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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Q is for Quit That!

“Quit that!” I say to winter, but it doesn’t hear me. Then again, maybe it does hear me and that breath of wind is actually its gloating laugh. If I thought all the rain we endured in December and January was bad, I had no idea how quickly things could get worse.

Now I know, and wish I didn’t.

We’ve had freezing temperatures for a week. Today the forecasters are bleating out warnings, and snow has been falling for the last three hours. Word is, the snow may continue through tonight.

True, the combination of cold weather and snow at the end of February is not the End of the World, but it is extremely rare here. We like it being rare here. Before this cold snap hit us, I had been frowning at the accelerated growth of my lawn and worrying that I might set a new record for earliest First Mowing of the grass.

Now, instead of tuning up the mower, I will be fetching snow shovels and ice melter out of my garden shed. And I should do that now before it gets too deep…

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OK, I’m back after scraping five centimetres (two inches) of snow off the drive and sidewalk. Even though we don’t get much snow in this area, I have enough experience to know it’s better to scrape a meagre five cm several times over the duration of a snowfall rather than shovel an accumulated fifteen centimetres at once.

On the plus side, this snow is cold, dry, fluffy, and light…so far… It took me less than twenty minutes to clear everything.

Winter. Sigh. Truth is, I’d been enjoying the early flowers in bloom – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and a few pink rhododendrons. The bright red noses of rhubarb shoots in my garden gave rise to a torrent of spring thoughts.

“Hmm,” I thought. “When should I start the vegetable seedlings on my window sill?”

Answer – not yet. Really, NOT yet!

According to my gardening logbook, the earliest first mowing of my lawn happened in 2015 and took place on March 3. When I look at the long range forecast for what little is left of February 2018, I see more snow and more cold weather followed by a return to incessant rain. What I don’t see are conditions that would put the First Mowing record of 2015 in jeopardy.

I should be happy that I won’t have to mow the lawn any time soon. Instead, I find myself glaring at the teeming, swirling snowflakes and the lowering, grey sky. And all I can think is…

Quit that!

Don’t quit yet. Recommend this video about letter Q to kids learning their alphabet.

 

P is for Persistent

This afternoon, I stand at the kitchen window and gaze mournfully at the backyard. The day is gloomy and wet. Gusts of wind riffle the surface of a puddle that has formed on the east section of the garden. I sigh and think of the letter P, and the word that leaps first to my mind is persistent.

Our winter of 2017/2018 is all about persistent precipitation. Rain, rain, and more rain. It’s not unusual for us to get plenty of rain, but this year seems determined to break every record for rainfall dating back to the first scratchings on a cave wall.

We try to be cheerful about the endless downpours. We say things like, “That’s what makes the landscape so green!” and we force a laugh. As follow-up, we will say, “Can’t let a little rain stop ya.”

So, we fill our closets with raincoats, umbrellas, waterproof ponchos, and rubber boots. When we can’t stand huddling inside any longer, we gear up and go out for a sloshy, squishy, drippy walk. On our return, we hang our rainwear over the bathtub, the better to contain the water still streaming off it all.

Despite the rain, life persists in the garden. Though I cleared the ground after harvest in the fall, chickweed has re-emerged and now grows doggedly in the centre section. Some say that chickweed is edible, and, if you like the flavour of grass, you probably will agree. Yes, it’s just that tasty.

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Chickweed…yum?

Weeds aside, I am grateful for the perennials in my yard. They are already bringing touches of colour and life to the scene. The leaf buds on the raspberry canes are showing delicate hints of green, the rhubarb has pushed the red tips of this year’s shoots through the mucky surface of the soil, and cheery yellow catkins dangle from the hazelnut trees.

As surely as the rain, the perennials, and the weeds will persist, so will this gardener. It’s time to compose a list of seeds I will need for spring and make notes in my calendar for when I will start each variety of seedling on my south-facing windowsill.

Again, I sigh. It’s still January and many cold, wet weeks stretch out between now and spring. Winter persists.

RainGauge

My rain gauge – inches left, millimeters right

Kids can watch a pigeon, a penguin, and a parrot as they learn the letter p in this video.

O is for Oof !

Yesterday, the weather was dry here. It wasn’t a sunny day – no, of course not – but at least it wasn’t pouring cold rain all over everything, which is the norm for our winters.

Naturally, I donned my work clothes and sprang forth to work in the yard. Hah, hah, “sprang” – as if. If only my body was that elastic these days. I might go so far as to say I strode forth. Yes, I can still manage that. And in case you’re wondering about the title, I’m not enough advanced in years to call this essay “O is for Old.”

Speaking of old, my chosen task in the garden was to clear the old canes out of the raspberry patch that lines the eastern fence. It’s a simple job and relatively easy. I took my time and enjoyed the fresh air and the occasional chirping of birds.

For the non-gardeners among us, raspberries produce fruit on long stems, known as canes, which grow straight up from the ground. Only canes that have entered their second year of growth will yield berries, and after these canes have yielded fruit, they die. Even as these canes were giving me raspberries, a new set of canes was growing up, leafing out, and getting strong for the next year’s production. In preparation for the coming spring, I must cut out and clear away the old, dead canes, thus giving room and breathing space to the new canes.

RaspberryCanes

The job itself means I snip off and extract the old canes in sections. First, I’ll cut off the upper third of the dead cane and pull it out of the tangle of new and old canes. Then I’ll reach lower down, cut off the middle third, and finally I will drop into a deep squat and cut the defunct cane off at ground level. By cutting the cane into sections, I’m less likely to damage the young canes when I pull out the old ones.

Well, the top two cuts were no problem, but after an hour of repeated deeps squats, my left hip joint piped up with an objection and the right hip was thinking about chiming in. There was grunting and oofing involved. My leg muscles, keen to continue, called the joints wimps, and my arms offered to help by grabbing the metal trellis and giving the hip joints a hand – literally. Fortunately, I was only a few snips from completing the task, so I didn’t have to deny the warning “oof.”

This morning, I mused about work and age and denial. I’m not old enough to draw my Canadian Pension yet and I’m already noticing plenty of age-related impairments. Somehow, I’d imagined my healthy lifestyle would have me join the rarefied ranks of centenarians who still drive cars and play rounds of golf, but that’s not the way things are shaping up.

Not too long ago, the Canadian government talked about raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 or even more. Its economic advisory council says the age of eligibility “should be recalibrated and increased to meet the Canadian reality of an aging society and a considerably longer life expectancy.” Of course, their focus is on the dollars and cents of the retirement situation, not the health and ability side of things.

Hey, if you are lucky enough to be supple and sprightly at 65, keep on working if you wish. But longer life does not mean the body doesn’t wear down at the same rate as before. I look around at the many (more than you’d think) physically demanding jobs out there, and I think about what the bodies of these workers are saying to them even before they reach 65. Then I think of the government bean counters telling the workers, “Tough, but you need to toil even longer and put up with more and more pain.”

In sympathy, I say to these workers, “Oof!”

To the council and any politician who agrees with them, I say, “Seriously?” And furthermore – RASPBERRY!

raspberry

 

 

Here’s my Letter O video for kids. It includes scenes with otter and osprey.

 

N is for Name

What’s in a name? Sometimes a whole lot of confusion, which is ridiculous. Seriously, the English language overflows with vocabulary, and you might think there should be a precise word for each distinct thing. So why are we stuck with one word for bean?

Maybe you think one word is plenty. Wrong.

If I said I pulled a carrot from my garden, then cleaned and roasted it, and ate it with lunch, you would probably visualize quite accurately what I consumed. But if I said I picked, prepared, and cooked some beans for lunch, what did I mean? What do you see on my plate now?

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The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 170,000 words that we use today. That’s a big number, but even so, the scope of those words leave some unfortunate gaps. How did that happen?

We humans were careful to give unique words to sheep and mutton, cow and beef, deer and venison, thus distinguishing between the living creature and what we put on a plate. If we can give creative, original words to the meat, surely we can distinguish among the diverse parts of the bean plant that we eat.

Yes, we can use the terms green bean, wax bean, and dried bean, but even those names have weaknesses. We almost never say dried bean and never, ever list it on a menu. And our beloved coffee bean? It’s not a bean at all. Add to that, we are lazy speakers and tend to use single words, hence “bean,” and good luck guessing what it means.

For example, I grow scarlet runner beans in my garden. These are amazing as a crop because I pick tender young pods to eat as pods (green beans) and let most of the pods continue to develop. As the seeds swell in the pod, I pick some of them when they are fat but immature. I shell the tender seed and steam it up for a result similar to lima beans but more flavourful. Finally, I leave the bulk of the pods on the plants until they are fully mature and dry. Then I have dried beans like kidney beans but larger and, again, more flavourful.

In this situation, I can’t define the bean by saying I will serve scarlet runner beans for lunch. I’ve tried to get around the problem by calling the seed form “scarlet limas” and the pod form “scarlet runners.” It’s an awkward dodge, and usually one I have to explain to people even as I use it. Basically, it doesn’t work.

Calling all wordsmiths! We need at least two new words – good words, memorable words, easy words – to replace bean and bean. Think about it. Get creative. Let’s leave the word bean to refer to the plant and produce a couple of umbrella words for the beans you eat as seeds and the beans you eat as pods. Even better, add a third word for the immature seed. If the Inuit can have fifty terms for different types of snow, surely we can distinguish among our beans.

I’m not a linguist, so designing original words is beyond my scope. Still, I’d like to suggest a solution. I rack my brain and can only think of distinguishing the digestive aftereffects of pod versus dried beans. You know, the…uh…Flatulence Effect. To tone it down for polite company, a green bean could be called a friendly and a dried bean could be called a rude. Hey, think about it. Would you like some fish fingers, potato tots, and scarlet runner friendlies for supper? Sounds good to me. No confusion, either.

AOK

Please introduce young learners to my alphabet videos. Here’s one that focuses on the letter N.

M is for More

Gardeners know this – winter does not mean freedom from the demands of the yard. For my little patch of land, now is when the trees make their biggest claim on me. Time to prune. Time to prune some more.

I have eleven trees and two shrubs needing care, and the apple tree requires more attention than any one of the others. It takes me between six and seven hours to prune it. That’s just the pruning. Clearing up and disposing of the fallen clippings consumes even more time.

Not that I begrudge the effort required…Noooo! Not at all.

In truth, there are good things about pruning the trees. A few good things. Very few. Musing on this inspired me to think of situations where more would be a good thing. (Spoiler Alert: more pruning is not on the following list.)

More Good Days.

Winter is not known for its beneficence, goodness knows. The climate of my region has been called Oceanic, which means winters have lots of cloud, lots of rain, and, if we’re particularly unlucky, a prolonged cold snap of sub-zero temperatures. I’m not greedy. I don’t demand endless sunny days, but blue sky is dreadfully rare in this season. I’d like a few more good days.

More highlights.

One pruning season, as I laboured in the top of the apple tree, I saw a flicker of colour moving through the branches of the nearby plum tree. At first, I couldn’t get any clear view of the tiny bird, but I’d seen enough to know it wasn’t one of the usual yard suspects – a sparrow or a chickadee. Then, for one glorious heartbeat, it hopped onto an open twig and the sunlight revealed all. It was a golden-crowned kinglet, exquisite in every detail. To make the moment even more amazing, it sang a few cheerful notes. The kinglet didn’t stay long, but my smile lingered on and on. More special surprises would be wonderful. With thanks in advance.

KingletGoldenCrowned

More Expertise.

The proper way to prune fruit trees is more art than science and it demands a lot of skill. Trust me, I’ve seen tree experts at work and it’s like watching a magician perform with a deck of cards. It looks easy, but when I try the same trick I spend most of my time picking up dropped cards. I know the basics of pruning – open up the canopy to let in sunlight and air, take out any branch that is sick or dead, and cut above outward facing buds. Beyond that, I feel like I’m guessing. More expertise, please.

More Apples.

They say an apple tree can be productive for fifty years or more. I have to hope for the “or more” part of that factoid because the apple tree I inherited is pushing sixty. Lately, I’ve noticed a decline in yield that has become a trend, something more than the odd bad year with a killing frost when it flowered. I pine for the long-gone days when I had more apples than I could both use and give away. Apples!

Peace of Mind.

This is the greatest gift of gardening, a gift freely given year round and most joyfully received. Whether I’m working in the yard, gazing upon it, or feasting on its produce, it gives my mind a simple focal point and a deep connection with the natural world. I would never say no to more peace of mind.

PeaceOfMindBeach

 

M is also for mink and a baby mink is featured in my Letter M video for children.

 

Christmas in the Garden

A thin skin of weeds covers the saturated soil in my garden as it lies in wait for spring. The rhubarb has melted into the ground, hidden itself from view. Nothing blooms. That’s Christmastime in my garden.

If a kind day comes to pass, a day without torrential rain, smothering fog, or icy breath, then it is a good day to work at pruning my fruit trees. Sometimes, I will be forced to prune on days when my fingers, despite winter gloves, will chill until they ache. ’Tis the season.

To bring colour and light into the Christmas garden, I must wrap branches with strings of festive LEDs. I add a touch of power, and magic ensues. With luck, a fresh snowfall makes the result especially joyful.

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But not every garden needs Xmas lights to spread joy. I encountered this recently on a visit to Bermuda in December. Palm fronds shimmy in passing breezes. Flowers, fruits, and butterflies abound. At least, that’s how it appears to my deprived northern eye.

PspMorningGloryBlueBERstg2017No27

For all — those who grow their own food and those who shop for it, people who buy their flowers at a florist and people who pluck them from their own garden, souls who dress in snowsuits and souls who wear shorts — I wish you the best of the season.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a Merry, Merry Christmas. If you have a child or grandchild learning their letters, my gift is a Christmas Alphabet video. The following is the Zed version, and below it is the Zee version.

 

 

L is for Laugh

Some people might feel constrained by winter, but it’s a time when I am liberated from my garden. I am free to travel without worrying about whether my crops will thirst to death in my absence. Neither do I need to fret that weeds will overpower the vegetables in my potager.

Let the rainstorms lash the land. Let the ground heave with frost. From my warm, sheltered kitchen I laugh at the furies of the season. Laughter is good. It’s almost as good as communing with my pet vegetable plants in the growing season. Almost.

Now that I’m thinking about laughter, I realize that my garden supplies me with it year round. In the spring when I am first turning the soil in preparation for planting, I might pause to rest and catch a flicker of movement. I turn around and see that one of my resident crows has tiptoed up close behind me, the better to snatch any goodies my labour might bring to the surface. The crows are particularly fond of sprouted hazelnuts that they or the squirrels hid in the ground the previous autumn.

My turning startles the crow, and it jumps back, then takes flight. It’s brave as long as my back is turned, but not so brave to my face. I laugh, not at its retreat, but that it has grown bold enough over the years to forage so close upon my heels. This crow and its family are attentive to all that happens in their territory. Whenever I come out to mow the lawn or work in the garden they promptly swoop down to see what I have stirred up.

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In the summer, I weed and weed. No, that doesn’t make me laugh. Nor does the bittercress, an innocent-looking little plant that is nothing but nasty. At the slightest touch of a hand, it fires a storm of sharp seeds in all directions with particular emphasis on hitting the human face and eyes. When this happens, you’ll hear me muttering, not laughing.

But later, when trading tales with other gardeners, the bittercress is a good, bonding, “Haw! Haw!” experience. It’s fun to laugh at the trials inflicted by this plant after the fact. Long after.

There are times I laugh at myself even as I’m suffering. I might be setting up the wand sprinkler to water on a warm summer morning and I need to adjust the position of the sprinkler so it properly covers a particular area of garden. I turn on the water and watch the wand wave back and forth. Hmm. It needs to move one foot north, I think.

Now, I could walk all the way back to the faucet and turn off the water, walk back to the garden, move the sprinkler, again walk to the faucet, turn the water on, walk to the garden, check the coverage, and, if necessary, repeat the whole process. Or, I could wait until the wand has leaned to one side, dash in from the other side, shift the sprinkler one foot north, and dash out of range before the wand comes back. I’m sure we all know which method I choose.

Sometimes I escape unscathed. But other times, the wand catches up with me and gives my nice warm back a lashing with cold – eek – COLD water. I do grunt at the shock of it, but I also laugh. Trust me, you’d laugh, too. What could be funnier than an adult playing tag with an inanimate object?

In the fall, I watch the crow family stride across my lawn, foraging for food. At each fallen leaf, they pause, reach down, and fling the leaf to the side. The vigour of their stride, the haughty disdain of their leaf-toss, and the swagger of every movement makes me smile, makes me laugh.

Winter, spring, summer, and fall, the garden tickles my funny bone and makes me laugh. I raise a toast in its honour – seltzer water, of course.

smileyLaugh

Some smiles for children learning the alphabet can be found in this video about the letter L: