waste any water where there aren’t vegetables. The soil otherwise is lush and fertile.

Since we will be away for the early part of May, Rick and I started early yesterday, digging in some of the buckets. It’s still too cool at night to put our starts in but daytime temperatures soared into the eighties, for a blistering day of digging (It takes extra planning to be sure you’ll be digging on the hottest days.)  I’ve been worried about the soil. All winter I’ve been commenting about how little rain fell this season. We need it to recharge the soils—and the supply for well water. And, if yesterday was any indication, we’re in for a very dry summer. Already the clay layer has started to harden—in May! We dug in about fifty buckets, about half of what we’ll do for the season. Usually we wouldn’t see these conditions for another four or five weeks. It makes for slower going, because the buckets go in deeper than that hard clay and because you need to break through it, or you risk having a “perched” layer, where any water you add follows the clay shelf and doesn’t sink down into the root zone. We dig in each bucket with a shovel-full or two of Elmer’s finest, eight-year-old manure.

It’s a community garden, sometimes in The Little Red Hen, sense. Though everyone this year is excited about the garden, only one neighbor stepped up to the plate with a shovel, yesterday. I guess we must have looked pretty rough—sweating up a storm with our grunting and digging—not exactly an ad for Fun with Gardening. At least we didn’t need to pull out the adze.

I’m particularly fond of “The Claw” for this kind of work. Yep, The Claw, (As seen on TV!) I used to scoff at those ads, but my nephew set me straight. It was years ago, during a time when I was disabled from a car accident. My nephew was visiting and had been directed by his mother to help me put in the garden. He asked me where my Claw was. Eh? What’s that?

He went on to say that his mum couldn’t garden without it. He turned up his nose at my trusty spade and garden fork. So, off he went to the hardware store to get The Claw. I was dubious. Then I watched, and tried, and became a convert. It’s the perfect tool for breaking down through our cursed, clay layer. Real men scoff at it, it looks like a girl-tool. But when push comes to dig, I noticed that even they reach for The Claw.

So, it’ll be a dry summer in the garden. Thank god for buckets. I noticed how strange my priorities have become when our new neighbor offered some really lovely, black buckets to the cause. I was almost drooling. Testing the waters I inveigled, “You know, we’ll have to drill holes in these for drainage?”

“Sure, do whatever. I was going to take them to the recycling-center, anyway.”

Nirvana! Lovely, choice buckets, heavy-duty, wide, but not too deep (think grueling, clay layer, here) perfect for winter squash or cooking-pumpkins. (This ain’t no Jack-O-Lantern garden!) You know you’ve gone a little batty when you covet someone’s used, nursery buckets. What a garden-gal won’t do…. Rick drilled them (adding additional, drainage holes—large enough for fast drainage but still too small for a gopher!) and we had them in the ground within an hour. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Now, we’re ready for whatever weather comes our way.

Tomato-land is ready to go into its new digs, in the long garden. This is our warmest, sunniest garden and I’m expecting great results this year. Today I’ll sterilize the tomato cages and get them in. We have the super-sturdy, delux, 42-inch tomato cages. That part of the garden always looks impressive. Elmer likes a tidy garden. I accommodate by planting with plenty of space between the tomato buckets. I’ve done square-foot gardening with great results, but here we have room to spare, so we spread out some. We put in twenty-two tomato buckets, (plus six in our back yard for those troublesome Romas.) Hopefully, this year we’ll keep the tomatoes plants to less than thirty. (I know, I’ve said that before.)

Today the first chapter of my second novel, The Gift of Guylaine Claire will be posted on the TwoRockPress.com website. For those of you who liked The Emma Caites Way, we hope you’ll also enjoy the new book. It is a very different book, about life, the connections we build and the losses we sustain, with its roots in Canadian and French-Canadian history, art and sculpture. This book gave me a chance to explore my own Canadian connections and history. Full publication is expected at the end of this month.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Emma Caites Way, Smashwords.com still has a sample download available, as well as ebook purchase.

A.V. Walters

Prep Work

A.V. Walters

Today was the kind of pre-garden work that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Last year some of our orphan, Roma tomatoes brought a blight with them. You can always second guess yourself about taking-in strays. They looked a little peaked upon planting but perked right up and grew beautifully for weeks before the blight hit. It seemed to be associated with our summer fog. I know that after a couple of damp, foggy mornings the plants were ravaged. Usually I rotate the beds but the tomatoes had been so happy that I planted them in that same bed at least two years running. Not a good practice.

So, this year, before anything could go in, I had to scrub and bleach-treat all the buckets that were in the same garden as last year’s tomatoes. It’s a lot of work–about fifty buckets, all muddy from last year. A lot of bending,  stretching and scrubbing, so tomorrow, I’ll ache some. I still have to spray the tomato cages–they’re a likely contamination vehicle, as well. And then we’ll be ready. I dug in a handful of buckets today. Rick tried digging in a couple of the plastic bins that Elmer wants to use. No way. They’re flimsy 35 gallon bins. By the time you drill the bottoms for drainage, it’s apparent that they don’t have the structural integrity, or UV resistance, to be worth the effort. A season of summer sun and these things will be in pieces. (And digging them back out, like we do the buckets? I-don’t-think-so!) So, I think we’ll be sticking with the buckets.

We’ll get the bulk of them dug in over the next ten days and some of them planted. We need to go away for a bit, in mid-May, which is going to disrupt our usual garden schedule. I was all panicked about it, but then realized that a week or so, one way or the other, is not a big deal. We have such a long growing season, on the tail end, that there’s a lot of leeway on planting time. Not like back home, where it’s a race to get things in as early as possible because of the danger of an early September frost. Here, we’re still picking tomatoes in November. Last year we were still canning tomatoes in October! We ate chard all winter. Our cool summers–with the occasional, heavy fog–can stall everything except the squash. Nothing slows the squash. Our pumpkins and zucchinis are relentless.

That was it for the day. Not really gardening, but it all works in that direction.

Gardener, Florist

A.V. Walters

I always thought that there were two types of gardeners, the ones who grew flowers and the ones who grew vegetables. I do recognize that there is some overlap. I grow a few decorative plants while my mother dabbles in lettuce and radishes. But I’ve never known anyone, with a feel for dirt, who didn’t lean strongly in one direction or the other. I’ve known some who gardened vegetables with a decorative eye. (Something I admire and need to work on.) But vegetable gardeners concern themselves with producing food instead of the less tangible, visual rewards. Flower gardeners must also address an aesthetic aspect of gardening, unless they focus just on a cutting garden. Regardless, gardeners are gardeners, and true practitioners come to it with an understanding of space, light, soil and plant needs. (I mean, doesn’t everyone know that you don’t plant a cactus next to a begonia?)

That old pseudo-spiritual expression comes to mind here, “As above, so below.” From a gardener’s perspective, I always thought the expression related to an understanding that whatever plant you saw, there was as much, if not more, going on down below the soil.  Planning a garden requires more than just visualizing what you want to see growing in a particular spot. You need to consider what the spot has to offer and exactly who, in the plant world, would like to live there. Most unsuccessful gardens failed at this stage of the game.

A falling out with a friend made me realize that, in fact, there’s another type of gardener entirely. For decades, my friend had planted profusely every year. An artiste, she enjoyed the over-planted look, veggies, flowers (and anything else that stood still long enough at the nursery) mixed together. It was a fecund and lush look–plants cheek to jowl, a veritable jungle. Like my city turf, she had a very small yard. She maintained that profusion with regular and ample infusions of cash. Her nurseryman was like a permissive psychotherapist. If she wanted a spot of red in the corner, he sold her the plant, without inquiry as to what kind of neighborhood it would enjoy. It was a MiracleGro extravaganza. She disdained my pedestrian goal of high yields and bed rotation.

And so, this continued year after year—me, with my own form of vegetable order—a mini-farm oasis in the city—and she, with her wild-and-wooly lush, instant-gratification, plantings. Of course, she liked her results, so I let her be.  She occasionally made remarks about my garden “rigidity,” to which I could only shrug. I once bemoaned that I didn’t have room for a persimmon, and she chided me that there was plenty of room, suggesting several, inappropriate, locations in my small yard. Her own tiny backyard boasted at least eight different fruit trees, some planted as close as a foot apart, abutting a small rose “forest” with at least forty varieties. Needless to say, her plants would do well initially, but she was always having to remove “problem” plants from the mix. Her interest wasn’t in food production, so to her, her low vegetable yields didn’t signify a larger problem. Admittedly, her back yard was quite something to behold.

Thus we co-existed for years, each of us generously,  and quietly, looking down our noses at each other. That is, until she asked for advice. (I ignored the alarm bells and flashing lights.) Sometimes asking for advice is really just soliciting for approval. Bonding, not solutions, being the objective. This is a typical misunderstanding in between-the-genders communication, but I didn’t expect it in the garden world. I actually thought she wanted gardening advice.

She certainly seemed impressed by the bags of beautiful produce I delivered to her on a regular basis, as did others. Her low yields didn’t bother her, but the scrawny vegetables did. I started, cautiously, indicating that, well, I wouldn’t recommend anything “chemical” as a fix. (She knew me well enough to know that I’d never go there.) So, I pointed out that to enhance quality, she might need to reduce the demands on her soil. You know, too much competition in the root zone could be the problem. What I was suggesting was something entirely foreign to her way of thinking. Not only was I recommending she her reduce her profuse planting, but to actually cull existing (and apparently sacred) plants. She responded in horror, what kind of gardener did I think I was—obviously I was anti-plant! She implied that I was just jealous of her lush sanctuary and only bent on denuding it.

I tried to explain about root competition, pointing to her fruit trees, how you needed to allow them root space of their own, and not entwine them. Well, that was beyond the pale.

It was the beginning of the end of the relationship. Other annoyances soon erupted, but it all started with a difference of style in gardening, of the rhythms between orderly and dramatic.

I’ve adjusted my view of gardening. Flower or vegetable—it’s not really so different. Gardening is about a commitment to soil and plants and nurturing them on their own terms. That other business, it’s not gardening. It’s not sustainable in the way I understand the word. Hey, they’re florists. The objective is the show. It’s not my place to challenge those values.  It’s just a different way of looking at dirt. I don’t always agree because from my side of the fence, it looks extractive. But pointing fingers won’t solve it. We have two entirely different value systems. A florist is a plant arranger whose focus is on the visual presentation. Whether or not dirt is involved, the objective is flora as painted canvas. So, there are gardeners and there are florists. We should nod, wave and appreciate each other’s art form…  and never talk shop.

A.V.Walters

Presbyopia

(Where the heck is that?)

I am a person full of theories, and I think that I just naturally look for the patterns of order in the universe. I’m not saying my theories always make sense–they’re certainly never subjected to the challenges of science, or peer review. I look for meaning in the little details. This has always been true of me, I’m given to rumination and to trying to make sense of things. I believe in developmental phases, both hard-wired and those triggered by a combination of chronology and circumstance. We all know of the “terrible twos”, and the agony of adolescence. (For kids and parents.)  We know that there are acquisitional phases and times to consolidate our gains–those things that we’ve learned and are now solidly under our belts. I know that there are new and different phases continuing through the whole continuum of human existence that are not yet recognized. Indeed they could not have been, because too few lived long enough for any such phenomena to be observed, tested, catalogued and acknowledged.

Now with life expectancies stretching easily into the eighties and nineties, there are new paths to chart, even as we’re only just beginning to get a handle on the fifties and sixties. (I think we did the forties back in the sixties, if you know what I mean—the recognition of the mid-life-crisis seems deeply cemented in the movies of my youth.) I’m a trailing boomer, so I’m following in the footsteps of the developmental stages of the largest demographic bulge ever studied. If they’d just get it figured out, aging will be a veritable yellow brick road for me. However, while some things are obvious, the connection to meaning that I’m seeking, is less understood. In the crevices of this process I’m looking, maybe in vain, for reasons. What rhyme or reason is there to this process that, on some days, just feels like an inexorable death spiral? Still, if you hit your fifties and things aren’t starting to fall into place, in terms of world-view…ya gotta wonder.

That brings me to vision. As a kid I had incredible acuity. My brother and I were the eagle-eyed of my family, taking after our mother.  She told us that this kind of vision was a special gift, and nobody could take it away. She was only in her early thirties at the time, with eyes like a hawk and nary a glimmer that it wouldn’t always be the case. So, in our forties, my brother and I took our failing vision as some kind of personal insult. I suppose we could have, and should have, taken note of our dear mum’s progression of ever-thickening specs, but we didn’t. In my mid-forties I just flat-out refused to believe that my vision was failing. (Hey, my mom said that nobody could take it away!) That came at a high price because as time went by, I failed to notice that I was reading less and less. Sewing and weaving fell by the wayside—too busy, I told myself. But, I still obsessed in the garden, its open-air setting fit my advancing presbyopia quite nicely.

When I came to Two Rock the fireplace in my lovely, rented house had been painted over so many times that you could hardly tell it was tile. The outermost layer was metallic gold–and that had to go. So, I asked Elmer if I could strip it down. Of course he quizzed my on my intended method and, when it sounded like I knew what I was doing, he gave the okay. I cranked-up the hot air gun, grabbed a putty knife and slowly, peeling off about eighteen layers of paint, revealed an incredible Arts and Crafts era, tile fireplace. It’s a gem. Elmer was thrilled with it. Not long after that, I found myself struggling to read regular-sized print. For some time I’d been squinting at labels in the grocery store–even started to carry around a pair of dime-store “cheaters” in my purse, and I just cursed the world for using such ridiculously small type. But finally, I had to face it–there I was, middle-aged, newly on my own after a long-term, failed marriage and suddenly (okay, not so suddenly), blind as a bat.

Digging-in my heels, every inch of the way, I finally made the dreaded appointment to get my eyes checked, where it was confirmed. Biology had turned on me and bit me in the ass–I was no longer the super-hero of vision I had once been. I ordered the eyeglasses, progressives, but I was surly about it. Elmer’s almost two decades my senior but he doesn’t wear glasses. (But his friends make jokes about it and it’s common knowledge that he’s a terrible hunter because he can’t see to shoot.)  I railed. My parents laughed. My brother commiserated. Then, (with a dirge, rather than fanfare) my new specs arrived.

And what a shock. I could actually read, again. I could see the instruments on the dashboard. (I wondered how long that light had been on!) Who knew it was so bad? And, oh my god, the work on the fireplace really sucked! It turned out that I hadn’t done a very good job removing all of the paint, after all. Sure, you could see the tile, but it had a shabby-chic look that hadn’t been my intention. So, I went over the whole thing, using a dental pick, no less. (Apparently Elmer never noticed how bad a job it was, confirming that he can’s see either!) Now, the fireplace looks really good. But, it made me wonder–what else had I missed before I finally broke down and got those glasses? How much of my life had been out of focus? Maybe it explained a lot. How lucky I am that that kind of blindness brought me here.

And just what purpose does losing one’s vision serve? I’m looking for the deeper meaning, here. I mean, I’m a far shot from being pushed out to sea on an ice-floe. There’s still plenty of tread on these tires. Nonetheless, a century ago, most of the women my age didn’t make it this far. This aging business is largely uncharted territory. So, exactly how are we served by failing eyesight? I’d hate to believe that it’s just a senseless result of decline. Of course, being who I am, I have a theory about that. I think that far-sightedness forces us to teach the younger generation the skills they’ll need, that we mastered earlier, but can no longer do. It’s not lost on me that, uncorrected, my current comfortable focal distance is just right for looking over someone’s shoulder–to watch and check their work. I’ve gone from the age of super-vision to the age of supervision. Where it not for this decline, we’d all just go on doing everything ourselves, and not pass on the know-how. Still, eyeglasses are a godsend, even though they may put a wrinkle in the natural order of things.

Well, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it! I feel it’s so much more comforting than the only other rationale that occurs to me–I don’t want to face that not being able to see close, up may have been symbolic of my life’s circumstance, that I could see everything at a distance, perfectly–outside my own sphere–but not the important things that were right under my nose. Maybe, like the fireplace, things had been falling apart for some time, but I just couldn’t see it. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not so pessimistic that I’d want to countenance that as a phase of living. I’m just saying…

Gift Exchange–From April 2009

A. V. Walters

The other day Elmer and I had an impromptu, unofficial gift exchange. In a conversation one evening about wine, I mentioned that I had a gizmo that pumped the air out of leftover wine to slow the oxidation process. (In Sonoma County, even farmers have regular conversations about wine.) He was intrigued. We both like good wines. This was a solution to a problem for him–he’d noticed the deterioration in a bottle of wine over the few days it took him to finish one off. We joked that it was an excuse to chug it down, but that takes its toll, too. So I told him about the pump.

The next day I was in town and happened by a kitchen store. I knew Elmer wouldn’t follow through on the “Vaccu-vin” tip, so I picked one up for him. When I pulled into the farm I saw him in the parking lot. I tossed it to him, told him it was a present. He wanted to pay for it, but that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t expensive, just something I knew he’d like. He thanked me.

Then he laughed and looked at his feet. He said, “There’s something for you, too, up in the garden.” And, that’s all he’d say.

I walked up to the garden, and there, next to the potato bins were four, five-gallon buckets of sheep manure. I laughed so loudly that they could hear me down in the parking lot. I thought it was a fair exchange. I spent a good part of the next weekend digging it in where needed. From me and my city world to Elmer, from him and his farm world to me. I know why he laughed and looked at his feet; we’re both laughing. It is how the world levels out though, evenly and gently in the end.

Gopher Control, Revisited

A. V. Walters

 

Today was a day to catch up in the yard. The lawn was entirely out of hand. I had to use the weed whacker to get it down to a level where the lawn mower could be used. (We’re talking push-mower, here.) Calling it a ‘lawn’ is laughable, anyways. Really, it’s just an assortment of weeds, kept shorn. I tell Elmer, it’s not mowing, it’s “weed control”–sounds more agricultural that way. But when you keep on top of it, it looks downright passable. I’d planted the back corner, and suddenly the rest of the yard screamed for attention. Thus the Weed-Whacking-Extravaganza. (Good seats are still available!)

Once trimmed down to a tidy “level,” it became apparent that the gophers have really gone to town. The lawn is riddled with gopher holes (and valleys). Really, what’s up with that cat? He stayed out of sight for the noisy, weed wacking part but came out to investigate when I’d raked up and gone back to gardening. Now, he was peering down a gopher hole and looking pretty smug.

“Hey you, cat, what’s up with all these darn gophers? I thought we had an understanding here–you’re in charge of gopher control.” He smiled and yawned. “Really, look at this, there’s more gophers than ever!”

“Yes,” he nodded and began washing his face.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Do about it, what’s to do? These gophers are under control. I’m supervising.”

My jaw dropped. “Gopher control, butterball, means you’re supposed to hunt and kill these pesky gophers!”

The cat sat up and stared. “Excuse me? You never said that. You just said gopher control. Your instructions weren’t very specific, so I handled it my way.” He turned his attention back to the hole.

Damn cat. “I’m glad we’ve finally had a chance to clear up this little misunderstanding. Perhaps with this clarification, you can now do something about all these gophers.”

“Not so fast,” the cat looked up, “You can’t just go changing the rules, willy-nilly.”

“And why not? What’s the problem? Now that you know what’s expected, you could just get rid of the gophers, right?”

“It’s not as simple as that.” He stood up and turned his back to me. “It’s a question of trust. I’ve formed relationships.”

 

 

 

A.V. Walters

Farmer/Gardener?

I’m a gardener. Still, it’s an interesting question and not one so easily answered. I don’t think that it’s just a question of quantity. Measured by quantity alone, I border on farmer. Last season, the first where I had any meaningful and steady help, we produced (and gave away) at a rate that compared favorably to any farmer’s-market vender. One stellar week I distributed grocery bags of vegetables every day, at a rate that would have easily filled any market booth to overflowing. Indeed, an appraisal of the garden by visitors frequently elicited comments about how we could “do the market.” I like it the way it is. I know that some of our garden’s recipients would not have eaten so well without the garden’s bounty. With the economy flailing last year a good many hard working folks found themselves out of work. Here, we had plenty to share. Sharing food, quality food that I’ve grown, is one of the most satisfying and meaningful parts of rural living.

And then there’s the exchange of produce between folks who themselves have gardens or orchards. I call it the Petaluma Salute. I once met a woman from a craigslist ad, in a parking lot in town, where we stood talking politics and gardening as we exchanged zucchinis for pears, tomatoes for eggplants from the trunks of our respective cars. We haven’t seen each other since, but the experience of complete understanding remains a solid memory, as she bemoaned a recent infestation of white flies and I offered her my full repertoire of organic solutions. This summer we were walking down to the mailbox when our closest neighbor came up on a mule with boxes full of zucchini and peppers. He stopped and said he was on his way over to give Elmer some vegetables. We looked at each other and laughed. “It’s coals to Newcastle,” I said. “We’re full to our ears with these and more.” He nodded, and turned the mule around, calling out behind him, “I’ll just have to go find other homes for these.” I live in a world where neighbors leave bags of produce on your back porch, and I respond in kind.

Still, I am just a gardener. Farming is honest work, but it is work for pay, or at least the hope and expectation that the season will pay at the end. It is food as commodity. So far, I’m in it for the very real and sensory gratification I get from working with the soil and season. I note some other subtle differences between farmers and gardeners—which I find akin to the differences between the idea of livestock and pets. We gardeners sweat over the lives of our individual plants. It’s personal. We worry and try different solutions to plant troubles. We water and weed and coax. Dinner conversation can include concerns about what’s up with that last row of peppers. Bugs? Gophers? Or perhaps the long reach of the shadow of the tree-line. (Indeed, this season one whole garden will be repurposed because trees have grown and early afternoon shade dictates that that area will become the home of leafy greens.) Our gardens speak to our hearts.

One gardener/farmer test is how well one handles culling the excess plants that seed-starts yield. Farmers plant the best and dump the rest. It’s a healthy approach but one that eludes many gardeners. Every year I vow to keep the tomato crop down to no more than 24 plants. But there are always extra seedlings—what is one to do? And then there’s the problem of orphan seedlings. Elmer’s cousin starts a plethora of tomatoes every year. Come planting time she gives him the culls—leggy, pale babies. Whether or not I’ve kept to my own limits, these orphan tomatoes always manage to find homes in one of my garden plots. So I am doubly challenged; I have my own difficulties dispatching the less than hardy and I adopt the culls of other gardeners (who themselves cannot bear to waste even the most bedraggled of seedlings.) I have garden space. I take them. I give them their own buckets and water and even manure tea, until they are robust and productive. In my five seasons here I’ve never ended up with less than 36 tomato plants. Good thing for canning, eh? Now, it’s March and we’re still eating tomato sauce and whole, canned romas from the garden.

Farmers, out of necessity, have to deal in numbers. Plants are crops. It’s not the eggplants next to the potatoes–it’s the cornfield, it’s acres. They suffer the same indignities of weather and drought, of predation, but without the personal relationship. They do so on a huge scale, and with the highest of stakes. Still, the financial rewards are often slim and success is never guaranteed, regardless of how much you put into it. Nothing is guaranteed, until the crop is in, or the herd sold—and even then there are the unpredictable vagaries of price. A farmer requires some measure of armor. He cannot afford a personal relationship with his plants or animals. Sometimes, and especially with livestock, this comes off as callous. I have a little trouble with it at times–I bristle at the chickens in their crowded cages. Yet that scale and approach is what’s needed to feeds us all.

And so, I remain a gardener. I enjoy the bounty, but, beyond my pride, I don’t have skin in the game in the end result. I joke at the distinction, but my hat is off in respect to the farmer.

Elmer, my favorite farmer, has chickens and sheep. When it comes to plants, he’s no more farmer than me. When it comes to garden-starts, he has the opposite problem. He goes to the nursery and picks the largest starts he can find. You know the ones, nursery fed on fertilizers, the junkies of agriculture; these baby vegies are literally climbing out of their four-inch pots. They’re bushy, precocious, already sporting blossoms, or even small fruit. They boast of success and productivity. It’s too good a deal to be true! And so it is. These spoiled, root-bound prima-donnas don’t transplant so well. They, too, get their own buckets but the damage has been done; their growth is invariably stunted by their over-ambitious early beginnings. We coddle them, but as yet I don’t know the cure for root bound. It shows that once we’re out of our fields of specialty, we are all gardeners. It’s always personal. For the root-bound, I carefully separate and spread the roots out at replanting time. For the scrawny ones, there’s always the hope of recovery.  I think of this as a lesson, in and out of the garden. I was myself (and remain) a late bloomer.