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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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:

 

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:

C is for Coddle

When a friend asked the status of my vegetable garden yesterday, I talked about my recent work in the corn patch. I had weeded, side-dressed, hilled, and twined the corn. In a couple of weeks, the stalks will tassel, and I’ll side-dress, hill, and twine it a second time.

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“Wow, you really coddle your corn,” said my friend.

Coddle? Me? I was shocked at the word. I’ve always considered myself more of a slacker than a keener in the garden. Oh, I have great intentions to be a candidate for World’s Best Gardener, but I am too much the expert in procrastinating, especially in the domain of weeding. When I cleared the ground around the young corn two days ago, some of the pigweed stood as tall as the crop I was rescuing.

No, I don’t coddle. But I do want my garden investments to pay off. Corn is a big investment in space and produces modestly per unit area compared to big producers like chard or zucchini. A stalk of corn that is neglected may only produce one cob, while a stalk that has no weedy competitors for food and water, and is given extra food when it’s having a growth spurt will produce two or even three hearty cobs dense with juicy kernels.

The hilling and twining are to prevent stalks from falling over in wet, windy weather, or being pushed flat onto the ground by overly zealous raccoons. Prevent? Heh, it should work so flawlessly as all that. I’ve not lost any to weather lately, but even with the double strands of twine to hold the plants in position, raccoons will bend a few into awkward poses.

Hilling and side-dressing are standard procedures for corn growers, but my Great Twine Defense is a strategy I developed in desperation. It came about as another of those “good news, bad news” scenarios. The good news is that wildlife like raccoons and coyotes are moving into our cities and using this environment to be fruitful and multiply. The more good news is creatures who live in cities learn, think, and develop new strategies for survival. They get smarter, too.

Which brings me to the bad news. For the first ten years of my vegetable garden, the corn patch was unscathed by pests. Wait, wait, I am getting to the bad news. Then the odd raccoon would wander through my garden at corn harvest time, push over a stalk, and eat a bit of its corn. No, that’s not the BAD news. Not yet.

Over time, the raccoon issue worsened. In recent years, they would come through the corn when the stalks were small – long before any cobs had formed – and they pushed over plant after plant after plant, snapping them off at their bases. The result? Many dead and dying plants. No corn on the cob from the fallen soldiers. Not for me, not for the raccoons.

A war of escalating violence between myself and the raccoons was out of the question. Who could bear to raise a hand against Rascal the Raccoon? Not I. Instead, I had to resort to guile. We humans are good at guile.

So, after trying a few strategies that didn’t work, I now use the Twine Method. When I first plant the corn, I drive in a tall rebar post at each end of each row. As the corn stalks grow, I run taut lines of hardy twine on each side of each row at nine inch intervals.

It’s not foolproof, but it has reduced my losses to a delightfully low level.

For now.

I warily anticipate the next move by my furry opponent.

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Corn, crop, coddle, and cob are all “c” words. For young children and grandchildren, here is a video hunt for c words.

B is for Boisterous

The blooming bush beans are boisterous. That’s today’s good news from my vegetable garden. The not-so-good news? The weeds, too, are boisterous.

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Clearly, I have done an excellent job of keeping the soil fertile, aerated, and suitably watered. Plants of all pedigrees, refined and dodgy, are keen to move in, grow, and multiply. And they have.

My problem is that I insist on believing the bush beans I planted have exclusive rights to the area I allotted for them. This belief is not shared by the hordes of purslane, morning glory, black nightshade, dandelion, pigweed, and quackgrass that have crashed the garden party. I tried to hold a black tie and tails event, and it’s been overrun by riffraff in jeans and sneakers.

My carefully served up toasted brioche rounds with crème fraîche and caviar, the fruits de mer, and the pâté with white truffles are vanishing down the maws of the uninvited. I’m trying to be a good host, trying to tolerate the jostling crowds, and be oh-so politically correct, but my polite smile grows ever more brittle. (The bush beans abandoned civility long ago.)

No. That’s it. No more hoi polloi. This party needs a bouncer. It’s time to act.

As dawn breaks, I trade my black tie for a silver trowel, and exchange my stiff upper lip for stubborn determination. One by one, I doggedly remove the intruders. Time passes. The sun climbs higher. The compost pile expands. Finally, the riffraff have been escorted off the premises.

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Now the beans luxuriate in their newfound, airy accommodation, and I relax with a glass of what’s left of the bubbly. Both I and the bush beans know the reprieve is temporary, but it’s still worth celebrating.

Cheers!

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P.S. – for the youngsters of the household, I present my video, Letter B and the Secret Window:

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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