Too Cute For Words

Who can resist a squirrel with its fuzzy face and liquid brown eyes? We admire their nimble speed when they scamper up and down trees. We are awestruck when one takes a fearless leap of faith from one springy limb across the divide to another tree and lands with feet that stick like Velcro. Amazing!

GreySquirrelTree

They’re industrious, too. Unlike the housecat that sleeps away 16 or more hours of each day in a variety of lolling poses, the squirrel is the poster child for hyperactivity. Its quest for food is endless. It is compelled to run up and down every tree, run out and back on every limb, walk tightrope on any wire, bound through the grass, and raid all bird feeders.

Even when the motion of its feet pause for a thoughtful moment, the squirrel’s body twitches and its tail jerks and flips. It’s semaphore in fluffy fur. If we could decode the movements of that tail, we might discover squirrely masterpieces – A Tail of Two Cedars, The Day of the Hominids, or A Limb With a View.

Squirrels take life seriously. They plan for hard times by caching thousands of snacks in thousands of hiding places. They are renowned for their love of nuts, and I have resigned myself to losing a percentage of my garden’s hazelnut crop every year. In years like this one, when the trees produce little and the squirrel population is booming, I get no nuts at all. [Imagine these next words spoken through clenched teeth.] But I’m OK with that. Really I am.

This year, the squirrels gave me a special surprise. Not content with the hazelnuts (after all, it was a slim crop), they turned their attention to my patch of sweet corn and swept through it like a horde of proverbial locusts.

CornEarDamage

Nimble enough to climb the corn stalk, toothy enough to strip back the husk, and voracious enough to take every kernel for themselves, they have savaged the yield of my corn. Instead of harvesting the crop at a leisurely pace, waiting until each ear had reached its peak of ripeness, I took as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Even so, I lost countless ears of corn.

With such losses, some people – not me, of course – might start thinking of squirrels as little more than rats with fluffy tails. They would say the squirrel is a rodent and a rat is a rodent, therefore, Squirrel equals Rat. Furthermore, rats are vermin, so squirrels are vermin. By association, the next thought of such people – not me, of course – would be Vermin! Exterminate!

Myself, I chuckle at their naiveté. As if! As if any pathetic human could make even a tiny dent in the swarms of grey squirrels in our cities. These are squirrels fed to fecund fatness by peanut-toting grannies, grandpas, and grandkids in the parks, squirrels big enough to intimidate neighbourhood cats, squirrels kept safe by leashes on dogs, squirrels annoyingly savvy about traffic, and squirrels fanatically devoted to being fruitful and multiplying.

Considering all the qualities and quirks of this animal, when you ask me what I think of the irrepressible grey squirrel, I can give only one answer. [Imagine these next words spoken through clenched teeth.]

“They are too cute for words!”

Mine, All Mine.

BlackberryBucket
It’s summer now, but just imagine it is the middle of winter. Outside, the wind screams to get into the house, spring is too far off to even be a promise in the air, and summer is a myth. What you need is a taste of summer, and you can get it without buying tickets to the Caribbean or surrendering your last shred of dignity to the penetrating glare of airport security.

How? Just unseal a jar of hand-picked, home-canned Himalayan blackberries, the free-for-the-taking berry that grows in wild snarls of briar along ditches and over abandoned lots. One spoonful is all it takes – eat it straight from the spoon or have it over ice cream – and instantly you are transported to sun-bleached August.

Ahhh!

But – and there is always a but, as you know – before you can enjoy these berries in the winter, you have to pick them in the summer. If you are lucky, you are a loner, a hermit who lives down a long, abandoned country road well lined with briars. Your nearest neighbour is beyond a distant hill, and strangers never venture down your road. The booty is all yours.

Here in Richmond, BC, access to that most delectable taste of summer is not so simple. Construction is everywhere. New buildings mushroom out of ground once blessed with waist-high grasses, rust-and-emerald pheasants, and sprawls of Himalayan blackberry vines. Three times over the last five years, I have lost prime picking patches to the scourge of those who must tidy wild things. Improvement, they call it.

As more good patches vanish, competition for the remaining blackberries rears its thorny little head. On the happy side, most people can’t be bothered to leave their ceiling-fanned couches or their air-conditioned autos to pick this crop. On the unhappy side, those who are willing to take on the August heat are ferociously keen.

Accessible blackberry patches grow on public land for all to see, so there’s no way to claim ownership of a good patch. You either get to the fruit before everyone else, or you get no fruit. Every year, as the season approaches, I plot my strategy, and check the progress of the ripening. My specialty is getting to the patch when it first ripens – before anyone else has noticed the vanguard fruits have turned from red to black.

Come with me as I head to my neighbourhood briar patch. It’s early in the morning, and I’m ready to glare down any intruders in my patch. Clearly, I have perfected my glare; this morning the brambles are mine alone. Because I’m no fool, I wear thick boots, thick sweatpants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Yes, the weather is too hot for such clothing, but I would rather melt into my boots than be eviscerated by the thorns. As a nod to beating the heat, I wear a broad-brimmed hat to shade my eyes from the rising, scalding sun.

At first, I coyly stand out of harm’s way and pick ripe berries at the edges of the briar patch. I delicately reach one hand around the vicious thorns and pluck out the berries, taking care to extract my hand without contacting the many curved sabers on the vines. I’m too clever to get scratched. Yet.

Naturally, the best fruit, the plumpest, ripest, juiciest prizes, hang just out of reach of my safe zone. Naturally, I cannot resist temptation. I venture into the brambles, step over one vine, and duck under another. Standing on tiptoe, I snake one arm through a maze of vines and pluck big fat, black fruits that fall into my cupped palm, then tumble from palm to picking bucket.

As I pick, the vines I have walked over spring back into position. One of them smacks me across the back. My shirt protects me, mostly, from its lash. Another vine snuggles across the back of my left calf. Both of them gently grasp the fabric and tickle the skin beneath. No problem. I will extricate myself with care when I have gleaned all this amazing fruit. I pick on.

Then a hint of movement catches my eye. My eye notices, but my brain ignores. Bad brain. Bad, bad brain.

Suddenly, a fiery sword is thrust into my forearm. I look down and see a wasp the size of a 747 on my sleeve, its stinger buried in my arm. Even as I focus on my attacker, it is already moving further up my arm and getting ready to stab me again. Below my arm, I see a rising swarm of 747s. Unknowingly, I have intruded on the territory of a wasp nest hidden somewhere nearby in the brambles.

Retreat! my brain screams.

Fat chance! say the vines on my back and leg.

Wham! The wasp stings me again.

Then my body jolts into survival mode, and I twist, turn, dodge, bend, contort, rend, and thrash my way out of the blackberry patch and to a safe distance from my attackers, now moodily sinking back into the briars. My silent screaming (it is silent, isn’t it?) makes my ears ring. My back and my legs are thorn-clawed and throbbing. It feels like someone used a sledgehammer to drive two red-hot spikes into my arm.

Having fun yet? asks my inner cynic.

Wasps are scary. Can we go home now? asks my inner wimp.

I look down at my picking bucket and sigh with relief. Not one fruit has been lost in my flailing escape from the wasps. Although instinct demanded all speed, my inner miser refused to allow the loss of any berries. They are mine. All mine.

Unfortunately, having just begun, I haven’t picked enough berries yet. A car slows nearby, and I can sense the driver’s eyes measuring the fruitfulness of my blackberry patch. I move further down the briars, out of the territory of the wasps. Gingerly, I start picking again, eyes alert to any movement among the vines, keen to spot any new nest of stingers before they strike.

The sun bakes down on my shirted back, and winter looms on the horizon.

A Beginning

The main harvest is underway. It has begun. Non-gardeners may be surprised by this. They won’t associate July with major harvest and storage of garden produce. Isn’t that for the fall of the year, they wonder. After all, that’s when Thanksgiving Day happens.

Thanksgiving, that notorious celebration of eating too much despite knowing better, marks the end of all the reaping and storing of crops. We rejoice as the final crops – late-ripeners like pumpkins and corn – come to their conclusions. However, through the summer, there are many earlier crops that must be picked, processed and hoarded for winter feasting. For example, here’s how I deal with the bush beans as they come ready.

BeansLoose

Bush beans, as their name implies, grow low to the ground, and the harvester (that’s me) must scrunch down, ooch along between the rows, scoop aside foliage, and try not to break off any delicate stems or leaves. Royal Burgundy, the variety of beans I grow, are dark purple, and they love to hide under leaves and behind stems. The trick is to find all the beans that are ready to pick. That’s all the beans that are ready to pick. Good luck. There’s often at least one that plays hide-and-seek better than I and escapes detection, for now. Later, much later, I will stumble across it during another bout of picking. By then, it will be smugly mature, fibrous, seedy, and entirely undesirable.

Once I have found all the findable beans, I carry my bucket o’beans to the kitchen, dump the beans into a cleaned sink, fill it with water, and rinse them. I snap the stem end off of each bean – each of the zillion-trillion-bazillion beans it takes to fill the bucket. If you were to stop by my kitchen at this point, dear reader, we might chat.

 

Too bad you have to work, you say.
Work? Maybe it’s work, maybe it isn’t, I answer. It suits me fine.
What? You can’t possibly like doing such a tedious job.
And why not? It’s not every day a fellow can snap the stem ends off a jolly lot of beans.
Gosh, you do make it look interesting. Why don’t you let me snap a few?
Mm, I’d like to, I really would. Honest. But it has to be done in a particular way. Not everyone has the knack – not one in a thousand, maybe not one in two thousand can do it right.
I’ll be careful. Just let me try. Here, I’ll give you half my apple.
Oh, all ri… No. No, I can’t. It won’t do.
All my apple. You can have all of it.
Well, I hate to, but seeing as you want it so much…

 

Yes, you really should stop by for a chat.

Once the stems are off, I gather the beans into bundles, and cut them into inch lengths.

Half-way there… Next step is the blanching of the beans.

Using my biggest pot, 2/3 filled with water brought to a boil, I put a modest layer of cut beans into the bottom of the pot’s liner basket, and plunge the beans into the roiling water. They will turn green, as is the nature of these ephemerally-purple beans. On goes the lid, the water re-establishes its boil, and I set the timer for three minutes.

BeansBlanched

Getting closer. While the beans blanch, I fill a well-scrubbed sink with clean, cold water. When the timer sounds, I whip the basket out of the boiling water – taking care not to drip any of the scalding liquid on any exposed skin – and plunge the beans into the cold water. While this first batch of beans cools, I re-use the basket to give the next layer of beans the spa treatment.

Not done yet. I scoop the beans out of the cold water, drain them on a well-cleaned draining board, and lay them out on cookie sheets. Next, I place these laden trays in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator to fast-freeze.

Hours later, I take out the trays of frozen beans, scoop them loose, and bundle them into freezer bags. With a short length of straw, I suck out excess air before notching the last of the seal on each bag. Now they will take up residence in the big chest freezer downstairs.

BeansBaggedVictory!

But only the beginning. So far, I have frozen 4 bags of beans. Last year, I put up 18½ bags, and there were none left over when the garden began to produce this season. As the title says, it’s a beginning. That means there will be many opportunities for you and your friends to make trades for turns snapping beans. Bring something to barter – a kite, a few tadpoles, drawing chalk, coloured glass, an apple, or whatever is your favourite treasure. I’ll hate to concede my place at the sink, but, if you bargain well, the result will surely be a triumph.

Amazing Adolescence

You may think the speed of light is fast, but can it compare to how quickly a loved one grows up? One moment your offspring is taking a first breath, and the next moment, your teenager is looking at colleges. In an even quicker blink of an eye, my vegetable garden has grown up. Back in May, it was taking its first wobbly steps from seed to seedling. Now, it’s July, and I see rampant adolescence everywhere I look.

centre2014MayJuly

A few of the stereotypes of adolescence I’ve observed in my garden include:

  1. Growth spurt. Here we see that the scarlet runner beans have scooted to the tops of their climbing poles and are still reaching skyward. They say nothing, but we all know the poles I provided were not enough for their needs. Are they ever?
  2. Violation/testing of boundaries. Those irrepressible pumpkins keep sending their vines into forbidden territory – into the chard and beets, and onto the grassy pathways. When I gently steer the ends of the vines back into their assigned patch, the plants compensate by leaning large side leaves over the chard. Would breaking out a net to contain them be pushing parenthood too far?
  3. Hanging out with seedy characters. The potatoes, normally so well-behaved, are running with a bad crowd of weeds. Intervention is essential, and I might need to get violent.
  4. Chronic slouching. A few of the Brussels sprouts plants are too lazy to hold themselves upright. I point out that this leads to bent stem and assorted health problems with age, but they ignore me.
  5. Chronic loafing. Once upright and vigorous, today the onions sprawl on the ground. Meh, whatever, is their philosophy du jour. It’s just a phase. Right?
  6. Surly malingering. The royal burgundy bush beans should be producing results by now. Instead, they glower out from under their shaggy leaves with the stony silence of rebellion. I stare back, perplexed. What can I do to motivate them?
  7. Bouts of shockingly mature behaviour. Here, I rejoice in the zucchinis and vegetable marrows, which are producing with joyful abandon. I’m that proud, I could just bust.

And so I engage in behaviours common to parents of adolescents. I count my new grey hairs. I gaze wistfully at the strands that abandoned me for the bristles of the hairbrush, and I wonder why I even need a hairbrush anymore. Finally, I hum a few bars of The Circle of Life, and I carry on.

Raspberry Empire

The new raspberry patch in my yard is rising to great heights this year. Literally. The tallest of the canes stand as high as my upstretched arm can reach. This pleases me. I am also pleased by the density of the many canes in the row and the profusion of fruit now ripening at a generous pace.

RaspberryDuo

Luckily for me, raspberries don’t leave telltale stains on hands and lips. If they did, I would wear constant evidence of how many times I wander – innocently, of course – over to that corner of the yard. After all, an attentive gardener must check whether the plants need help in any way. Some among us have the courage to take on such a task, and I modestly admit to being one of that number.

Several years ago, this corner of my yard hosted only lawn and a solid board fence. Then my friend, too tender-hearted to rip out and compost some errant canes in her garden, convinced me to adopt half a dozen. Her raspberries had decided to expand their territory. Instead of being content with the sunny back corner, they charged forward into the vegetable garden, thrusting up canes at whim and with complete disregard for the rhubarb and the chard already holding claim to the area. Their behaviour reminded me of the Roman Empire in its day – “Hmm, there’s some land I don’t command yet. Time to invade and take over.”

To give these eager raspberry canes a new home, I peeled off a section of turf along the fence line, dug a trench, and filled it with a rich mix of soil and compost. Then I transplanted the six raspberry canes and watered them in.

They needed no further encouragement to explode into possession of the new land, and unlike the Gauls and Britons, I welcome the invasion. Now the raspberry canes form a verdant jungle dotted with plump fruit. I pluck and freeze the berries for winter use when they reach the pinnacle of ripeness.

Curious about the slang use of the word, raspberry, as a sound of derision, I did some investigating. Why, I wondered, would the noble and innocent raspberry be associated with such a sound. My research revealed that it comes from the phrase, raspberry tart, and raspberry tart was used in Cockney rhyming slang to represent a certain word that starts with f and rhymes with tart. In their way of creating a language within a language, the Cockney dropped the second word, tart, to further hide their meaning from outsiders. Ever since, the innocent raspberry has carried this slang meaning like a nasty nickname acquired in the schoolyard at a tender age. Unfair? Unfair!

To counter this often-heard slander, I am creating a new rhyming slang in honour of the raspberry. Ship. That’s short for ship ahoy, the end of which rhymes with joy, which is what I feel when I’m communing with the ruby-red raspberries on the canes by the eastern fence in my yard.

Ship.

And whatever in life brings you ship, I wish you a fleet of it.

In Defense of Orange

Admiring a baby fruit on one of my squash plants, I dream of the day in autumn when I will have a pumpkin patch filled with big, orange fruits. Magical.

PumpkinBudAndRipe

As I muse on these future pumpkins and their jolly colour, a terrible, yet unforgettable, Knock, Knock joke raps on my memory. Skip over the joke, if you’ve already heard it and suffered the agony it induces. Really, it’s been voted the most annoying joke of all time. Beware.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Banana.
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Banana.
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Grrr, who’s there? (usually said through clenched teeth)
Orange.
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

Little kids think this joke is hysterical. Adults hear fingernails scraping across the surface of their sanity.

The joy of telling this joke when you’re five years old is to see how many times you can repeat the banana response before you are forced to deliver the punch line. When I was five, I loved the joke. It was perfect. It gave the child a tiny moment of power. Perhaps this is when I fell in love with orange.

Orange is my favourite colour, which puts me in a tiny minority. When I researched the subject of colour preference, I was shocked to discover that orange is one of the least favourite colours for most people, men and women. How can that be? Orange is warm and friendly. Orange is bright and cheerful. It’s unique and special.

The two most popular colours that men and women agree on are blue and green. Blue and green are excellent colours. I like them, too. But they are, dare I say, commonplace. Blue is a vast expanse overhead any time the clouds clear away, and green is everywhere on land we haven’t paved over with asphalt or concrete. Grasslands and forests are green. Even the tundra can be green, briefly, when it isn’t covered with snow.

Why don’t more people love the colour orange? It’s the colour of one of the most popular fruits in Canada – the orange orange. The orange orange may seem redundant, but an orange can also be green of skin. Green orange. Sounds weird, but isn’t. In tropical countries, the skin of an orange doesn’t turn orange. In such places, a green orange can be ripe or a green orange can be green (green as in unripe). Have I confused you yet? Perhaps I should add that, while on the tree in cooler climes, a green orange can become an orange orange and later revert to being a green orange (green as in colour). Truly. Weird.

OrangeDuo

Apparently, before the 16th century, the colour was called yellow-red. Not a catchy name, but one that would reduce confusion. Still, I’m glad the colour orange got its own name, not a hyphenation of a couple of other colours. It deserves its own name, and orange, as a word, has good mouth feel. You can really get your lips, tongue, and teeth around a word like that. Go ahead, say it aloud. Orange. Feel it in your mouth. Good, right?

Again, I wonder why orange isn’t one of the most popular colours. Orange is the colour of California poppies, for the botanically inclined. Showy, resilient flower, the poppy. If sports is your joy, the BC Lions (Canadian football) and the Netherlands National Football team (European football) get fierce in their orange uniforms. For animal lovers, what creature is more beautiful or more majestic than the tiger? Orange, again. And the list of amazing orange goes on – monarch butterfly and Bullock’s oriole in the air, Garibaldi and clownfish in the sea.

garibaldi

Orange is eye-catching, yet friendly, bold, but unthreatening. You just know that if orange were a person, it would be a caring person, one ready to bound into danger to save you, one ready to listen with sympathy if you needed to talk about your woes. Blue, by comparison, would be too busy navel-gazing to notice you at all, and green has scant time for anything outside the plant kingdom.

It’s been said that no one can ostracize a lone wolf. That may be so, but wolves, like people, do better when they are part of the pack. So, this is my plea on behalf of the scattered lovers of orange around the globe. Take another look at the joy of orange, how beautiful it is, how unique, and how often it is associated with marvels. And next time someone asks you what is your favourite colour, join what will surely become the new majority and proclaim, “Orange!”

Guys and Gals

For anyone who is squeamish about giving a child the talk about the birds and the bees, my garden proposes to you an easy alternative. Just talk about the flowers and the flowers.

Yes, you heard me right. All you have to do is plant a couple of squash seeds, and let nature do ninety-nine percent of the work for you. Any normal squash will do – zucchini, vegetable marrow, pumpkin, butternut, acorn – all good. If you’re short on growing space, stick with zucchini, and if you’ve got several square metres, go crazy, plant pumpkins, and let them sprawl.

There’s a bonus with pumpkin plants as teaching tools. Once you’ve explained about the flowers and the flowers, you end up with some bouncing, big, orange fruits. No, no, don’t waste them as jack-o’-lanterns! Just gut, peel, cut up, steam, and purée. Then use the purée to make the easiest, tastiest, most satisfying soup. (Sautée an onion in a big pot, add equal parts vegetable or meat broth and pumpkin purée (more purée if you want the soup thick), simmer 15 minutes. Season as you prefer. I use seasoning salt, ginger, & black pepper.)

Now, back to the flowers. My zucchini plants have just put forth their first blooms. Unfortunately, that does not mean I am rejoicing and honing my paring knife for the harvest quite yet. These first flowers are all males and will produce no fruits. At various times through its life, a squash plant produces a male blossom with a pollen-drenched anther at the centre, or a female blossom with a receptive pistil and a tiny baby squash at the base. Once the growing season is well underway, a squash plant will often have both male flowers and female flowers at the same time.

ZucchiniBloomTxt

You see where this is going, of course. No need to talk to your youngster about icky animal body parts or fluids, or to speak of rutting goats or dogs in heat. No need to mention animals at all. Certainly no need to talk about people.

You just lead the child into the garden and talk about the lovely flowers, and how the male flower and its pollen needs to fertilize the female flower and its baby squash. So tidy, so tranquil, so botanical. Best of all – no awkward questions you can’t answer or don’t want to answer.

When a bee or your child has helped the pollen get to the female flower, you can all watch the squash grow into a meal for the family. It’s reproduction at its most discrete.

Now that I have solved your worries about that talk with your child, don’t feel any need to thank me. Jardinage oblige, and all that. It’s the least I can do.

One final word. There is a remote chance that your grown offspring will visit you and bring along only armloads of squash, not grandchildren. If you are a keen environmentalist, you will rejoice at helping to curb the explosive growth of the world’s population. However, some of you might be keen to pinch the cheeks of a new dumpling in your family line. In that case, I have three things to say to you: Firstly, I’m sorry to hear that your young developed no ability to extrapolate. Secondly, if you are determined to have grandchildren, you must take each grown child aside and brave the Icky Bit talk. And thirdly, you’re on your own with that talk because I’ll be out in the garden matchmaking in the squash patch.

Myself, I have no children. Just a coincidence, of course.