A Gardener

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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 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 other interests, such as teaching youngsters their letters at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLf2VpiICMMb1gWs1Q-S8crTKn2d-ZDxV9 but my calling is my garden. Actually, I mean to say my garden calls to me. Constantly.

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Silent Letters

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

So says Shakespeare. For the sweet smell, we’ll have to trust good old William because, as winter hurtles toward us in these final days of November, there are no rose flowers in our gardens to sniff.

Words are funny things. Rose is a fine word. It’s spelled like it sounds and sounds like it’s spelled. Solid.

English has a lot of words that, once learned, we take for granted, but if we stop and look at them, we are left scratching our heads.

Yes, I’m looking at YOU, garden gnome. You and your crazy silent g. You and your mysterious Greek origins. Why can’t we call you gnome with a hard g? It’s not difficult to put those two consonants back to back. Gn…gn…gn! Easy! Sounds like a reluctant engine turning over, struggling to start. Kinda fun to say it that way – GNome

Even simpler would be to spell it garden nome. Well, maybe not. I already hear the shrieks of despair from all the people who hate for anything to change.

Really, I have to pity that poor g in gnome. It dangles on the front of the word, unspoken and ignored by English-speaking tongues around the world. Visually, it can’t hide in the midst of other letters like the g in align or reign. The g in knight even has an unspoken buddy in the equally ignored h. In knight, it’s the k that’s up front and obvious, yet useless. No doubt the g appreciates its sacrifice.

Part of me would like to see updated spelling in English, but my practical side knows it would slow my reading speed to a crawl. My brain learned the shapes of words as they have been spelled for centuries, and those shapes are locked in for keeps. I can only imagine how much I would be slowed if I had to muddle my way through the following message:

Followers of the game of chess no that the nite stands between the rook and the bishop. So it is ritten in the rools.

Well, I suppose I could adapt. Eventually. It would give me something different to complain about when I retire to my rocking chair.

For now, I imagine that the unspoken and ignored g in gnome needs a support group. Perhaps our local zoo could place a garden gnome in the wildebeest habitat. Once a week, a gnat will alight on the gnome and the gnu will wander over. Then the gnat, the gnome, and the gnu will each give mute support to the others. A moment of silence for the silent.

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Wren is another word that sports a silent letter. Children can read along with my video story about this little brown bird.

Z is for Zuke

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a selection of “borrowed” words

What’s a zuke, you ask? But maybe you don’t ask. Maybe, like me, you’re inclined to shorten long words and you, too, often refer to zucchini as zukes. Let’s face it, zuke is shorter, with one syllable instead of three, and it’s a whole lot easier to spell.

Mind you, zuke gives my automatic spellchecker little squiggly red fits, but that’s easily solved with a simple right click and a command to Ignore All. Better yet, in a fit of rebellion, I will click Add to Dictionary. The language police will accuse me of bringing on the end of civilization through the corruption of English. Oh yeah? Colour me rebel.

Of course, zucchini is hard to spell because it’s a word we’ve borrowed from another language. In Italian, it’s called zucchine and sounds a lot like the word we use in English, just spoken with an Italian accent.

English is notorious for borrowing (some call it stealing) words from other languages. In fact, you could run through the alphabet, simply on the topic of food and cooking, and find a “borrowed” word for just about every letter.

There’s avocado, from āhuacatl, a word taken from the language of the Aztecs and given a Spanish ending.

Under the letter B, it’s not fish stew, it’s bouillabaisse.

Something flaky? How about a croissant?

And so the alphabet cruises along with highlights popping up everywhere. There’s jujube, taken from Medieval Latin and referring to a date-like fruit, more recently applied to a candy. Pomegranate is another name that comes from Latin.

Talk about borrowed words that are hard to spell and you have to mention schnitzel. That’s altogether too many consonants for English comfort. Yet we use it all the same. Also tricky to spell are paella and radicchio, from Catalan and Italian, respectively. You’d think if we were at all clever about it, we’d try spelling these words in phonetic English. But no.

Getting closer to the end of the alphabet, we find vindaloo, from the Portuguese combination of wine and garlic, vinha d’alhos.

We didn’t even bother to create our own words to wish someone a good meal. Instead, it’s bon appétit! And someone who appreciates fine food is a gourmet. You know gourmet isn’t native English by the simple fact we don’t pronounce its t, an unthinkable transgression in any “true” English word.

