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.

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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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?

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!

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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.

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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!”

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.

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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.

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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.