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.

HazelnutsBucket

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!

HazelnutsClose

Winding Down

Autumn is upon us. The harvest moon came and went on September 9 in this year of 2014, and the equinox passed on the 23rd of the same month. Now it’s October, and the season of the vegetable garden is dwindling to an end. It’s winding down.

That expression – winding down – brings to mind a gradual tapering off, a gentle decline, or a peaceful amble into the sunset. Do I wish!

That’s not the way my vegetable garden comes to a close. No. It demands attention. It stamps its withering feet and insists. I never realized how much time and effort the harvest involved until I kept track of my garden hours one year. Back in 2009, I discovered that only forty percent of my time went to preparing the ground in the spring, then planting, tending, and weeding through the summer, and finally clearing the ground at the end of the season. Sixty percent of my time (120 hours) went to the picking and processing of crops for off-season use. A full 86 of those harvest hours were crammed into September and October.

The day to celebrate the harvest – Thanksgiving Day – arrives on October 13th this year in Canada. I’d love to be able to put up my feet and joyfully contemplate its rapid approach, but I’m too busy grubbing, scrubbing, chopping, blanching, chilling, layering, freezing, canning, and NOT panicking.

Happily, the zucchinis and vegetable marrows will produce fresh delights for my table until the first frost kills them. They make no special demands on my time. Even better, I can ignore the beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and chard, for now. They will fend for themselves even as the temperatures drop. They laugh at a simple frost.

But, on the heels of taking down the corn patch, I must store the potatoes. Then the onions need to be readied for the winter. I’ve barely finished canning the last of the plums, and the late-ripening apples nag at me to pick them and turn them into applesauce. The picking and saucing of apples will be hours and hours and hours of work.

And that’s not all. We’ve enjoyed a warm, dry September and into October, so the bush beans are still producing edible beans. They need to be picked. Again. Looming in the centre section of the garden, the scarlet runners continue to mature. I will strip the beans and take the vines down at the last moment, hopefully on a dry day, and definitely before the first frost.

I’ve already brought in the pumpkins – all 42 of them. I rinsed, dried, and set them out in sunlight to mature their flavour for two weeks before converting them to purée. That two week deadline gallops ever nearer. Do I need to mention that it will take many hours to convert 42 pumpkins to dried seeds and frozen purée? I thought not.

Who, me? Worry? Poised to pounce, the cold, drenching monsoons of autumn hover off the coast, and I’ve still got the apples, pumpkins, scarlet runners, and bush beans getting all up in my face needing to be harvested, processed, and bedded down for the winter. Pshaw, I say. Piffle!

I am NOT panicking.

Pumpkins

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!”

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!”