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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.