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.
Let’s be honest, not everything about gardening is nature seen through the filter of an animated fantasy. When a Disney-fied Alice wandered through her garden of Wonder, the caterpillar just puffed a bit of smoke in her face. In my garden, caterpillars of the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) gnaw gaping holes in leaves. If there are too many of them, they will chew the plant down to its skeleton of veins.
Up in the arms of the fruit trees, tent caterpillars (Malacosoma sp.) smother branches with a sticky, dense web dotted with droppings. From the cover of this “tent” they set out on raiding parties to strip all vestiges of greenery in their path. Nasty, prickly larvae are these tent caterpillars. Ick.
But wait, there’s more!
Forget the image of cute little cartoon mice being adorable and sewing a dress for the poor, downtrodden stepdaughter so she can go to the castle and meet her prince. Spend a bit of time near dawn and dusk in observation of your backyard and you will see rats. Yes, the brown rat thrives in our cities and towns. They especially love to dig warrens of burrows under my rhubarb plants. Double ick.
Don’t imagine for a moment that slugs make charming squeaky chatter amongst themselves as certain unnamed-by-me cartoons might imply. Any sound from a slug will be the rasping of its mouth parts as it razes my tiny chard seedlings in the spring. Coated in slimy mucous and ravenous for tender green shoots, the slug is equal parts destructive and ugly. Unbelievable ick.
No, gardening isn’t a lovely princess singing harmony with a cheery songbird. It is a flock of rock doves that swoop down and dig out every single pea seed I have planted with care and optimism. They devour all the peas, then fly to a suitable perch where they can digest them and deposit the results of that digestion on the hood of my car. Ick again.
Shall I describe in detail maggot-riddled carrots or onions shot through with rot? No? I thought not. In truth, no one wants to think about the seamy side of gardening.
La, la, la. Sweetness and light. No ick here!
Pretty pictures abound in my video for kids learning their abc’s:
Harvest season can be a time of joyous anticipation for the gardener, especially when heading out to unearth the potatoes. Unlike corn and pumpkins, which are blatant about the level of their productivity, the potato plant’s show of greenery above ground tells us nothing about how many spuds lie below, nor how big those tubers might be. Only when the tops die back and the earth is moved aside is truth revealed.
Will it be a good year or a bad year? The question burns in my mind as I put on my work gloves and gather my big bucket and digging tools. This summer has been hot and dry and the spaghetti squash loved it and produced madly. In fact, all my squash varieties thrived in the sun and heat. Dare I hope the potatoes liked it, too?
Last year, I had a bumper crop of potatoes. The yield of fifteen hills of Red Pontiac plants filled two knee-high buckets with smooth, well-developed tubers. I was amazed and impressed. Today, I know I should not expect as much as last year, and yet, I can’t help but hope.
OK. Now I’ve dug the potatoes and H is definitely NOT for hope. Hopes have been thoroughly dashed. This year I did not get two big, big buckets of potatoes. I barely filled one bucket. And the filling of that bucket took lots and lots of little potatoes, the type I refer to as Tots. Yes, they are cute and tasty, but they refused to pack on the weight necessary for good yield, meagre, miserly things that they are.
By cheery contrast to this year’s potato production, I tell you the tale of my pumpkin harvest. Last year, I planted 6 vines and brought in 9 pumpkins, a respectable number. This year, I again planted 6 vines and brought in…brace yourselves…19 pumpkins. Nineteen! The enormity of such a yield snatches the air from my lungs.
This is the way of the garden, the Tao of it, if you will. Crop A hates the conditions of a particular growing season and sulks its way through to a meagre yield, while crop B loves them and thrives. As long as I plant many varieties of crop, I can be sure at least one will like what the climate and weather provide.
In whatever way the season plays out in a given year, the crops that do well will reward my joyous anticipation of the harvest. What’s not to love? Perhaps H should be for Hug.
H is also for Hat, Horn, and Hawk, as human tots can discover in my video, Letter H and the Secret Window:
In nature, green is almost everywhere we look on land, and it’s the colour I most like seeing in my vegetable garden. In the garden, green is a sign of good health among the crops. The last thing I want to see is a plant’s leaves turning yellow before they’ve completed their job to produce enough bounty to fill my freezer for the winter.
This was a tough summer for the colour green. Week after week of dry, hot weather turned the western forests sere and volatile. My squash plants and corn stalks stayed green only because I meted out enough water to keep them growing. The trees of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia had no giant, omnipotent gardener to help them in their time of need. At any provocation – lightning strike, careless cigarette butt, errant spark – they burst into flame.
They burned. They are burning even now as I think and write these words. Vast reaches of smoke ebb and flow over this half of the continent. With blissful naiveté, I feel like a benevolent steward of my tiny patch of land. The hose and sprinkler stand ever ready to distribute my largesse to the minuscule dot on the planet that is my garden.
Mind you, my generosity has its limits. I will run the sprinkler on the vegetable garden and spot-water a few key trees and shrubs, but I leave the lawn to thirst. After all, if I don’t water it, it scarcely grows. Therefore, I need to mow it but rarely. Win, win, from my point of view. The winter rains will revive it soon enough.
Right now, the bits of lawn that edge up against the garden will get the odd drops of over-spray, but most of the grass goes wanting. I don’t suppose it thinks kind thoughts about me as the ground around its roots dries and rends into wide cracks. That sound I took to be the wafting of a zephyr may instead be the blades of grass hissing at me. Nature is not all sweetness and light, and if plants had arms, hands, and fingers, I’d have to worry about being mugged when I walk the hose across the lawn to spot-water the broccoli plants.
Fortunately, the grass has not evolved sentience or the limbs of an animal. Not in real life, that is. And I’m sure that my dear readers wish fervently that my nighttime dreams be filled with dancing butterflies and bountiful harvests, not the grasping, throttling fingers of a lawn mad with thirst.
There’s nothing scary in my video for children, Letter G and the Secret Window:
There are many joys in the firsts of gardening. The first time my hoe hits the ground in early April fills me with buoyant anticipation. The first tendrils of green shoots from the first-planted onions fill me with awe. And the first ripe raspberry sends ripples of ecstasy through my taste buds.
But, there are also many woes in gardening firsts. There are the first weeds – that’s weeds, not weed, because they never arrive singly. The first insect infestation might be mealy cabbage aphids on the Brussels sprouts – always guaranteed to elicit a growl deep in my throat. Then there is the first mammal attack – usually the intrusive grey squirrels who strip the unripe hazelnuts off my trees.
This year a new first has struck. Some creature, for the first time ever, has decided to pull up and toss aside my onions. I’m not sure who to blame for this atrocity. Is it a raccoon? A squirrel? A particularly burly rat?
Whichever creature is responsible for this thuggish behaviour, it hasn’t bothered to eat the onions. I don’t suppose it fears onion breath, and for all I know, a whiff of onion might improve the halitosis of a raccoon. I can’t say I’ve ever had a sniff, but considering that the urban raccoon frequents dumpsters, I don’t suppose it’s normally fresh and minty.
Finally, there are the wistful firsts of gardening. There is the first die-back of potato plants that signals the time for their harvest and the end of their season. When the last spud comes out of the ground, it marks the beginning of the end for all the crops.
Keeping stride with the potatoes, the first pumpkin leaves turn yellow and begin to collapse. Though the cheerful orange fruits will continue to mature, the plants are soon at an end. Days that moved slowly in the spring now speed up in a downhill race to the first frost.
When the first monsoonal rains of autumn hit the freshly cleared ground of the garden, it is time for the best first of all – the first fantasy about next year’s garden and what a perfect year that will be.
Young ones learning their abcs can discover words that start with the letter f at:
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.
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.
E is also for elf, eel, and elk. Youngsters can discover this at my video, “Letter E and the Secret Window.”
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]…
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!
Some “d” words for children can be found at my video, Letter D and the Secret Window:
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.
“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.
I warily anticipate the next move by my furry opponent.
Corn, crop, coddle, and cob are all “c” words. For young children and grandchildren, here is a video hunt for c words.