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.

When Cute Isn’t Cute

My backyard is not a peaceful place of fluttering leaves and twittering birds. Forget that idyllic image of charming, rustic farm life.

It’s war, and I’m losing.

Not that I’ve admitted defeat. Never that.

These days, my vegetable garden is under attack from all sides – a situation that has developed over the years and threatens to get worse in the near future.

In year number one, my only worry was slugs. In the spring, those voracious molluscs rise from the ground at night and mow off my tender young vegetable seedlings, especially the chard and beets. They care not for the nearby weeds. Noooo, the vegetables are much tastier.

To save my supper, I tried a bunch of quirky defenses against slugs – broken eggshells (hah!), copper bands (hah, hah), sprinklings of human hair (as if), and more. I stopped short of trying a beer trap. I only share beer with friends. Slugs are not my friends.

Other people swear by the efficacy of these remedies, but I only swear at them, and at the slugs. I guess other people’s slugs read the organic gardening handbook and react accordingly. My slugs are clearly illiterate and didn’t get past the title page. Unless they developed a taste for paper and ate it.

My next major pest got started in year five of the garden. The neighbourhood family of crows decided it was fun to nip off the leaves of my squash seedlings, newly planted out in the garden. Surveying my garden the day after planting, I would find the amputated leaves and their tiny stems littering the ground. Given that the plants only had two or three leaves in total, they did not respond well to these assaults.

I learned to cover the new squash seedlings with chicken wire until they were established. In response, the crows decided we were playing a game. They started uprooting my baby bean plants when they first lifted their noses above ground.

More chicken wire.

In previous blogs, I’ve told my tales of woe about the corn patch and the marauding raccoons. Then there are the tragedies that are my hazelnut trees and the ravening hordes of squirrels. And don’t get me started on the life-sucking fuzzy aphids in the apple tree.

All of these pests may soon pale into insignificance, though. Why? The rabbits are coming!

A few scouts have already stopped by. The picture at the top of this article shows the havoc one rabbit wreaked on a baby pumpkin. This is Act 1 in the horror movie, the part where ominous music plays in the background.

When I go for an evening walk in the neighbourhood, I see the rabbits – grey ones, black ones, and brown ones. There are big, rangy rabbits and petit button-like rabbits with short ears. Rabbits are too cute. I love rabbits. Fondly, I remember a pair of rabbits I took care of when I was a kid. They were named Peter and Puff and the doe gave birth to two cuter-than-cute baby bunnies. With all the creativity of youth, I named the babies Peter-Puff and Powder-Puff. They were all silky-soft and endlessly adorable.

Sigh.

Of course, I’m incapable of lifting an offensive finger against the feral rabbits moving into my neighbourhood, raiding my garden, and savaging my pumpkins. For the first time in my life, I almost feel sympathy for Farmer McGregor who was forever plagued and thwarted by Peter Cottontail in the books by Beatrix Potter.

For now, all I can do is endure the rabbit damage of this season and plan for the rabbit-proof fence I will install before next spring’s planting. Despite these optimistic plans, though, I find myself shuddering with dread – slugs, crows, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits…what’s next?

Toxic Relationship

“Don’t look into the sun. You’ll go blind!” is the sort of thing every parent has probably told every child.

And the kid will hear, “Sun. Bright. Bad.”

On the other hand, if the sun winked out of existence during our afternoon stroll in the forest, that would make us functionally blind. No light, no vision. And for anyone who thinks, “Yeah, but when the moon rises…” remind yourself that the moon only reflects the light given it by the sun. So, sun is good.

Vision and blindness are only part of the good/bad relationship we have with the sun.

Warmth! Don’t you love that early spring day in temperate zones when the sun touches your cheek and it feels like a soft, warm hand for the first time in months? Mmm, yes! Sun is good. If the sun winked out completely, the average temperature on Earth would drop below zero in a week and just keep going down from there. Shudder.

Naturally, there can be too much of a good thing. Everyone who’s suffered heat exhaustion – dizziness, cramps, headache, nausea, and worse – under a relentless summer sun can testify to that (if it didn’t progress to heat stroke and kill them, that is). That’s the sun being bad.

On a grand scale, the mass of the sun keeps all the planets in their tidy orbits. Without the sun, we would fly off into space. The sun keeps us from playing bumper cars with Jupiter. Spoiler alert! We would lose that little game because Jupiter has more than three hundred times as much mass. Imagine a 100 pound kid taking on a 30,000 pound bully and you’ll get the picture.

Good news! Sunlight helps our body make vitamin D, which is essential for good health. Yay, sunlight!

Bad news! The same UV light that assists in vitamin D creation also causes sunburn. Ouch!

Finally, we come to the tale told by the photo at the top of this blog post. That plastic cloche is not in tatters because a vicious gale ripped through it. Only the lightest zephyr touched it this spring. One week ago, I assembled the frame over my newly-planted broccoli seedlings and spread and clipped the smooth, flawless plastic sheeting to the frame. The plastic has only been used for a couple of weeks in the spring each year and then it is stored in the dark, but that’s all the exposure it needs to be damaged by the sunlight. UV light causes a chemical reaction in plastic that leads to scission of its long polymers. In other words, the long, strong molecules become short, weak molecules. The cloche, which was pristine for five days, disintegrated in the next two days. Sunlight, bad?

But sunlight is essential for gardens. Without sunlight, there is no photosynthesis, no plants, no vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, and no terrestrial food chain. The sun is good.

The conclusion is inescapable. The sun is our frenemy. We love it and we hate it. It’s good for us and it’s bad for us. All this leads me to ponder – if our relationship with the sun were a marriage, would we stay or would we go? Our sun. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Up a Tree

Today is hug a tree day! So say I.

It’s not official, but it should be. Wait! I hear what you’re saying – every day should be hug a tree day. You’re a genius.

I’ve been thinking about trees a lot lately because it’s winter and the deciduous trees are dormant. That means it’s pruning season.

These days, I’m lavishing my attention on the apple tree in my backyard. It’s a big, old tree that was planted decades before I moved in. Its apples are green skinned with a bit of a blush, crisp flesh, and a sweetly tart flavour. The apple is tasty eaten fresh, and makes great applesauce and wicked, addictive dehydrated slices. I should know – this tree and I have been buddies for the last thirty-odd years.

Right now, bit by bit, I’m pruning the apple tree, a job that takes at least six hours plus cleanup. That gives me a lot of time to ponder and appreciate. I’m particularly happy with the apple tree. Despite its age, it is sound and stands bolt upright near the back fence, no precarious leanings in any direction, unlike a couple of other trees.

That was the downfall, literally, of the large cherry tree by the shed a couple of years ago. Year by year, it had leaned and tilted ever more to the east until it succumbed to gravity and fell to the ground with a whump. At least, I presume it made a sound. My ears were fast asleep on the other side of the house at the time.

Back to the apple tree. Standing at the top of my extended ladder while I prune gives me a good view of the neighbourhood. That view reminds me that I’m not alone in my love of a good tree. Every yard with enough room between house and fence has at least one tree. There are maples, hemlocks, plums, cherries, apples, firs, and cedars. If there’s a lot of room, there are big trees. If there’s a little room, there are small trees. The only treeless yard is one where the house stands four feet from the fence on all sides, maybe less. Its small front yard is a paved parking lot. Need I mention this is one of the youngest builds? The city, in its wisdom, gave the builder permission to create a lifeless rectangle in our midst. I’m certain all the shrubs and trees of the neighbouring yards are aghast.

I know I’m aghast. Sure, it would be a yard of low maintenance, but what have we come to when we don’t even make allowance for a single blade of grass?

Mother Nature is trying to heal the yard, though. There is moss making a start on their roof, and morning glory vines have snaked under the fence and raced across the squares of concrete tile that form the side walkway. Ants march through cracks in the fence, carrying grass seeds from my lawn to underground tunnels on the other side. Nature abhors a lifeless space.

There are twelve trees on my patch of land compared to zero on this neighbour’s patch. That gives me an abundance of trees for hugging and sharing, making this an excellent day.

Happy Hug a Tree Day!

Winter Palette

Looking out my kitchen window, the brightest colour I see these wintery days is the hummingbird who has claimed my backyard as his own. It’s a male Anna’s hummingbird, and he hunts for insects in the neighbourhood, and drinks sugar water from the feeder I’ve hung on a chain under the eaves.

His claim to territory does not go unchallenged, though. Occasionally, interlopers will try to sneak a sip of nectar and must be summarily buzzed and routed. Never mind that the feeder never runs dry, it’s not something he’s prepared to share. At all. Ever.

There are at least two other hummingbirds that visit the feeder to lap up some extra calories. If the possessive male, let’s call him Brutus, is off looking for insects somewhere out of eyeshot, the clandestine drinker succeeds. It’s all about timing. Although I have seen three hummingbirds at the feeder together – once – it was an edgy, restless moment of sharing. All three birds fidgeted around the circumference of the feeder and were poised on a hair trigger, ready for fight or flight.

Two weeks ago, we had several days of snow and freezing temperatures that made insects hard to find. As the weather got colder and snowier, Brutus mounted a dawn to dusk guard on the feeder. He perched, hunched and feather-fluffed, in the nearby branches of a hazelnut tree and glowered over the yard’s airspace. Fugetaboutit, he seemed to say.

People used to believe that hummingbirds got their nectar by capillary action in their long, double-tube-tipped tongue; it was clear they couldn’t suck with their tongue, using it like a straw. Super high speed photography has since shown that they actively draw up the liquid in a piston pump action by squeezing their tongue with their beak and flicking it into the flower or feeder as much as eighteen times a second. Nature has its amazing innovations.

Wondering about the name, Anna’s hummingbird, I looked up the reason behind the choice of Anna. I had thought it might be named after the scientist’s mother or sweetheart, but – no – nothing that simple. Back in the 19th century, a French naturalist, René Primevère Lesson, named this species of hummingbird after the wife of a fellow bird enthusiast, François Victor Masséna. Curious choice. Rumour had it that Anna was beautiful, graceful, and polite. If there were more salacious rumours about her and the reasons for the naming honour, they have been lost to time.

In any case, Brutus, the Anna’s hummingbird of my backyard, cares not for names or rumours. His main concern is trespassers. They shall not be tolerated!

For more information on hummingbird tongues: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/hummingbird-tongues/546992/

Happy Buttercups

The buttercups in my backyard are thrilled. Not only is the ground as sodden as a sponge held under bathwater, rain is falling as I type, and more rainstorms are in the forecast. Wet, wet, wet.

Buttercups love moisture. In the rural area of my childhood, buttercups grew thickly in the ditch where the neighbourhood stream flowed. Or so I heard. I certainly didn’t play in the ditch myself. That was forbidden.

At the time, I thought it was a shame our pet rabbits wouldn’t eat buttercup leaves. It would have been so easy for me to pick massive amounts of the plant for them instead of having to scrounge around for their favourites – clover, dandelions, thistles (ouch), and coarse grasses. I’ve since learned that species of buttercups are either acrid or downright poisonous. Rabbits are not dummies; they know what’s edible.

Last summer was dry here, and the buttercups in my lawn were knocked down a peg or two. The grass resurged. But this winter is giving the buttercups the last laugh. Did I mention it’s wet?

The genus name for buttercup is Ranunculus, which is Latin for “little frog.” So, yeah, even its name speaks to its love of water.

I don’t mind buttercups growing in the lawn. Lawns don’t have to be perfect carpets of specially-bred grass in my world. A patch of clover here, a hint of moss there, and an area of buttercups in the dip are all permissible. I’d rather the whole lawn didn’t turn into a buttercup-infested bog, though, and if it ever even thinks of invading my vegetable garden, all permissions are instantly voided with extreme prejudice.

A friend of mine has a buttercup problem in her vegetable garden, and it’s a nasty weed to uproot effectively. Buttercup roots are intense, making each plant’s removal an epic battle. Apparently, they also rob the soil of potassium and can poison nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In other words, they don’t play well with others.

Fecundity is another trait of buttercups; they produce seeds by the million. I rather suspect that if the whole world were wet, buttercups would rule the whole world. At the very least, they would aspire to rule it.

For now, I’m content to grant the buttercups in my lawn their winter joy. I will trust our next summer to generate a long dry spell to keep them in check. Are you listening, Summer?

Winter Solstice

Time to celebrate. Break out the streamers and noise makers. Winter solstice is a’coming, and that means we’re going to start getting more daylight.

December 21, 2019 is this year’s solstice, and it marks the time the North Pole is pointed as far from the sun as it can get. Some call it Midwinter, but I call it Hump Day because that’s when we stop getting darker and start schussing down that glorious ski run to ever more light.

For my time zone, the solstice happens on the dot of 8:19 pm. That day will have 8 hours and 4 minutes less daylight than our summer solstice. Ugh! If the solstices were my twin children, the summer solstice would be my favourite.

Solstice is a mixed blessing. We do start getting more minutes of light in our days, but it’s also when winter takes steps to getting hard core – deeper cold and more chances of snow and ice. Brr. One thing for sure, around here it’s still a long time to spring planting in the garden. Not that I’m counting the days. Or hours. Not really.

Over time and around the world, the sun has been mightily worshipped – encyclopedia lists of gods and goddesses of the sun go on and on. That makes sense to me. The sun helps us see stones in our path during the day that we would trip over at night. It ripens fruit, sparkles on water, and warms our bones.

Then there’s the kitchen garden. Most of our crop plants demand hours and hours of sunlight each day. Tomatoes, for example, require at least eight hours of direct light in a day. Pumpkins will tolerate six hours, but would rather have ten. Myself, I’d like a minimum of fourteen hours, a number we don’t come anywhere near this time of the year.

To console myself for all the darkness and cold, I remember that these are the conditions that kill off nasty insects and arachnids. Mosquitoes are nowhere to be seen or heard, and ticks are nothing but a bad memory. This time of year we are also spared the scourge of burning forests. Sunburns, too, go seasonally extinct.

So, I don’t complain about winter…much.

I know from the bottom of my heart that winter would be easier to ride out if only we had more daylight. Surely, there’s some magical physics that could allow us the light without the heat, just to tide us over to spring.

No? I suppose not. I’ll have to content myself with looking forward to December 21 and all its following weeks when we get a little more light each day.

Yay, sun!

Happy Solstice, everyone!

Biology Nazi

If you think grammar nazis are a blight on your freedom of expression, brace yourself for the biology nazi. My garden is down for the winter, so recently I whiled away an afternoon reading blog posts by various authors. After perusing a handful of essays, I came across a pair of linked blogs that talked about an injured “turtle” who’d been given a 3D-printed shell. With one glance at the included photo, I knew the mended creature was a tortoise, not a turtle.

My brain instantly went into spasm and my screen cursor scooted itself, unbidden, down the page to the comment section. My mouse-clicking finger hovered over the button, desperate to initiate a comment. “TORTOISE!” my brain shouted.

Yes, I hear the squeaks and rattles of many eyes rolling in response. “Turtle or tortoise, who cares? Big difference! Hah! It doesn’t matter.”

Actually, it does matter.

Suppose you see a tortoise on one side of the highway and a big pond on the other side, and you think, “That poor turtle needs help getting back home.” Next, you pick up the tortoise, walk it over the highway, wade out into the pond, and plop it into the water.

Congratulations, you are about to discover one of the many differences between turtles and tortoises. Tortoises live on land and are miserable swimmers. Your “rescued” reptile might just drown before your eyes.

If you look at the photo at the top of this blog, I’ll bet you can see how different the aquatic turtle and the land-based tortoise are. Turtles have webbed feet, a lighter shell, and are streamlined, the better to move through water. The tortoise has a big, heavy, more reinforced shell, the better to repel predators. It is definitely not built to glide through water and its legs are designed for walking and digging.

The nitpickers out there might argue that all tortoises belong to the order Testudines, generally referred to as the order of turtles, so you might use that broader term to describe the fellow with the 3D shell. To which I say, “Yeah? Then I suppose if you saw a moose (a member of the deer family) walking across the road you’d say to your friend – Hey! Look at the deer!”

No, you wouldn’t? Good to hear.

The good news is – I managed to restrain myself from lecturing the other bloggers and their readers on the difference between turtles and tortoises. The bad news is I wrote this blog as a therapeutic release. I’m sorry, and you’re welcome.

This is your biology nazi signing off. For now…

For more information on the rescued tortoise: https://www.sciencealert.com/adorable-tortoise-receives-a-3d-printed-shell-after-being-burnt-in-a-fire

Paradise

“Almost any garden, if you see it at just the right moment, can be confused with paradise.” Henry Mitchell

Well, Henry has it kinda right and kinda wrong. I would argue that any garden at any time is a paradise, but it might be Paradise Found or it might be Paradise Lost.

Take my vegetable garden, for instance. Please. You might as well take it, it’s Paradise Lost to me right now. We are about to turn the calendar page and enter November, so most of the garden is barren and destined to remain barren for the next five months. Five loooong months.

Oh, I will soldier through to the spring, huddled in my abode as the dark days, raging weather, and never-shorts-and-T-shirt temperatures prevail. At this very moment, I can imagine that imminent future where I stand at the kitchen window and watch the deluge or the blizzard fill the rain gauge on my patio. Then I flee the view and browse through photos of growing season abundance, the glory moments of times past.