I suppose we are being sensible when we adopt a word from another language. Why strain our brains for a totally new word when one is sitting right there for the taking. For example, we visit a new country and see a woman stir-frying supper in a strange, round-bottomed dish. We ask what it is and she says something that sounds like “wok.” Well, that’s easy enough. Wok it is!

Something in human nature resists change, but despite this resistance, our language changes constantly. We’ve dumped words like porknell, and belly-cheere. We’ve added words like chowhound and superfruit. Our language is like a toddler waddling across the floor, arms full of toys, who pauses to gather up a turquoise ball then drops a green locomotive while seizing a plush unicorn.

All these beautiful toys, all our lovely words, give us so much to play with. We can make puns like “A cashew is a nut with a cold.” We can impart vital information such as “I’m allergic to shellfish.” We can give voice to emotions like love with “Eat your greens. They’re good for you.”

Naturally, we grumble about the way English changes and takes on strange new words from exotic places, but we forgive it all the same. Language – whatever would we do without it?

ZucchiniDuo

Zukes! A boisterous pair of Lebanese zucchini.

It’s time to celebrate the completion of my Secret Window videos for children. Here’s the letter Z with zucchini, zest, zebra, zipper, and more.

Y is for Yes

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Y is for “yes!” and yellow and yummy.

If the photo and the opening line aren’t enough, let it be known that the corn harvest is in, processed, and secure for the winter. I’m happy to report that this was a good year for the corn. I give a nod of acknowledgement to the soil and the weather, but I reach around and give myself a hearty pat on the back for the Great Corn Defense  that I imagined, installed, and modified this year. The wire mesh I erected along both sides of each row of corn prevented the raccoons from pushing over and snapping off the stalks.

I have a love/hate relationship with raccoons. I love them in cute Internet videos, I love them out in the wild, and I even love them when they forage in my lawn. But I hate, loathe, and despise them when they destroy my corn patch.

One year, raccoons pushed over and killed an entire row of my corn when it was barely tall enough to tickle a kneecap. The criminal waste of it all had me spitting unintelligible syllables of frustration. My neighbours lost all but three of their corn plants at the same time and for the same reason. It was a bad year.

My neighbours gave up and didn’t plant corn the next year. I narrowed my eyes and plotted.

Pests. For those who don’t garden, let me say there is no such thing as a garden without pests. In my garden, my chief rivals for all the bounty include raccoons, slugs, snails, caterpillars, aphids, squirrels, and an assortment of birds. Crows can be particularly destructive in the spring, and I am horrified by the spectre of rabbits moving ever closer to my neighbourhood.

Who can blame them? We gardeners and farmers lay out what looks for all the world like a welcoming All You Can Eat Buffet. Up for grabs are fruits, nuts, grains, and greens. Foraging creatures must feel like they have come upon Utopia.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to share my crops with nature. They could help themselves to ten or even twenty percent of what I grow. No problem.

Actually – problem. No one has taught percentages to the squirrels. They believe their fair share is all of the hazelnuts. Through the growing season, my hazelnut trees seethe with the frenzied activity of squirrels. They seize the nuts and either devour them on the spot or spirit them to a dark hiding place. I have watched from a window as one tucks a nut out of sight in a patch of moss. With all-consuming fervour, they believe every nut on the tree is meant just for them and will work tirelessly until they have made it so. From the tree’s point of view, they aren’t far wrong. Forgotten nuts will sprout and grow in the spring, having been carried to new places by the squirrel. That’s the goal of the hazelnut tree.

This is part of the natural order, and I accept it, grudgingly, even as I race to get a share of nuts for myself. By contrast, I do not approve of the vandalism wreaked by raccoons when they snap off and kill infant corn plants. By killing the plant before it has reached full size, or tasseled, or produced silks, they ensure that none of us ever sees an ear of corn. No living plants – no edible corn. Everybody loses.

That is why my corn harvest this year is so glorious. All those undamaged stalks, all those glorious ears. I have, for at least one season, triumphed over the thuggery of those masked garden marauders.

Birds twitter with joy, my inner child dances a jig, and never before has the corn tasted so sweet.

YisYesWarbler

 

In celebration, I invite children to learn 10 words that start with the letter Y:

X is for Xylem

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My sister looking for the top of a tall tree in Malaysia.

High school biology first taught me the meaning of xylem. If you flip to the x section of an old-fashioned dictionary, you’ll see it’s one of the few words in English that start with the letter x. That puts it into a rarefied elite.

Xylem, for those who don’t know or don’t remember, is part of the anatomy of a vascular plant. Don’t panic. I’m not about to bore you with a science lesson. All you need to know is xylem is the part of a plant that speeds water and minerals from the roots to the leaves. Of course, speed is a relative term here. We’re talking about plants, which are not in a league with sprinting cheetahs or falcons in their power dives. Sap flow rates are measured in centimetres per hour (inches per hour).

When you think about it superficially, plants have a Zen-like existence. All things happen at a measured pace. Peaceful. Relaxed.

Peaceful? Yeah, right. So they would have you believe. Tell that to the raspberry cane being smothered by a morning glory vine or a sprig of clover struggling for sustenance after the “me first” nutrient plundering of a eucalyptus tree.

It’s interspecies war. Roots duel for supremacy in the realm of water and minerals and the above-ground parts of the plant strive to overreach or crowd out their neighbours. By growing faster than the other plant or climbing up the other plant, they vie for sunlight.

Dealing with a plant’s need for territory and resources is the heart of gardening. Have you ever ignored the spacing directions on a packet of seeds? You know, the part where they say something like, “Space seeds 4 inches apart and thin to 8 inches.” These aren’t frivolous numbers, as I discovered years ago when I actually paid attention to how much room I was giving my onion sets. My onions had been a nice size. The next year, when conditions were good, I gave them more room, and their size zoomed to magnificent. The right amount of space maximizes yield. You don’t get more by planting too close together.

China discovered the wisdom of experienced farmers versus the power wielded by politicians back in the Great Leap Forward. Consider the instance when rice plants, by order, were crowded so close together fans had to be used to circulate air and try to keep them from rotting. Not even the fans could help give each plant the amount of sunlight it needed. Those few plants that didn’t die due to the crowding produced poorly.

I am frequently amazed to see how closely someone has planted a line of trees. And what are people thinking when they plant a tree sapling, a Douglas fir, for example, within two metres of a building? Forget the word “sapling” people, this is a TREE.

And yet, people will buy a tiger cub as a pet because it’s cute. Yes, at ten pounds, it’s definitely cute. An adult tiger? That can be 400 pounds of muscle, claw, and fang.

Wait. Tiger? Hold on. What was I talking about?

Oh, yeah, crowding…plants…xylem.

Xylem is no big mystery to science. It was first described and named in the 17th century, and everybody knows how it works. Right?

Yes and no. Consider that a person could draw water up a straw that was 10 meters (about 30 feet) long, but no longer. That’s the max. Then consider a redwood tree drawing water to its growing top some hundred metres (over 300 feet) in the air. Try asking a botanist how a redwood gets water from its roots to its top, then brace yourself for a lot of fancy verbal footwork. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

 “Over the past century, there has been a great deal of research regarding the mechanism of xylem sap transport; today, most plant scientists continue to agree that the cohesion-tension theory best explains this process, but multiforce theories that hypothesize several alternative mechanisms have been suggested, including longitudinal cellular and xylem osmotic pressure gradients, axial potential gradients in the vessels, and gel- and gas-bubble-supported interfacial gradients.”

Oops, I said I wasn’t going to hit you with a science lesson and then I did. My bad. Clearly, I need to wrap this up. Xylem is the x word in my alphabet of gardening, and however the plants we grow and the xylem within them get water from their roots to their leaves, I admire their bioengineering expertise.

It doesn’t matter how they do it, they do it. Like they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Or, in the case of my garden, it’s the proof of the broccoli, the chard, the zucchini, the corn, the apples, the rhubarb…

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Please share my letter-learning video with anyone you know who is just learning to read. This one features the letter X.

 

W is for Winning

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Yes, yes, I know that not everything in life is about winning and losing. But I thought it would be fun to tally up some wins and losses of this summer, especially as it applies to my garden.

Win – even the runt seedling among the broccoli I planted flourished, and all seven plants are producing awesome florets – flavourful and plentiful. Mm!

Loss – that pathetic blueberry “bush” I planted years ago refuses to grow beyond its meagre knee height. This year it produced a measly eight berries. It’s a TWIG!

Win – my neighbours encouraged me to pick the blueberries from their big bushes where they hang over our shared fence. Yay!

Loss – the onions refused to thrive this summer. Either that, or some wag convinced them that “slim is in!”

Win – all of my squash plants grew and produced in overdrive this season. Not one of them malingered. Thumbs up!

Loss – the potato patch started the season in a rush of growth, then struggled when the weather heated up. I’ve started digging the potatoes and it is the worst yield ever. When I can hold the entire yield of one hill in one hand – easily – something is terribly wrong.

Win – so far my Great Corn Defense Version 3 is working. There has been no further raccoon damage to the stalks. Heh, heh.

Loss – oops, I spoke too soon. One stalk has been pushed over in the corn row protected by Version 3.1 of the Great Corn Defense (see V is for Version). I immediately pulled out more mesh and added a second tier to the fencing. Now that row’s protection approaches the height of Version 3.2, previously installed on the other corn rows. I warily await further developments.

Win – Yesterday, I ate my first ripe cob of corn, and more is poised to ripen.

Loss – despite my early and mid-season attentiveness to weeding, I fell behind when our air quality soared to 10+ Extreme Hazard. Seriously, who would spend hours in the forest-fire-smoke-thickened air pulling weeds? Nope. I decided to let the crops fend for themselves and stayed indoors next to the hard-working HEPA filters of my air purifier.

Win – the raspberries produced a bumper crop of fruit. I’ve got six big freezer sacs of raspberries tucked away at sub-zero temperatures.

Win – the beans did well – not crazy-well, but good enough.

Win – the feral blackberries in my neighbourhood produced especially flavourful berries.

Win – the many, many days of dry weather slowed the growth of my lawn so much I scarcely had to mow it. The mower was more than happy to sit on its heels in the garden shed and I was happy to leave it there.

Overall, it was another year where the wins outdid the losses. The margin was not as wide as usual, but I’ve got more than enough vegetables and fruits in my freezer and in canning jars to see me through to the next growing season. I feel insanely wealthy.

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You don’t have to be wealthy to watch my free video for kids. It’s a treasure hunt for words that start with the letter W.

V is for Version

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My sister inspects the corn in the glory years B.R. (Before Raccoons).

 

The raccoon thugs are back! Two days ago, I checked on my garden and discovered one half-grown corn stalk had been pushed over in the night. As usual, the thug broke the stalk for no reward. The corn is only chest-high and hasn’t even tasseled yet, much less formed ears.

This senseless vandalism spurred me to action. Time to protect my September crop.

Years ago, when I first had corn patch damage by the local raccoon gang, I tried out Version 1.0 of my Great Corn Defense. My mother had told me how she’d prevented a starling from nesting in her neighbour’s house by smearing Tanglefoot (described as a super-sticky compound certified for organic gardening) around the ventilation opening to the attic. The starling abandoned the location because she didn’t want to get sticky stuff on her feathers.

Hoping that raccoons would equally hate to get sticky stuff on their fur, I planted tall stakes at the four corners of the patch and ran two strands of twine around the perimeter, one six inches off the ground, the other a foot off the ground. Then I smeared Tanglefoot along each strand.

While I was finishing this task, the neighbour’s half-grown kitten came over to investigate. He walked up to a section of the twine I’d already coated and sniffed it. Then he made a face and backed away quickly.

“Aha!” I thought. “This will work well.”

Wrong.

The raccoons returned on a later night and wreaked more havoc. Time for Version 1.1.

I added another strand of twine a bit higher and smeared it. I even smeared gobs of sticky stuff on the lower reaches of some of the corn stalks.

Nope, quite ineffective. I had to suffer more losses and a reduced crop that year. At first I was bewildered, then I remembered that city raccoons are dumpster divers and encounter all kinds of icky stuff in the process. They’ve got skills! Reluctantly, I admitted this result should not have been a surprise.

Over the winter, I pondered the problem and imagined Version 2.0 of the Great Corn Defense. The next year, I placed tall rebar posts at each end of each row and ran taut strands of twine down each side of each row at 1, 2, and 3 feet off the ground. The hope was to give support to the stalks and make it hard for the thugs to push over the plants.

This version did make it more difficult for the raccoons to damage the corn. They still managed to spoil a few, but it was an improvement. I continued with Version 2 for several years.

Mollified, but not satisfied, I pondered and stewed and plotted last winter while the rains pounded the ground and the skies glowered down, echoing my mood. By spring, I had spawned a new idea.

This year, I’m trying Version 3, actually, I’m trying Versions 3.1 and 3.2 on different rows of the corn. Using multiple rebar stakes and bands of wire mesh, I’ve erected close fencing on each side of each row of corn. Fortunately, my corn patch is measured in rows, not acres.

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I’m re-using the wire mesh that protects my seedlings from crows in the spring. Version 3.1 uses wider bands of mesh, and the resulting fence stands at chest level (Beat THAT, thugs!). Version 3.2 uses narrower bands of mesh but is easier to put up. With luck, the easier version will work, meaning less effort for next year.

My worries with Versions 3.1 and 3.2 are twofold. First, I worry that the raccoon thugs will find a different way to make a mess of the crop. The single-minded determination of wildlife is not to be underestimated. My second worry is that the corn won’t like being fenced in.

Of hopes, I have only one – I hope my corn patch sails through the rest of the season unscathed.

“Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh what a beautiful day!” So begins the chorus of an upbeat song from “Oklahoma” with music by Rogers and Hammerstein. Most notably, the song goes on to say “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.”

That will be my measure of success. Come harvest time, may all my corn stand as high as an elephant’s eye. Won’t that be a beautiful day!

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My other hope is that youngsters will enjoy this video about the letter V.

U is for Up

Up is something that is almost always good, don’t you think? We keep our hopes up, investors are happy when their stocks go up, and toddlers dream of growing up so they can reach a world designed for adults. In my garden, the scarlet runner vines are halfway up their poles and headed higher. In my world, that is excellent.

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Indeed, all my crops are now up, some more than others. This year, the squash plants are growing boisterously. Good news, right? Mm, yes and no.

In the realm of computers, nothing can be better than a good backup, especially when the predictable happens and the original file or its drive gets corrupted. Gardens are tricky to backup, though. If I need three zucchini plants to provide for my summer and winter eating should I plant three? Not a good idea. Often, one or more plants do poorly and either waste away or vie for the title of Runt of the Universe. I might be left with only one plant vainly struggling to produce enough. That’s a big fail.

To be safe, I plant extras – backups. So sensible. This year, in my usual fit of caution, I planted five zucchini, and, wouldn’t you know it, they are all exceeding expectations. I now know I will be up to my eyebrows in zucchini as summer matures.

Another feature of early summer – the weeds are getting uppity. Baby purslanes hug the ground here and there, trying to look insignificant, like innocents peeping out of foxholes. Pigweed seedlings huddle under the squash leaves, biding their time, waiting for the right moment to shoot for the sky. Around the borders, runner grass sends sneaky subterranean roots into the garden area, the better to colonize it. Up to no good, the lot of them.

This early in the growing season, I’m still psyched up and quick to roll up my sleeves and keep the garden free of weeds with regular applications of effort. So far, so good, but thirty plus years of gardening have taught me this enthusiasm won’t last, and by final harvest in the fall, weeds will have firm toeholds all over the garden. It’s not that I give up…exactly…it’s more a question of my time being better spent in harvest and storage. At least, that’s how I explain the situation, and I believe because I would never lie to myself. Honest.

Flowers and flower buds are brightening up the garden as I type. Golden yellow squash blossoms, trumpets of fecundity, flare open every morning. Tight, royal purple buds dot the first-planted swath of bush beans, and a scant few red buds mark the lower reaches of the scarlet runner vines. Hurry up, they say, it’s time to reproduce.

Yes, the garden is looking up, and my spirits are so far up they are height-giddy. That’s the joy of gardening – the present day successes (Swiss chard and raspberries) and the anticipation of what will happen next. Tomorrow, I will serve up the first vegetable marrow of the year, picked small so it will be tender and succulent. Not long after, the first broccoli will go directly from plant to plate, then crop after crop will come into production. The corn and the pumpkins will wrap up the season.

It’s all up, up, up, and not even the uppity pigweeds and purslanes can harsh my high.

kiteSoar

 

Youngsters can watch a kite go up as they learn about the letter u in this video: