S is for Spring Fever

Laburnum

My spring fever is raging this year.  No, no, not that kind of spring fever. I’m talking about the sudden frantic rush to get the garden tilled and harrowed, indoor seedlings sprouted and potted, compost distributed, rhubarb picked and processed, and each crop planted out in good time.

Last year, the early spring weather was kind to me. It allowed windows of fine weather between spurts of rain so I could prepare the ground at a leisurely pace. All three sections of my garden were tilled, prepped, and primped by May 1.

This year, the climate showed its mean streak and the weather sabotaged me week after week. On any day that it wasn’t pouring rain, the ground was too sodden from the previous days of rain to be tilled. When the rains finally let up, the rush began. Even so, here it is, May 10, and I’m only two thirds of the way through my ground preparations.

Sigh. I lie. I’m not really at the two thirds mark, but I’m telling myself that little white fib to keep my spirits up. It’s not a big falsehood because I’m definitely more than half way to the finish line. I’m pretty sure I’m past the half way mark. Probably. Sigh.

Spring is in full acceleration. Weeds that sprouted only yesterday (or so it seems) have leafed out, bloomed, and erupted into seed. Yes, I’m talking about YOU, dandelions and bittercress. Of course, this outburst of weeds demands its own share of attention. So does the lawn, which is lush with spring rains and warmer temperatures and grows rampantly.

Still, despite my fever to get the ground ready and keep the lawn from growing so tall it chokes the mower into silence, I know everything will work out. I’m sure everything will work out. Pretty sure.

I must concentrate on the successes. The rhubarb is waist high and vigorous this spring, a pleasure to behold. Already, I’ve picked, processed, and canned three kettle runs.  That’s three times seven for 21 litres of this glorious vegetable. It is an excellent year for the rhubarb.

On the living room window sill, squash seedlings are bursting forth in their little pots of soil – zucchini, vegetable marrow, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin. Unlike the chard, already claiming its space in the great outdoors, the squash expect to be pampered indoors, then slowly hardened off before they will brave the open garden. For now, they are loving their hot window ledge.

Spring, spring, spring. It is a time of anticipation, a time of new life and new growth. What gardener doesn’t feel thrills at the sudden explosion of green vegetation dotted with red, yellow, blue, or white flowers, magnificent banquets for bees. The songs of sparrows, warblers, and wrens express what we feel.

To quote and enhance the words of that most famous poet, Anonymous, “Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, the birdies know what joy this iz.”

WrenSP

Young readers can hear a sparrow sing as they learn about the letter S in my video for kids:

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R is for Resilience

If I were to make a list of desirable qualities, resilience would rank in the top five. Let’s face it, life is not easy. It’s not easy for anyone or anything, so we all need the ability to come back after being smacked down.

Resilience can be found in the most unexpected places. Two weeks ago, temperatures plummeted well below freezing in our area, and a bed of pansies in my neighbourhood suffered by it. Their leaves turned black and limp and their cheery flowers wilted and seemed to melt on their stems.

“Poor plants,” I thought. “They’re done for. How cruel to plant them out too early.”

Then the temperature climbed back above zero Celsius, and a few warm days came to pass. The next time I walked by the bed of pansies, I was shocked to see their leaves had revived, regained their green colour, and looked…well…perky. The wilted flowers were goners but new flower buds were poised to open. I was impressed.

So, if pansies can come back after being devastated by an arctic blast, how did calling someone a pansy equate to calling that person a sissy? These winter-resistant pansies are not sissies.

Naturally, I turned to our 21st century fount of information, the Internet to see if anyone had an answer to this question. The explanation that made the most sense to me claims that the pansy’s name comes from its down-turned, face-like bloom that looks like someone deep in thought. The original word is said to come from the French pensée (thought).

When pansies were first introduced to the gardening world three centuries ago, men – true men – were allowed to think, but only when necessary. They were expected to be mostly about action. After all, there were duels to fight, wild beasts to repel, and roofs to raise by brute force.

Jump forward to our century and duels are illegal, people are more likely to be protecting and nurturing wild beasts rather than repelling them, and hydraulic jacks supply the power for roof raising. Year after year of education is thrust upon us – grade school, high school, college, university – and they all demand that we think. These aren’t the “good old days” any more.

The time has come for us to take a whole new attitude to this flower’s name. If you are ever called a pansy, the appropriate response should be, “Well, thank-you!” After all, the person who called you a pansy has doubly complimented you – first, as a deep thinker, second as someone who is, as my neighbourhood pansy patch demonstrated, extremely resilient.

This change of perspective is long overdue, and it’s enough to make even a botanical pansy raise its head with pride, don’t you think?

PansyCluster

 

It’s time to think about the letter R. Here’s a video for young ones learning their alphabet.

P is for Persistent

This afternoon, I stand at the kitchen window and gaze mournfully at the backyard. The day is gloomy and wet. Gusts of wind riffle the surface of a puddle that has formed on the east section of the garden. I sigh and think of the letter P, and the word that leaps first to my mind is persistent.

Our winter of 2017/2018 is all about persistent precipitation. Rain, rain, and more rain. It’s not unusual for us to get plenty of rain, but this year seems determined to break every record for rainfall dating back to the first scratchings on a cave wall.

We try to be cheerful about the endless downpours. We say things like, “That’s what makes the landscape so green!” and we force a laugh. As follow-up, we will say, “Can’t let a little rain stop ya.”

So, we fill our closets with raincoats, umbrellas, waterproof ponchos, and rubber boots. When we can’t stand huddling inside any longer, we gear up and go out for a sloshy, squishy, drippy walk. On our return, we hang our rainwear over the bathtub, the better to contain the water still streaming off it all.

Despite the rain, life persists in the garden. Though I cleared the ground after harvest in the fall, chickweed has re-emerged and now grows doggedly in the centre section. Some say that chickweed is edible, and, if you like the flavour of grass, you probably will agree. Yes, it’s just that tasty.

chickweed

Chickweed…yum?

Weeds aside, I am grateful for the perennials in my yard. They are already bringing touches of colour and life to the scene. The leaf buds on the raspberry canes are showing delicate hints of green, the rhubarb has pushed the red tips of this year’s shoots through the mucky surface of the soil, and cheery yellow catkins dangle from the hazelnut trees.

As surely as the rain, the perennials, and the weeds will persist, so will this gardener. It’s time to compose a list of seeds I will need for spring and make notes in my calendar for when I will start each variety of seedling on my south-facing windowsill.

Again, I sigh. It’s still January and many cold, wet weeks stretch out between now and spring. Winter persists.

RainGauge

My rain gauge – inches left, millimeters right

Kids can watch a pigeon, a penguin, and a parrot as they learn the letter p in this video.

Christmas in the Garden

A thin skin of weeds covers the saturated soil in my garden as it lies in wait for spring. The rhubarb has melted into the ground, hidden itself from view. Nothing blooms. That’s Christmastime in my garden.

If a kind day comes to pass, a day without torrential rain, smothering fog, or icy breath, then it is a good day to work at pruning my fruit trees. Sometimes, I will be forced to prune on days when my fingers, despite winter gloves, will chill until they ache. ’Tis the season.

To bring colour and light into the Christmas garden, I must wrap branches with strings of festive LEDs. I add a touch of power, and magic ensues. With luck, a fresh snowfall makes the result especially joyful.

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But not every garden needs Xmas lights to spread joy. I encountered this recently on a visit to Bermuda in December. Palm fronds shimmy in passing breezes. Flowers, fruits, and butterflies abound. At least, that’s how it appears to my deprived northern eye.

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For all — those who grow their own food and those who shop for it, people who buy their flowers at a florist and people who pluck them from their own garden, souls who dress in snowsuits and souls who wear shorts — I wish you the best of the season.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a Merry, Merry Christmas. If you have a child or grandchild learning their letters, my gift is a Christmas Alphabet video. The following is the Zed version, and below it is the Zee version.

 

 

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.

smileyFace

 

A kangaroo and a kingfisher are part of learning the letter k. For children:

 

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.

GreenGarden

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.

SwallowtailButterfly

 

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