Nuts!

Can a tree be a hero? My answer is a resounding YES!

Now, I hear the chorus of your skepticism, indeed I do. Many of you will be quick to point out the faults of trees. The list begins.

One. Trees regularly get in the way of cars, and isn’t it silly of them to grow at curves in the roads. Totally the tree’s fault if a driver misses the bend.

Two. Trees haven’t the good sense not to fall over in high winds. Bad enough when they ruin the perfection of a park or forest by collapsing, but they are altogether too quick to fall on houses, innocently-parked automobiles, and power lines. Clearly the tree just lives to inconvenience humans.

Three. A tree, to use legal jargon, is an attractive nuisance. Cats can’t resist them. They are lured into a tree’s heights, there to become paralysed with acrophobia, thus requiring hazardous rescue. Claw marks on exposed skin are the usual result. Ouch.

Four. Trees produce leaves, which would be lovely if they didn’t insist on dropping them at regular intervals. Clogged drains, clogged gutters, and smothered lawns are the victims. The beleaguered humans must, of course, unclog and rake. Endlessly rake. Ugh.

Five. Trees grow. And grow. And grow. That sweet little sapling that was oh-so-decorative for its first ten years turns into a botanical Godzilla with the further passage of time. It blankets sun-loving flower beds with shade, chafes its branches against overhead wires, and attracts crow riffraff from the wrong side of town.

Six. One word – roots. Roots pretend to be docile, but they are a conniving lot. They slither under the sidewalk and expand upwards until the concrete cracks and buckles, the better to trip passersby. Underground pipes are powerless to resist the tree’s ever-thirsty roots. Leaf-clogged drains are child’s play compared to a root-choked water pipe.

But, please, let me interrupt you here and explain the heroism of a tree. Specifically, I will tell you about the hazelnut tree in my backyard and what it gave me despite what it endured this year. What did it endure?

Drought. The most obvious insult to the tree came gradually, but inexorably. We had a drought that began at level two, lingered a while at level three, and culminated in a parching level four. Such an extended arid spell was unheard of for our area and all the trees suffered. Placing a water sprinkler under the hazelnut tree was forbidden, and it had to subsist on its small share of the buckets of kitchen grey water, laced with soap and grease, that I toted out to the garden.

A plague of squirrels. Squirrels cannot keep their bony little paws off hazelnuts. They start their assault as soon as the nut begins to form, green and unready in the spring. With all the mental intellect of a clod of earth, the squirrel can’t understand that it is too early to harvest them. It takes a nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, takes another nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, and repeats this process endlessly. The ground below the tree is soon carpeted with these rejects. When the nuts finally do ripen, the fecund squirrels bring all their relatives and assault the remaining nuts on the tree, eating many, burying the rest.

Blight. Only today, I looked up into the tree and wondered, “Why is that small branch dead?” A bit of research revealed the horrifying answer. The tree is infested with Eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease that has worked its way north from Oregon and has arrived, most unwelcome, on my doorstep. With newly opened eyes, I now see that my hazelnut has struggled with this sickness since spring. The prognosis is grim.

But despite all this, despite the drought, the plague, and the blight, my hazelnut tree has given of itself to my benefit. My hero.

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Such heroism must not languish unacknowledged. I hereby resolve that I will not mutter curses when I pull its cold, sodden leaves out of the gutters this autumn, nor will I grind my teeth when I scrape up leaves plastered glue-like to the patio. Further, I resolve not to sigh with martyrdom when I trudge out, dragging the grass rake behind me, for the umpteenth time to clean up yet another dump of fallen leaves.

Am I nuts to make such resolutions? Well, obviously!

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Rice is Nice

Verdant, vibrant, vigorous – thus grows my vegetable garden this year. Its productivity is almost alarming. With plenty of growing season left, I’m running low on storage space in the freezer for all those blanched and bagged vegetables for the winter. Already snug in one corner are twenty big sacs of green beans. Twenty! That’s not to mention the chard, the zucchini, the broccoli, and the impending corn, pumpkin puree, and more. Let’s not forget the six big bags of frozen raspberries, either. Space hogs, all of them.

And I’m happy about it. Really I am. No sarcasm implied or intended. I shall feast through the winter. verdantGarden But after 30 years of cultivating crops tolerant of zone 8b conditions, oh how I pine to grow something new. By new, I don’t mean another variety of green bean or a different cultivar of potato. I mean something exotic, something impossible to grow in my climate.

Something like…well, let’s get crazy and think about growing rice. The climate here is iffy for rice, but apart from that little detail, it’s not such a wild idea. My garden is situated on a river delta and is as flat as one of today’s computer screens, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to dike and flood part of it with river water.

Imagine the mental zing of learning a whole new set of criteria for growing a crop. I don’t have to think twice about my technique for getting potatoes to grow well in my soil. Every year it’s the same. I dig a trench, snuggle each seed potato into a nest of peat moss, add mature compost, and hill up as the plants grow. As the season progresses, there’s nothing to think about. I do some mindless weeding, and make sure it gets either rain or tap water every week. Yawn. No brain teaser, this.

But rice would demand a whole new skill set. The more I read about it, the more I admire farmers who grow rice. They have to decide on the right timing as they flood, maintain, and drain their rice fields. Complicated formulae calculate rate of flow and timing. Do it right and you get a bumper crop, do it wrong and the rice plants get stunted or even die. It sounds like a challenge, and I’d like a challenge.

The tradition and significance of rice appeals to me, too. Humans have been using it for at least 4,500 years, and these days the world grows more than half a billion tons of it every year. Oof!

With all those tons of rice out there, some people might think rice is boring. Such people would be wrong. Such people clearly have never tried this Japanese rice creation:

With just a bit more global warming in my neighbourhood, I could make these for myself – from scratch – all the way from seed to crop to ingredient to plump little delicacy. It’s only a fantasy for now, but what a fantasy!

A Garden for Global Warming

Wow, but the times are changing! No measurable rain has touched the soil of my garden for weeks and weeks. The sun bakes down, its light glinting off upturned leaves and even sneaking into the hidden corners. While the lawn withers to a pale gold, the vegetables stay green only by the grace of regular watering by hand and by sprinkler.

All this sunshine and heat has the corn in an ecstasy of growth. I look out over the land and wonder if it’s too soon in this cycle of Climate Change to plant some tropical delicacies. Of course, it is. Winter, when it comes, will freeze the vulnerable. Still, the heat has brought on hallucinations, and I imagine an orange tree next to my blueberry bush. Watermelon vines might like the area near the pumpkins. Thus I dream of my globally-warmed garden of the future.

Then I think, “OK, oranges and watermelons are good, but what about something more exotic? Surely there are amazing fruits and vegetables out there that I’ve never hear of. Would I like them?”

Some investigation is needed. I begin by questioning the edibility of the tamamoro:

 Weird Food Taste Test

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.

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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.

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Soon, Soon

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Ah, Spring, that joyous season when a gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of – yield! It’s not yield as in “get out of my way, I’m merging into your lane of traffic.” It’s yield as in a basket piled high with vibrant chard leaves in one hand, a fistful of royal burgundy bush beans in the other hand, and a sleek zucchini under one arm.

Unfortunately, it is still too early for such bounty. For now, I am consoling myself with home-grown and fresh-frozen produce from 2013. I try not to panic when I catch glimpses of the bottom of the big chest freezer as I pull out a sack of corn kernels or a brick of squash purée. I reassure myself that I want to use up all the vegetables I processed last year, and there will be enough to last until this year’s garden steps up to feed me.

The first serious harvest of chard generally happens one week into June, and the first zucchini will clock in by the first day of July. July 1st is a holiday here in Canada, and rightly so. There’s a silly rumour that this holiday commemorates the confederation of the country back in 1867, but pay no attention to such nonsense. July 1st is Zucchini Day.

Waiting is difficult. Have you noticed? The closer I get to the first picking of chard, the more slowly the clock ticks. My hand twitches toward the paring knife, and my mouth waters like one of Pavlov’s pooches. “No, no, not yet,” I scold.

To console myself, today I wander into a farm market. They have imported nectarines on offer, one of my top five favourite fruits, and a fruit whose fussbudget of a tree would never allow itself to be caught alive in my garden. Woe is me.

In the market, I lightly finger the nectarines, most of which have all the tenderness of steel ball bearings. Finally, I find one with a bit of yield, pay a ludicrous ransom for it, and spirit it home to savour. I stand at the window so I can gaze lovingly over my garden as I eat the fruit. I anticipate.

First, though, I have to deal with the – not one but two – big stickers on the skin of the nectarine. The stickers refuse to peel, and I am forced to gouge them off, taking divots of fruit with them. I mutter curses upon the zealots who invented fruit stickers and the glue for fruit stickers. I even call upon one of my father’s favourite curses, “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your eyebrows.” Nasty stuff, but sometimes you just can’t hold yourself back.

Finally, de-stickered and washed, the nectarine is ready. I take a bite. Meh. For most of the nectarine, the flavour is fair at best, and the texture is mealy. Two bites of it, though, are exquisite – smooth and creamy, with all the subtle and strident notes of the nectarine of my dreams.

When I finish, I take the nectarine pit out to the compost. On my way back to the house, I pause to visually measure the progress of the chard and the beets. I know that there will be no disappointment over texture or flavour with any of this produce when the time comes. My impulse, barely restrained, is to croon, “Soon…soon…” like the gingerbread house owner who keeps testing Hansel to see if he’s fat enough to eat. Instead of rubbing my hands together, I try to adopt a casual air, and wonder if the plants are able to see into the heart of the person who has tenderly nurtured them for weeks. Not to alarm them prematurely, I quickly turn away and walk to the house. I hope the chard doesn’t notice as I wipe a speck of saliva from the corner of my mouth.

Grow Like a Weed

Philosophers ponder questions like: What is truth? and How do I know I’m awake and not dreaming? But where are these philosophers for the Big Questions, questions like: How do I fit this enormous tent back into its tiny stuff sack? or Where did I put my sunglasses? What do you mean I’m wearing them? …oh, right.

 Recently, while I pulled weeds from around the young chard plants in my garden, another Big Question popped into my mind. Here’s the thought process that led to this question. I start the garden by removing any weeds, then turning the soil so it’s fresh and bare. Meanwhile, in the house, on a sunny windowsill, I have sprouted and grown chard seedlings. I plant the chard seedlings in the fresh, unsullied ground, giving them a head start on the season.

Let’s be clear. The chard had pre-grown a network of roots and at least two embryonic leaves, some of them had added one or two true leaves, as well. Any weed hoping to colonize the same area of ground must start from seed, sprout, put down roots, and push up a stem with its own first leaves even as the chard is, or should be, adding more and bigger leaves and growing toward the sky. You may already have noticed my use of the word – should. In other words, the chard, given its head start, should tower over any weeds.

But no. It seems that chard is a contemplative plant in the spring. It meditates on the soil composition, it muses about the weather, and it ponders its plans for the year ahead. Then it carefully unfolds one tiny new leaf. By the time this new chard leaf catches its first rays of sunlight, a dozen nearby weed seeds have flung out a handful of roots and rocketed up into the air to form a canopy of hastily constructed leaves, all poised to crowd out, shade out, and smother the chard. So, I must intervene and remove the weeds.

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Which brings me to my Big Question – why can’t chard grow with the enthusiasm of a weed?

Of course, I know this is a rhetorical question, not a Big Question, but I do wish that a philosopher or an agriculturalist would come through with a practical answer, a solution that would have chard make the top ten of fastest growing plants. If those experts fail, perhaps science can find a way to make my tongue thrill to the taste and texture of weeds.

Brainflash! Suddenly, I realize I have at my fingertips the answer to one of the philosophers’ questions, namely, How do I know I’m awake and not dreaming? I simply walk into an untended chard patch, take a leaf from the tallest plant, pop it into my mouth, and chew. If I gag and spit it out, I know I just tried to eat a weed. Therefore, I will know I’m awake and not dreaming because the chard would outgrow the weeds only in my dreams.

Hungering For Light

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Mother Nature’s children can’t be fooled. Even though I placed the soil flats I’d seeded with Silverado chard on my sunniest, most south-facing window ledge, after the seedlings emerged, they wanted out. When I saw their hunger for the world outside that pane of glass, I thought of classrooms of children turning their faces to the gentle spring day beyond the schoolroom. Not me, never. Back in the day, I was eyes front, back straight, hands folded on the desk, and mind on the lesson. Word! And if any of my former teachers say otherwise, their advancing years must be clouding their memories.

My memory is crystal clear, of course. Now what was I talking about…?

Oh right, chard. Apart from a drop of water, a puff of air, and a few soil minerals, what chard craves most is sunlight, its most vital fuel. Each chard plant needs to pack on tissue, create more leaves, create bigger leaves, and get taller, wider, and more vigorous than all the plants nearby.

Mother Nature isn’t about fairness and a level playing field. Mother Nature asks, how badly do you want it? How far are you willing to stretch? Will you bend over backwards if that’s what it takes?

Clearly, the chard in that flat are willing to bend, stretch, and strive. Their youthful eagerness makes me wish the best for each of them when the time comes to plant them in the real world of the garden. Out there, they must brave soul-sucking slugs determined to chew them down to ground level while they are still tiny, before they manage to create their first true leaves. They must survive torrential downpours of rain that try, with repeated blows, to sledge-hammer down the tender seedlings until they no longer have the strength to spring back up. If they are planted in the kitchen plot of a lazy gardener, the sort of gardener I used to be but no longer am, I hasten to add, then they must vie with competing weeds for water, nutrients, and light.

When I look at those leaning chard seedlings, I understand that hunger. We humans hunger for so many things: enlightenment, motivation, reward, love, recognition, joy, adventure, and, sometimes, just everything.

In the end, though, when the chard has grown to a suitable size, I will have only one hunger. I will hunger for a freshly-picked, delicately-steamed, lightly-buttered-and-salted, generous heap of chard on my plate.