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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

K is for Kitchen

Wave after wave of cold rain assaults my vegetable plot this October. Glowering clouds obscure the sun and turn midday into dusk. Even the hardy Brussels sprouts plants look horrified at this change from our bright, dry summer.

“What happened to the sun? Where did it go?” the Brussels ask their neighbour, the rhubarb.

The rhubarb is mute. Its stems and leaves droop, then melt into the ground as the roots prepare for winter. What fool plants those Brussels are, trying to grow this time of year, the rhubarb thinks.

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Standing at my kitchen window, I sigh. It’s a mixed sigh – one part relief that I managed to bed down the garden before the off-season saturation began, one part sorrow for the coming months of staring out at cold, dark, wet weather as I dream wistful dreams of spring growth.

My work on the harvest isn’t over, though; it has moved into the kitchen. It is time to make a start on the pumpkins, to change the cheery crowd of orange orbs into dried seeds for nibbling and smooth purée for the freezer. The purée will lie in wait for its turn to grace a recipe.

It is time to begin. Mind you, yesterday was time to begin, as was the day before, and the day before… Not that I was procrastinating. No, each day something much more important demanded my full attention. There were unseen corners to dust, napkins to refold, and paper clips to sort. And let us not forget the need to make a To Do list with You-Know-What at the number one position.

Let a day pass in your mind and you will be with me in the kitchen. I have toiled and toiled until I completed processing seven of the nineteen pumpkins. Taking each fruit in turn, I gutted it, picked out its seeds, rinsed the seeds and set them to dry. Then I pared the rind, chopped the flesh, steamed the flesh, cooled it, puréed it, packaged it, and froze the results.

I hated every minute of the hours it took me to get this far – not even half done. Why can I enjoy hours of work out in the garden and detest its equivalent in the kitchen? It’s not fair and there ought to be a cure. Big pharmacies need to get right on that and develop a vaccine against kitchenophobia or, failing that, develop a drug to induce kitchenophilia.

A drug that inspired love of a hated task would be priceless. Think of it. Every year we would eagerly anticipate the season to file our taxes. My turn to scrub the bathroom? Bring it on!  Need to give a speech to a boardroom filled with skeptics? Whee!

Yes, the pharmaceutical industry would win wealth beyond measure if only they would give us a means to love the tasks we hate. The world could become perfect. Utopia for all.

Unintended consequences, you suggest? Potential abuse of the product by power-hungry, attention-seeking dictators, you warn? Fear not, I insist. Surely philia, even drug-induced, has its limits.

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A kangaroo and a kingfisher are part of learning the letter k. For children:

 

J is for Judge and Jury

In a flash of inspiration, I have realized that I am an omnipotent being. Wow! Not omnipotent in all areas of my life, of course. No, that would be too good to be true. You may wonder where in my personal world I am so all-powerful. Read on.

Last weekend, I finished putting my vegetable garden to bed for the winter. I stripped a late handful of bean pods off the scarlet runner vines, pulled and stored the beets, and cleared a final few patches of dead squash plants and weeds. Then I hoed off some baby weeds that had gotten a start on areas previously cleared.

As I worked, my mind reviewed the successes and failures of this hot, dry summer with its bonanza of spaghetti squash and pumpkins, meagre output of potatoes, and poor harvest of beets. I assessed the performance of each crop and considered the tally of frozen, stored, and canned produce in my freezer and pantry.

Then I began to plan how I will lay out my garden next year. I probably have enough pumpkin purée in my freezer to last two winters, and I have nineteen pumpkins from this year waiting to be processed. I’m caught wondering if I feel triumphant or horrified about that. Let’s go with triumphant, and imagine a long row of grinning jack o’lanterns.

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Acting as judge and jury, I decided to suspend the planting of pumpkins next year, a tougher choice than it might seem to a disinterested outsider, but I’m holding firm on that…so far. Next, I think of the spaghetti squash and the many, many extras I gave away to others. Should I cut back on next spring’s plantings? I would, but last year I planted the same number of vines and they produced modest numbers of fruit. Different years, different conditions, different yields.

And so it proceeded for each crop – how much did I plant this year, how did it perform, how does that compare to other years, and what do I see myself wanting next year? What will I discontinue and is there anything new I want to try?

When I finished clearing the garden, I stepped back, leaned on my hoe, and admired the results. (This is the second most important task of the hoe – to be leaned upon.) That’s when the revelation hit me. This vegetable garden, this jewel in my life, is mine to control and command. It hangs on my mercy and my wrath.

Apart from the weather, I control all. I decide what seeds and seedlings will be allotted space to grow. I offer extra food and water. I weed, stake, prune, trim, and pamper. When necessary, I punish – verily, I smite.

To think that through the years, I’ve believed that I garden because I love the freshness of home-grown produce, the joy of communing with nature, and the challenge of battling weather, climate, and pests. Now, I wonder if my vegetable patch has fulfilled a subconscious need to be all-powerful – the Supreme Force in that small world, a Giant, a Demi-God.

Bwahahahaha!

Wait. Stop. Me, a megalomaniac? Not at all. I was just joking.

Really.

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Here’s where young children can jump to a jolly good time learning about the letter J.

I is for Icky

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.

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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!

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Pretty pictures abound in my video for kids learning their abc’s: