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:

 

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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:

 

H is for Harvest

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.

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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.

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H is also for Hat, Horn, and Hawk, as human tots can discover in my video, Letter H and the Secret Window:

 

G is for Green

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.

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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.

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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.

Right? Right?

Of course.

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There’s nothing scary in my video for children, Letter G and the Secret Window:

 

F is for First

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?

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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.

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Young ones learning their abcs can discover words that start with the letter f at:

E is for Extra

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.

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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.

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E is also for elf, eel, and elk. Youngsters can discover this at my video, “Letter E and the Secret Window.”