U is for Up

Up is something that is almost always good, don’t you think? We keep our hopes up, investors are happy when their stocks go up, and toddlers dream of growing up so they can reach a world designed for adults. In my garden, the scarlet runner vines are halfway up their poles and headed higher. In my world, that is excellent.

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Indeed, all my crops are now up, some more than others. This year, the squash plants are growing boisterously. Good news, right? Mm, yes and no.

In the realm of computers, nothing can be better than a good backup, especially when the predictable happens and the original file or its drive gets corrupted. Gardens are tricky to backup, though. If I need three zucchini plants to provide for my summer and winter eating should I plant three? Not a good idea. Often, one or more plants do poorly and either waste away or vie for the title of Runt of the Universe. I might be left with only one plant vainly struggling to produce enough. That’s a big fail.

To be safe, I plant extras – backups. So sensible. This year, in my usual fit of caution, I planted five zucchini, and, wouldn’t you know it, they are all exceeding expectations. I now know I will be up to my eyebrows in zucchini as summer matures.

Another feature of early summer – the weeds are getting uppity. Baby purslanes hug the ground here and there, trying to look insignificant, like innocents peeping out of foxholes. Pigweed seedlings huddle under the squash leaves, biding their time, waiting for the right moment to shoot for the sky. Around the borders, runner grass sends sneaky subterranean roots into the garden area, the better to colonize it. Up to no good, the lot of them.

This early in the growing season, I’m still psyched up and quick to roll up my sleeves and keep the garden free of weeds with regular applications of effort. So far, so good, but thirty plus years of gardening have taught me this enthusiasm won’t last, and by final harvest in the fall, weeds will have firm toeholds all over the garden. It’s not that I give up…exactly…it’s more a question of my time being better spent in harvest and storage. At least, that’s how I explain the situation, and I believe because I would never lie to myself. Honest.

Flowers and flower buds are brightening up the garden as I type. Golden yellow squash blossoms, trumpets of fecundity, flare open every morning. Tight, royal purple buds dot the first-planted swath of bush beans, and a scant few red buds mark the lower reaches of the scarlet runner vines. Hurry up, they say, it’s time to reproduce.

Yes, the garden is looking up, and my spirits are so far up they are height-giddy. That’s the joy of gardening – the present day successes (Swiss chard and raspberries) and the anticipation of what will happen next. Tomorrow, I will serve up the first vegetable marrow of the year, picked small so it will be tender and succulent. Not long after, the first broccoli will go directly from plant to plate, then crop after crop will come into production. The corn and the pumpkins will wrap up the season.

It’s all up, up, up, and not even the uppity pigweeds and purslanes can harsh my high.

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Youngsters can watch a kite go up as they learn about the letter u in this video:

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T is for Time

Now is the time for gardeners to hop from foot to foot in anticipation, to check and re-check the spring plantings. Will all the bean seeds break ground? Can the potatoes make their way to the surface? What if an outbreak of slugs devastate the baby chard?

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Of course, I’m talking about other gardeners being tense, not me. I’m totally calm. I’d say I’m as cool as the proverbial cucumber, but that’s a vegetable I detest so I won’t compare myself to one. Let’s say I’m as cool as an alpine night. That’s chill!

No, you won’t find me hovering over the zucchini seedlings or measuring the progress of the onion sets. Neither will you see me drumming my fingers on the calendar. I’m not impatient for the first harvests. Not I.

I’m sympathetic to ordinary gardeners, though. I understand that they are on tenterhooks in keen anticipation of early yields and in wary dread of pests and blights. If I weren’t so alpine chill, I’d be on tenterhooks, too.

Even as I use this arcane expression, I wonder – what are tenterhooks and why, oh why, would anybody be on them? Once again, I am grateful for the Internet and how promptly it supplies enlightenment. I seek an answer and I find an answer.

Apparently, back in the seventeenth century, there were woolen mills aplenty and these mills were surrounded by fields of wooden frames called tenters. Each tenter had hooked nails all around its perimeter. After wool was woven into cloth, it was washed. To keep it from losing its shape, the cloth was stretched on the tenter and hooked onto the nails. Wool has a natural tendency to shrink, so as it dried, the cloth was under tension, held in place by the hooks.

Therefore, on tenterhooks means under tension. This meaning has expanded to include the concept of tense anticipation.

On the tenters and on tenterhooks first appeared in print in the seventeenth century. Authors used these expressions in the same way we use the idiom today. I wonder if it was used by the common folk first, then used by authors, or did the authors use the expression and the common folk liked the imagery and picked up on it. Either way, it has persisted long after those old mills.

These musings lead me to wonder about idioms. We have – which came first, the chicken or the egg – and I further ask – which came first, the author or the idiom?

But I digress. Neither tenterhooks and woolens nor authors and idioms have anything to do with gardening. Still, this detour allowed my mind to think of something other than my garden. I need that because the time to first yield seems to stretch out to infinity.

However, I’m not in a state of tension and suspense. I’m not on tenterhooks. I want to make that perfectly clear.

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Time, tenterhooks, teal, train, turtle – the list of t words goes on. Did you know that t is the second most common letter in the English language? Here’s a video about t for those learning their letters:

Q is for Quit That!

“Quit that!” I say to winter, but it doesn’t hear me. Then again, maybe it does hear me and that breath of wind is actually its gloating laugh. If I thought all the rain we endured in December and January was bad, I had no idea how quickly things could get worse.

Now I know, and wish I didn’t.

We’ve had freezing temperatures for a week. Today the forecasters are bleating out warnings, and snow has been falling for the last three hours. Word is, the snow may continue through tonight.

True, the combination of cold weather and snow at the end of February is not the End of the World, but it is extremely rare here. We like it being rare here. Before this cold snap hit us, I had been frowning at the accelerated growth of my lawn and worrying that I might set a new record for earliest First Mowing of the grass.

Now, instead of tuning up the mower, I will be fetching snow shovels and ice melter out of my garden shed. And I should do that now before it gets too deep…

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OK, I’m back after scraping five centimetres (two inches) of snow off the drive and sidewalk. Even though we don’t get much snow in this area, I have enough experience to know it’s better to scrape a meagre five cm several times over the duration of a snowfall rather than shovel an accumulated fifteen centimetres at once.

On the plus side, this snow is cold, dry, fluffy, and light…so far… It took me less than twenty minutes to clear everything.

Winter. Sigh. Truth is, I’d been enjoying the early flowers in bloom – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and a few pink rhododendrons. The bright red noses of rhubarb shoots in my garden gave rise to a torrent of spring thoughts.

“Hmm,” I thought. “When should I start the vegetable seedlings on my window sill?”

Answer – not yet. Really, NOT yet!

According to my gardening logbook, the earliest first mowing of my lawn happened in 2015 and took place on March 3. When I look at the long range forecast for what little is left of February 2018, I see more snow and more cold weather followed by a return to incessant rain. What I don’t see are conditions that would put the First Mowing record of 2015 in jeopardy.

I should be happy that I won’t have to mow the lawn any time soon. Instead, I find myself glaring at the teeming, swirling snowflakes and the lowering, grey sky. And all I can think is…

Quit that!

Don’t quit yet. Recommend this video about letter Q to kids learning their alphabet.

 

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.

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:

 

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.”