To take up arms against voracious slugs, seed-slinging weeds, and countless other gardening perils, a person needs to be keen. To do so for almost 30 years, a person must be crazy. OK, call me crazy, but I love the payoff when everything botanical on my dinner plate came from my own garden – vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts – all home-grown. True, I have another life, viewable at my public speaking website at http://www.speakingwins.com, but my calling is my garden. Actually, I mean to say my garden calls to me. Constantly.
Can a tree be a hero? My answer is a resounding YES!
Now, I hear the chorus of your skepticism, indeed I do. Many of you will be quick to point out the faults of trees. The list begins.
One. Trees regularly get in the way of cars, and isn’t it silly of them to grow at curves in the roads. Totally the tree’s fault if a driver misses the bend.
Two. Trees haven’t the good sense not to fall over in high winds. Bad enough when they ruin the perfection of a park or forest by collapsing, but they are altogether too quick to fall on houses, innocently-parked automobiles, and power lines. Clearly the tree just lives to inconvenience humans.
Three. A tree, to use legal jargon, is an attractive nuisance. Cats can’t resist them. They are lured into a tree’s heights, there to become paralysed with acrophobia, thus requiring hazardous rescue. Claw marks on exposed skin are the usual result. Ouch.
Four. Trees produce leaves, which would be lovely if they didn’t insist on dropping them at regular intervals. Clogged drains, clogged gutters, and smothered lawns are the victims. The beleaguered humans must, of course, unclog and rake. Endlessly rake. Ugh.
Five. Trees grow. And grow. And grow. That sweet little sapling that was oh-so-decorative for its first ten years turns into a botanical Godzilla with the further passage of time. It blankets sun-loving flower beds with shade, chafes its branches against overhead wires, and attracts crow riffraff from the wrong side of town.
Six. One word – roots. Roots pretend to be docile, but they are a conniving lot. They slither under the sidewalk and expand upwards until the concrete cracks and buckles, the better to trip passersby. Underground pipes are powerless to resist the tree’s ever-thirsty roots. Leaf-clogged drains are child’s play compared to a root-choked water pipe.
But, please, let me interrupt you here and explain the heroism of a tree. Specifically, I will tell you about the hazelnut tree in my backyard and what it gave me despite what it endured this year. What did it endure?
Drought. The most obvious insult to the tree came gradually, but inexorably. We had a drought that began at level two, lingered a while at level three, and culminated in a parching level four. Such an extended arid spell was unheard of for our area and all the trees suffered. Placing a water sprinkler under the hazelnut tree was forbidden, and it had to subsist on its small share of the buckets of kitchen grey water, laced with soap and grease, that I toted out to the garden.
A plague of squirrels. Squirrels cannot keep their bony little paws off hazelnuts. They start their assault as soon as the nut begins to form, green and unready in the spring. With all the mental intellect of a clod of earth, the squirrel can’t understand that it is too early to harvest them. It takes a nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, takes another nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, and repeats this process endlessly. The ground below the tree is soon carpeted with these rejects. When the nuts finally do ripen, the fecund squirrels bring all their relatives and assault the remaining nuts on the tree, eating many, burying the rest.
Blight. Only today, I looked up into the tree and wondered, “Why is that small branch dead?” A bit of research revealed the horrifying answer. The tree is infested with Eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease that has worked its way north from Oregon and has arrived, most unwelcome, on my doorstep. With newly opened eyes, I now see that my hazelnut has struggled with this sickness since spring. The prognosis is grim.
But despite all this, despite the drought, the plague, and the blight, my hazelnut tree has given of itself to my benefit. My hero.
Such heroism must not languish unacknowledged. I hereby resolve that I will not mutter curses when I pull its cold, sodden leaves out of the gutters this autumn, nor will I grind my teeth when I scrape up leaves plastered glue-like to the patio. Further, I resolve not to sigh with martyrdom when I trudge out, dragging the grass rake behind me, for the umpteenth time to clean up yet another dump of fallen leaves.
Am I nuts to make such resolutions? Well, obviously!
Verdant, vibrant, vigorous – thus grows my vegetable garden this year. Its productivity is almost alarming. With plenty of growing season left, I’m running low on storage space in the freezer for all those blanched and bagged vegetables for the winter. Already snug in one corner are twenty big sacs of green beans. Twenty! That’s not to mention the chard, the zucchini, the broccoli, and the impending corn, pumpkin puree, and more. Let’s not forget the six big bags of frozen raspberries, either. Space hogs, all of them.
And I’m happy about it. Really I am. No sarcasm implied or intended. I shall feast through the winter. But after 30 years of cultivating crops tolerant of zone 8b conditions, oh how I pine to grow something new. By new, I don’t mean another variety of green bean or a different cultivar of potato. I mean something exotic, something impossible to grow in my climate.
Something like…well, let’s get crazy and think about growing rice. The climate here is iffy for rice, but apart from that little detail, it’s not such a wild idea. My garden is situated on a river delta and is as flat as one of today’s computer screens, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to dike and flood part of it with river water.
Imagine the mental zing of learning a whole new set of criteria for growing a crop. I don’t have to think twice about my technique for getting potatoes to grow well in my soil. Every year it’s the same. I dig a trench, snuggle each seed potato into a nest of peat moss, add mature compost, and hill up as the plants grow. As the season progresses, there’s nothing to think about. I do some mindless weeding, and make sure it gets either rain or tap water every week. Yawn. No brain teaser, this.
But rice would demand a whole new skill set. The more I read about it, the more I admire farmers who grow rice. They have to decide on the right timing as they flood, maintain, and drain their rice fields. Complicated formulae calculate rate of flow and timing. Do it right and you get a bumper crop, do it wrong and the rice plants get stunted or even die. It sounds like a challenge, and I’d like a challenge.
The tradition and significance of rice appeals to me, too. Humans have been using it for at least 4,500 years, and these days the world grows more than half a billion tons of it every year. Oof!
With all those tons of rice out there, some people might think rice is boring. Such people would be wrong. Such people clearly have never tried this Japanese rice creation:
With just a bit more global warming in my neighbourhood, I could make these for myself – from scratch – all the way from seed to crop to ingredient to plump little delicacy. It’s only a fantasy for now, but what a fantasy!
Wow, but the times are changing! No measurable rain has touched the soil of my garden for weeks and weeks. The sun bakes down, its light glinting off upturned leaves and even sneaking into the hidden corners. While the lawn withers to a pale gold, the vegetables stay green only by the grace of regular watering by hand and by sprinkler.
All this sunshine and heat has the corn in an ecstasy of growth. I look out over the land and wonder if it’s too soon in this cycle of Climate Change to plant some tropical delicacies. Of course, it is. Winter, when it comes, will freeze the vulnerable. Still, the heat has brought on hallucinations, and I imagine an orange tree next to my blueberry bush. Watermelon vines might like the area near the pumpkins. Thus I dream of my globally-warmed garden of the future.
Then I think, “OK, oranges and watermelons are good, but what about something more exotic? Surely there are amazing fruits and vegetables out there that I’ve never hear of. Would I like them?”
Some investigation is needed. I begin by questioning the edibility of the tamamoro:
Weird Food Taste Test
Here I am, not caring an atom about global warming, or climate change for the nit-pickers among us. After all, I’ll be nothing but a whiff of crematorium ash by the time the rising tide laps at my front door. Indeed, milder winters, which we’re already enjoying – that’s enjoying – are nothing but a plus for us living north of the 49th parallel and on the west coast of North America. Can’t tell you how nice it is not to have to scrape ice or shovel snow when we have an easy winter.
Pay no attention to the number of times I ride my bike or walk instead of getting into a fuel-burning mode of transport. That doesn’t make me a Carer. I don’t care.
Want another reason why I don’t care? Of course you do, and I’m happy to share. Get this – it’s February, and we’ve got magnolias in bloom, a sure sign of another mild winter. The flowering plum tree in my neighbour’s yard is a fireworks-burst of pink, the crocuses have been feeding bees for weeks, and daffodils glow like miniature suns in every rock garden. February, people!
Ignore the fact that I’ve been composting and recycling for more decades than I care to count. The reason I continue to compost and recycle is purely a question of habit. It’s a simple rut. It’s not because I care about global warming. I don’t.
Take notice, too, of how a warming of my home turf increases the growing season for my garden. What gardener can’t thrill to that result? I dream of the day when the Lower Mainland has the climate of today’s California, and I can grow crops year round. I get delirious thinking of the trees I’d plant – almond, avocado, citrus – wow! If it got even warmer, I could grow mango. Pardon me while I swoon for a moment.
Don’t count it against me that I’ve been growing my own food for many years, either. Even though I’m saving the planet the fumes from tractors, reapers, and transport trucks, I shouldn’t be branded an eco-warrior. I’m not. I don’t care about the toxins or the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Couldn’t care less.
My only complaint against global warming is its pace. This last winter, we had two nasty spells of icy weather – five days in a row of seriously sub-freezing temperatures, then another six. It killed off almost all of the hardy plants I was hoping to nurture through the dark season so they would produce tasty, early shoots. Only one survived. One lonely Brussels sprout plant stands green among the blasted remains of its brethren. Tragic.
Now that I think about it, the Lower Mainland of British Columbia needs to become California-North now. Right now. Or sooner. Sooner would be good.
Pay no attention to my going-paperless office. Ignore my water conservation habits. Turn a blind eye to my instinctive worship of the four Rs – reduce, re-use, recycle, repair. If you ever imagine that you see me doing anything to save the planet from global warming, you will know you are dreaming. Or hallucinating. Probably both.
Now, I must dash. I have an evergreen shrub to plant. And I’m not planting it to help clean the air. Wherever would you get such an idea?
“While there’s life, there’s hope.” Who said that? Some guy called Cicero who lived in the first century BCE. Dude! I couldn’t agree more.
After endless months of wet, cold, rainy, soggy, grey, dreary, adjective-ridden winter, my garden awakes. The rhubarb, the keenest plant of all, arises.
Cheery red shoots emerge from the slime and the muck. It’s cold above and cold below, but nothing deters the rhubarb. It has a mission to thrive.
Most days, I stand snug in my warm kitchen and watch its progress through the window. Rain sheets down one day, fog intrudes the next, and frost pounces during any night without cloud cover. The rhubarb never wavers. It pushes up new shoots, opens new leaves, and grows and grows with ever increasing pace.
Many more weeks will pass before I even start to sprout other vegetable seedlings indoors. Such wimps! For now, I am in awe of the rhubarb. My hero! My soon-to-be soup. My ever-popular dessert.
And, given the time of year, and the colour of the buds – My Valentine!
Two days ago, my corner of the world was treated to a smidgen of dry weather. The ground wasn’t dry – that’s just not a possibility this time of the year – but no water poured down from above. The sky was grey with clouds, and, for one heady moment, the sun threatened to burn through in a weak spot. Unfortunately, the spot wasn’t weak enough, and a dull, diffuse light prevailed. A few droplets of rain braved the journey to the ground, but only now and then. That hardly counts at all.
I took all this to be a good omen, and a good opportunity. Feet protected in rubber boots, hands encased in water-resistant gloves, I launched into the backyard and tackled the left section of the garden. There were defunct and decidedly damp bush bean plants to tug out of the ground and consign to the compost pile. Then there were one or two weeds to hoe off. Well, maybe a handful or two of weeds. All right, I admit it. I hoed up three mounds of weeds.
Given that I’m such a dedicated gardener, how do such quantities of weeds appear? Simple answer. They don’t because they can’t. Therefore, those three mounds are a figment of my imagination. Apparently, my camera has quite an imagination, too. For a moment, it saw the piles of weeds.
But, like all good mirages, the mounds vanished. I mean, really! Weeds? In my garden?
The only thing growing madly in the garden these days is the compost pile. The corn stalks I removed from their place in the right section filled the box to its brim, the pole bean vines from the centre section added a dome, and the bush bean plants from the left section raised it to a tower. If there had been any weeds to add to the tower, it might have threatened to topple. Of course, there were only mirage weeds, not real ones. No problem.
My cleanup of the garden to prepare it for winter slumber is not quite complete. A number of zucchini plants still live, feebly. Occasionally, they will produce a few fingerling fruits to grace our plates with succulence and flavour. I want every last fruit these plants can squeeze out before the first frost kills them. The cold, wet weather is not to their liking, but they are as determined as I am.
Today, cold rain sheets down on the garden. From the warmth of my kitchen, I look out the window and cheer on the zucchinis. I admire the clear areas that I have tidied for winter.
And I dream of spring 2015.
Autumn is upon us. The harvest moon came and went on September 9 in this year of 2014, and the equinox passed on the 23rd of the same month. Now it’s October, and the season of the vegetable garden is dwindling to an end. It’s winding down.
That expression – winding down – brings to mind a gradual tapering off, a gentle decline, or a peaceful amble into the sunset. Do I wish!
That’s not the way my vegetable garden comes to a close. No. It demands attention. It stamps its withering feet and insists. I never realized how much time and effort the harvest involved until I kept track of my garden hours one year. Back in 2009, I discovered that only forty percent of my time went to preparing the ground in the spring, then planting, tending, and weeding through the summer, and finally clearing the ground at the end of the season. Sixty percent of my time (120 hours) went to the picking and processing of crops for off-season use. A full 86 of those harvest hours were crammed into September and October.
The day to celebrate the harvest – Thanksgiving Day – arrives on October 13th this year in Canada. I’d love to be able to put up my feet and joyfully contemplate its rapid approach, but I’m too busy grubbing, scrubbing, chopping, blanching, chilling, layering, freezing, canning, and NOT panicking.
Happily, the zucchinis and vegetable marrows will produce fresh delights for my table until the first frost kills them. They make no special demands on my time. Even better, I can ignore the beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and chard, for now. They will fend for themselves even as the temperatures drop. They laugh at a simple frost.
But, on the heels of taking down the corn patch, I must store the potatoes. Then the onions need to be readied for the winter. I’ve barely finished canning the last of the plums, and the late-ripening apples nag at me to pick them and turn them into applesauce. The picking and saucing of apples will be hours and hours and hours of work.
And that’s not all. We’ve enjoyed a warm, dry September and into October, so the bush beans are still producing edible beans. They need to be picked. Again. Looming in the centre section of the garden, the scarlet runners continue to mature. I will strip the beans and take the vines down at the last moment, hopefully on a dry day, and definitely before the first frost.
I’ve already brought in the pumpkins – all 42 of them. I rinsed, dried, and set them out in sunlight to mature their flavour for two weeks before converting them to purée. That two week deadline gallops ever nearer. Do I need to mention that it will take many hours to convert 42 pumpkins to dried seeds and frozen purée? I thought not.
Who, me? Worry? Poised to pounce, the cold, drenching monsoons of autumn hover off the coast, and I’ve still got the apples, pumpkins, scarlet runners, and bush beans getting all up in my face needing to be harvested, processed, and bedded down for the winter. Pshaw, I say. Piffle!
I am NOT panicking.