Ah, Paradise Found! I admire the quarry garden at Queen Elizabeth Park, the bright green of its precisely trimmed lawns, the exuberance of its shrubs and trees, the vibrancy of its blooming borders. Flipping to another photo, I revel in the saucy stare of a black-eyed Susan flower, up close and every petal vivid. Saving the best for last, I turn to a view of my vegetable garden in late June. At the back, the scarlet runner beans have climbed to the tips of their poles and are dotted with red blossoms. In front of those beans on their poles, broad squash leaves jostle each other as they reach up from the ground and spread to capture light. One step closer to the camera, onions stretch long, green fingers heavenward. Shrubby Brussels sprouts plants march along the front, looking as if they aspire to hedge status. If I close my eyes, I can hear the crackle of all that growing energy.

Yes, I will turn often to my treasure trove of photos this winter, my own garden as well as mighty gardens I have visited over the years. For a change of pace, I might cruise online images of famous gardens around the world – Butchart, Kew, Nong Nooch, Kirstenbosch, Curitiba, or Ballarat, just to name one from each green continent. There are even live webcams at some gardens that can give me an instant connection to what’s happening right there, right now. Breezes and butterflies animate the view, and every cell in my body sighs with contentment.

How beautiful is our living world!

Endings

You may have noticed that there are long goodbyes and short goodbyes. There is the lingering farewell and the swift kick in the backside as you’re ushered out the door. Consider then, the end of the growing season in my vegetable garden, which seems both prolonged and sudden.

At first, the end is coy; I’ll see a tinge of yellow at the edges of the squash leaves and notice a few papery pods on the pole beans. I pick and shell the beans, managing to convince myself it’s still summer and the crop is coming in early. When the corn ripens, I remark on how clever I was to grow a variety that matures rapidly. The potatoes are an early variety, too. No need to panic that I’ve dug them all.

Then the day arrives when I pick some bush beans, cook them up, and discover they are bereft of flavour. That’s when it hits me. It’s over.

At this moment, everything speeds up. The rains begin, so the pumpkins need to be rescued before the soggy ground and the slugs claim them all. I bring these cheery orange globes into the house, wash and dry them, and place them in sunny nooks to cure to their best flavour.

No time to rest. In the small windows of dry weather, I must clear the corn patch to the compost bin, hoe off weeds, harvest the last of the pole beans, take down and store the bean poles, clear away the tasteless remnants of the bush beans, pick apples, mill applesauce, and much more. All this must be done, or so it seems, in the blink of an eye. As I hurry along, I wonder which will strike first – a killing frost or a streak of weather so wet the garden turns to bog. Either of these scenarios can bring my garden cleanup to its knees.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” says the furnace as, once again, it flexes its heating might inside the house.

Compulsively, I check the weather forecast for the week and I fret and I plan time for wrap-up. When the forecast changes its mind, I reschedule. The zucchini plants might eke out another small fruit or two, but the first frost is poised to strike them down.

I don’t want to say it. I don’t even want to think it, but it’s here.

The End.

So, may the 2019 growing season rest in peace.

So long, and thanks for all the zucchini.

Sharing

“Mine! Mine! Mine!”

That’s the natural response of any human under two or three years of age. If I can grab it, it’s mine. If I held it yesterday, it’s mine. If I can see it and lock onto it with my eyes, it’s mine.

Wild creatures have a lot in common with two-year-olds. Their immediate response to anything desirable is – Mine! They will go to extreme lengths to make sure it is indeed theirs. This is something I’ve witnessed countless times over the years, but was rudely reminded of yet again.

Last week, I picked a bucket of corn from my patch of Golden Jubilees. Some of the ears were magnificent – perfect in every way. Sadly, a number of ears had been ravaged. @%#$&**# Squirrels!

The philosophical among us would not swear at these fuzzy-tailed rodents. “Ah, nature!” they would exclaim. “So vibrant, so resourceful.”

A small part of my brain agrees with these sentiments. I have frequently said to friends that I don’t mind sharing the vegetables and fruits in my garden with urban wildlife as long as they don’t take more than ten percent of any given crop. I now realize there is a qualifier to this statement. I don’t mind sharing if I have excess. I do mind sharing if the crop barely covers my needs for the year. In that case, it’s all MINE!

Clearly, my inner two-year-old has leapt to its feet, turned red in the face, taken a deep breath, and is ready to scream. The rational adult in me says things like, “The squirrels see my corn patch as part of the natural resources of its environment. They can’t read my implicit private property signs, and they spare not one thought for the effort I put into growing it. Furthermore, I grow corn as a treat; it’s not a staple of my winter diet like the beans and squash. This loss, which isn’t huge, is natural. It’s OK.”

In response, my two-year-old self says, “Aaaaaaaaaaah! Mine!”

Squirrels are not my special friends right now, but there is something special about birds. You can find out what in my video: