A Gardener

Image 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.

E is for Extra

It’s that time of year in the vegetable garden. Now is the season of bounty in the squash patch. You know how it is – the zucchinis are being fruitful in a frightful way. There is more fresh produce than you can humanly eat. Or inhumanly, for that matter. The freezer is brimming with fresh-frozen vegetables for the winter.

Naturally, you want to share your bounty, the succulent fruits of your labours. You offer the extra zucchini, vegetable marrow, or spaghetti squash to your gardenless friends and neighbours.

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That’s when you get THE LOOK, closely followed by a sigh of martyrdom. If you are lucky, one among your friends, let’s call him Bob, will deign to take a single zucchini. His body language will speak volumes of the personal sacrifice he is making and the enormity of the favour he is bestowing.

Some time ago, I wearied of the squirming that people did when I offered produce from my garden. I accepted that most people do not understand the difference in freshness and flavour between store-bought and home-grown vegetables. I also reminded myself that normal people don’t eat their veg by the plateful. My new strategy is to state that my garden is producing and, if anyone wants anything, they have only to ask.

Ask? The silence from all, including Bob, has been deafening, and I have taken to recycling the extra squash on the compost heap.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that the Food Bank wanted fresh produce. The signs by their donation bins always request Non-Perishables.

First, I went to the website for the local food bank. Yes, one of their pages said they would take extra garden produce. Still, I was wary. Surely at this time of year, they would be buried under extra zucchinis. This year my spaghetti squash is going particularly insane, so it’s a good year for squash in our area. I picked up the phone and called the Food Bank.

“Um, I don’t know if you have too many already, but I have some extra squash in my garden,” I said. “You probably don’t want any, do you?

The fellow on the other end of the call said, “We would love any extra produce you might have.”

“Oh? Oh! OK,” was the best response I could muster.

I went into my garden and pulled out eight spaghetti squash, loaded them into the paniers of my bike and my daypack, and pedalled them across town to the food bank.

They were thrilled. The young man who helped me carry them into the food bank from my bike thanked me sincerely. A woman who had come into the food bank to help out spotted them being carried into the back room. Her eyes sparkled as she, too, thanked me.

Since then, I have taken in a second batch of six spaghetti squash and a bag of Swiss chard. Today, I will take in another load of squash. It turns out extra is not a dirty word. Who knew?

In case you worry that the compost is feeling lonely, neglected, and abandoned – fear not. There are plenty of weeds to be added to it and, any day now, I will do just that.

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E is also for elf, eel, and elk. Youngsters can discover this at my video, “Letter E and the Secret Window.”

D is for Destruction

Oh, woe! Disaster struck overnight in the corn patch. The bad news is two fine corn stalks were struck down by a Dastardly Destroyer, one of the local raccoon mob. These corn plants were snapped right off and cannot be rescued. The good news is fifty stalks are still standing…so far…[cue ominous music]…

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I sigh and hang my head in desperation. “Why, why, why?” I ask the Universe. There is no answer.

The corn plants haven’t yet tasseled or formed cobs so there’s nothing on the plant to benefit the raccoon. By killing the plants, the critter has guaranteed that they never will produce succulent kernels for it to devour. Not the brightest move on the part of Procyon lotor.

Scientifically, the raccoon family is closely related to the bear family. That may explain its bent toward wanton destruction. Have you seen what a bear can do to an automobile if there’s the slightest whiff of a tidbit inside or even a glimpse of something that looks like a cooler? Not pretty. If a grizzly can’t shatter a side window by pushing its considerable weight (upwards of 270 kg or 600 pounds) against it, it will simply rip off the door. The bear doesn’t care if it destroyed the car and found nothing to eat inside of it. There are plenty of other cars in the campground.

By contrast, a raccoon weighs up to 9 kg or 20 pounds, which fortunately keeps it out of the door-ripping business. Still, the coon has plenty of body weight to push over a corn stalk. I want to grab that rapscallion by the scruff of the neck and scream into its face, “It’s too early! There is no corn on the corn stalks. Stop killing them!”

It would be a waste of breath, of course. The raccoon would take exception to my violation of its personal space, and would respond with hissing and biting. Communication would fail utterly.

The devastation could be worse. Five years ago, a raccoon came through the neighbourhood one night and pushed over one entire row of corn plants in my garden and all of my neighbour’s corn. Again, it was too early for the stalks to be bearing food. That’s when I started experimenting with ways to protect the stalks.

Today, all I can do is increase the defenses in the corn. I will get out my trusty roll of twine and run another line of support along each row, cinching it tight at the ends. I am determined to get a few delectable cobs of corn for myself and my friends. Delicious!

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Some “d” words for children can be found at my video, Letter D and the Secret Window:

C is for Coddle

When a friend asked the status of my vegetable garden yesterday, I talked about my recent work in the corn patch. I had weeded, side-dressed, hilled, and twined the corn. In a couple of weeks, the stalks will tassel, and I’ll side-dress, hill, and twine it a second time.

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“Wow, you really coddle your corn,” said my friend.

Coddle? Me? I was shocked at the word. I’ve always considered myself more of a slacker than a keener in the garden. Oh, I have great intentions to be a candidate for World’s Best Gardener, but I am too much the expert in procrastinating, especially in the domain of weeding. When I cleared the ground around the young corn two days ago, some of the pigweed stood as tall as the crop I was rescuing.

No, I don’t coddle. But I do want my garden investments to pay off. Corn is a big investment in space and produces modestly per unit area compared to big producers like chard or zucchini. A stalk of corn that is neglected may only produce one cob, while a stalk that has no weedy competitors for food and water, and is given extra food when it’s having a growth spurt will produce two or even three hearty cobs dense with juicy kernels.

The hilling and twining are to prevent stalks from falling over in wet, windy weather, or being pushed flat onto the ground by overly zealous raccoons. Prevent? Heh, it should work so flawlessly as all that. I’ve not lost any to weather lately, but even with the double strands of twine to hold the plants in position, raccoons will bend a few into awkward poses.

Hilling and side-dressing are standard procedures for corn growers, but my Great Twine Defense is a strategy I developed in desperation. It came about as another of those “good news, bad news” scenarios. The good news is that wildlife like raccoons and coyotes are moving into our cities and using this environment to be fruitful and multiply. The more good news is creatures who live in cities learn, think, and develop new strategies for survival. They get smarter, too.

Which brings me to the bad news. For the first ten years of my vegetable garden, the corn patch was unscathed by pests. Wait, wait, I am getting to the bad news. Then the odd raccoon would wander through my garden at corn harvest time, push over a stalk, and eat a bit of its corn. No, that’s not the BAD news. Not yet.

Over time, the raccoon issue worsened. In recent years, they would come through the corn when the stalks were small – long before any cobs had formed – and they pushed over plant after plant after plant, snapping them off at their bases. The result? Many dead and dying plants. No corn on the cob from the fallen soldiers. Not for me, not for the raccoons.

A war of escalating violence between myself and the raccoons was out of the question. Who could bear to raise a hand against Rascal the Raccoon? Not I. Instead, I had to resort to guile. We humans are good at guile.

So, after trying a few strategies that didn’t work, I now use the Twine Method. When I first plant the corn, I drive in a tall rebar post at each end of each row. As the corn stalks grow, I run taut lines of hardy twine on each side of each row at nine inch intervals.

It’s not foolproof, but it has reduced my losses to a delightfully low level.

For now.

I warily anticipate the next move by my furry opponent.

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Corn, crop, coddle, and cob are all “c” words. For young children and grandchildren, here is a video hunt for c words.

B is for Boisterous

The blooming bush beans are boisterous. That’s today’s good news from my vegetable garden. The not-so-good news? The weeds, too, are boisterous.

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Clearly, I have done an excellent job of keeping the soil fertile, aerated, and suitably watered. Plants of all pedigrees, refined and dodgy, are keen to move in, grow, and multiply. And they have.

My problem is that I insist on believing the bush beans I planted have exclusive rights to the area I allotted for them. This belief is not shared by the hordes of purslane, morning glory, black nightshade, dandelion, pigweed, and quackgrass that have crashed the garden party. I tried to hold a black tie and tails event, and it’s been overrun by riffraff in jeans and sneakers.

My carefully served up toasted brioche rounds with crème fraîche and caviar, the fruits de mer, and the pâté with white truffles are vanishing down the maws of the uninvited. I’m trying to be a good host, trying to tolerate the jostling crowds, and be oh-so politically correct, but my polite smile grows ever more brittle. (The bush beans abandoned civility long ago.)

No. That’s it. No more hoi polloi. This party needs a bouncer. It’s time to act.

As dawn breaks, I trade my black tie for a silver trowel, and exchange my stiff upper lip for stubborn determination. One by one, I doggedly remove the intruders. Time passes. The sun climbs higher. The compost pile expands. Finally, the riffraff have been escorted off the premises.

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Now the beans luxuriate in their newfound, airy accommodation, and I relax with a glass of what’s left of the bubbly. Both I and the bush beans know the reprieve is temporary, but it’s still worth celebrating.

Cheers!

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P.S. – for the youngsters of the household, I present my video, Letter B and the Secret Window:

A is for Applesauce

The apple is my new hero. Forget the old idiom about an apple a day keeping the doctor away. For me, an apple a day helps keep my potassium level low. Well, “low” might be a misleading term here. I mean to say, it helps keep my potassium level below TOXIC.

Now, most of you are thinking, “Huh?” and I would have said the same thing a couple of years ago. Indeed, back in those happy days, I didn’t give potassium a second thought. Truthfully, I didn’t even give it a first thought.

But these days, my doctor has me taking a cornucopia of cardiac medications, and some of those meds are “potassium sparing.” Simply put, they stop my body from getting rid of potassium the way it used to. So, if what I eat each day contains more potassium than my body eliminates, the level in my blood rises.

And high potassium can stop your heart.

Actually, the medical profession uses terms like cardiac dysrhythmia, asystole, ventricular fibrillation, and terminating event. But who cares about the details? Fancy words don’t make it sound like any more fun.

That’s why I’m appreciating the apple these days. A 100 gram serving of apple (3 ½ ounces) has 107 milligrams of potassium. Compare that to another “A” word, the avocado, which has 485 milligrams for the same weight of fruit. Dates are even worse, at 696 mg, and raisins are insane at 749. I will occasionally splurge and have 10 grapes as a treat, but dates just aren’t worth their potassium load.

When I saw that applesauce was even lower than apples, 74 mg versus 107 mg, I celebrated. Then I weighed out 100 g of applesauce.

Hurrah! Let the feasting begin.

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As a Post Script and in keeping with the A letter theme, I have included my video for youngsters of an age to learn their abc’s. It is a search for objects and animals that start with the letter “a.” For your kiddies’ viewing pleasure – Letter A and the Secret Window. Enjoy!

Nuts!

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.

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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!

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Rice is Nice

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. verdantGarden 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!