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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Rice is Nice

Verdant, vibrant, vigorous – thus grows my vegetable garden this year. Its productivity is almost alarming. With plenty of growing season left, I’m running low on storage space in the freezer for all those blanched and bagged vegetables for the winter. Already snug in one corner are twenty big sacs of green beans. Twenty! That’s not to mention the chard, the zucchini, the broccoli, and the impending corn, pumpkin puree, and more. Let’s not forget the six big bags of frozen raspberries, either. Space hogs, all of them.

And I’m happy about it. Really I am. No sarcasm implied or intended. I shall feast through the winter. verdantGarden But after 30 years of cultivating crops tolerant of zone 8b conditions, oh how I pine to grow something new. By new, I don’t mean another variety of green bean or a different cultivar of potato. I mean something exotic, something impossible to grow in my climate.

Something like…well, let’s get crazy and think about growing rice. The climate here is iffy for rice, but apart from that little detail, it’s not such a wild idea. My garden is situated on a river delta and is as flat as one of today’s computer screens, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to dike and flood part of it with river water.

Imagine the mental zing of learning a whole new set of criteria for growing a crop. I don’t have to think twice about my technique for getting potatoes to grow well in my soil. Every year it’s the same. I dig a trench, snuggle each seed potato into a nest of peat moss, add mature compost, and hill up as the plants grow. As the season progresses, there’s nothing to think about. I do some mindless weeding, and make sure it gets either rain or tap water every week. Yawn. No brain teaser, this.

But rice would demand a whole new skill set. The more I read about it, the more I admire farmers who grow rice. They have to decide on the right timing as they flood, maintain, and drain their rice fields. Complicated formulae calculate rate of flow and timing. Do it right and you get a bumper crop, do it wrong and the rice plants get stunted or even die. It sounds like a challenge, and I’d like a challenge.

The tradition and significance of rice appeals to me, too. Humans have been using it for at least 4,500 years, and these days the world grows more than half a billion tons of it every year. Oof!

With all those tons of rice out there, some people might think rice is boring. Such people would be wrong. Such people clearly have never tried this Japanese rice creation:

With just a bit more global warming in my neighbourhood, I could make these for myself – from scratch – all the way from seed to crop to ingredient to plump little delicacy. It’s only a fantasy for now, but what a fantasy!

A Garden for Global Warming

Wow, but the times are changing! No measurable rain has touched the soil of my garden for weeks and weeks. The sun bakes down, its light glinting off upturned leaves and even sneaking into the hidden corners. While the lawn withers to a pale gold, the vegetables stay green only by the grace of regular watering by hand and by sprinkler.

All this sunshine and heat has the corn in an ecstasy of growth. I look out over the land and wonder if it’s too soon in this cycle of Climate Change to plant some tropical delicacies. Of course, it is. Winter, when it comes, will freeze the vulnerable. Still, the heat has brought on hallucinations, and I imagine an orange tree next to my blueberry bush. Watermelon vines might like the area near the pumpkins. Thus I dream of my globally-warmed garden of the future.

Then I think, “OK, oranges and watermelons are good, but what about something more exotic? Surely there are amazing fruits and vegetables out there that I’ve never hear of. Would I like them?”

Some investigation is needed. I begin by questioning the edibility of the tamamoro:

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Global Warming? Don’t Care!

Here I am, not caring an atom about global warming, or climate change for the nit-pickers among us. After all, I’ll be nothing but a whiff of crematorium ash by the time the rising tide laps at my front door. Indeed, milder winters, which we’re already enjoying – that’s enjoying – are nothing but a plus for us living north of the 49th parallel and on the west coast of North America. Can’t tell you how nice it is not to have to scrape ice or shovel snow when we have an easy winter.

Pay no attention to the number of times I ride my bike or walk instead of getting into a fuel-burning mode of transport. That doesn’t make me a Carer. I don’t care.

Want another reason why I don’t care? Of course you do, and I’m happy to share. Get this – it’s February, and we’ve got magnolias in bloom, a sure sign of anPspMagnoliaPink1CrpBCri15Fe23other mild winter. The flowering plum tree in my neighbour’s yard is a fireworks-burst of pink, the crocuses have been feeding bees for weeks, and daffodils glow like miniature suns in every rock garden. February, people!

Ignore the fact that I’ve been composting and recycling for more decades than I care to count. The reason I continue to compost and recycle is purely a question of habit. It’s a simple rut. It’s not because I care about global warming. I don’t.

Take notice, too, of how a warming of my home turf increases the growing season for my garden. What gardener can’t thrill to that result? I dream of the day when the Lower Mainland has the climate of today’s California, and I can grow crops year round. I get delirious thinking of the trees I’d plant – almond, avocado, citrus – wow! If it got even warmer, I could grow mango. Pardon me while I swoon for a moment.

Don’t count it against me that I’ve been growing my own food for many years, either. Even though I’m saving the planet the fumes from tractors, reapers, and transport trucks, I shouldn’t be branded an eco-warrior. I’m not. I don’t care about the toxins or the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Couldn’t care less.

My only complaint against global warming is its pace. This last winter, we had two nasty spells of icy weather – five days in a row of seriously sub-freezing temperatures, then another six. It killed off almost all of the hardy plants I was hoping to nurture through the dark season so they would produce tasty, early shoots. Only one survived. One lonely Brussels sprout plant stands green among the blasted remains of its brethren. Tragic.

Now that I think about it, the Lower Mainland of British Columbia needs to become California-North now. Right now. Or sooner. Sooner would be good.

Pay no attention to my going-paperless office. Ignore my water conservation habits. Turn a blind eye to my instinctive worship of the four Rs – reduce, re-use, recycle, repair. If you ever imagine that you see me doing anything to save the planet from global warming, you will know you are dreaming. Or hallucinating. Probably both.

Now, I must dash. I have an evergreen shrub to plant. And I’m not planting it to help clean the air. Wherever would you get such an idea?

New Life

“While there’s life, there’s hope.” Who said that? Some guy called Cicero who lived in the first century BCE. Dude! I couldn’t agree more.

After endless months of wet, cold, rainy, soggy, grey, dreary, adjective-ridden winter, my garden awakes. The rhubarb, the keenest plant of all, arises.

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Cheery red shoots emerge from the slime and the muck. It’s cold above and cold below, but nothing deters the rhubarb. It has a mission to thrive.

Most days, I stand snug in my warm kitchen and watch its progress through the window. Rain sheets down one day, fog intrudes the next, and frost pounces during any night without cloud cover. The rhubarb never wavers. It pushes up new shoots, opens new leaves, and grows and grows with ever increasing pace.

Many more weeks will pass before I even start to sprout other vegetable seedlings indoors. Such wimps! For now, I am in awe of the rhubarb. My hero! My soon-to-be soup. My ever-popular dessert.

And, given the time of year, and the colour of the buds – My Valentine!