Archive for May 2011

struggling toward spring

May 12, 2011

The journey along the 200 miles that separate New York City from Otsego County is a trip not just through geography, but through time. In the city’s immediate suburbs, lawns are lush and neat, having already been subjected to several buzzes with the lawnmower. But as you head up the river, late spring dials back to early mud season. The grass becomes patchy and slightly wild, like the hair of a toddler yet to go under the clippers, and densely dotted with dandelions. Some of the city trees have already acquired the glossy opacity of summer, but to the north the bright wet green of the newborn leaves seems almost unnatural, like the color of a blown-to-bursting birthday balloon. Further up the road to winter, brown and black still predominate, softened only by a scattering of muddy evergreens.

Winter hangs around for a long time in Otsego County, but even so the small, leafy garden just off the kitchen, well-stocked with perennials and self-seeders, is beginning to awaken. Poking around, I find some patches of kale and wild arugula beginning come back, so I begin the finicky task of removing weeds around them. This space is home to one pretty invader whose main defense is fragility. With the barest tickle, her  spreading, round-leafed greens come away from the soil, but they inevitably leave a tangle of roots — fine as cornsilk — behind. It would be much more efficient for me to scoop out the entire top layer — weeds and wanted plants together — and start anew. But with our short growing season, a couple of weeks of early growth are near priceless.

It’s too early to set out most fruiting-type plants; Memorial Day weekend is the “safe” time up here, though it’s not uncommon to have to cover tomatoes against a June frost. There are some seeds — mostly root vegetables — that can be cheated a little bit early, and so I spend a couple of hours digging up a few rows. Since I’m only working a small section, I use my favorite tool, a short-handled fork alternating with my fingers. (At the end of the month, when I have only a couple of days to fill out the remaining 1000’, I will resort to tools that offer more power, if less finesse.) While I’m at it, I clear around the garlic, planted last fall.

It’s slow going, but the hands-in-the-dirt method is the only hope of truly routing out a weed, roots and all. Also, it’s wonderful to greet the earthworms that seem to be more abundant with each year. Working slowly and close to the ground, I’m able to remove them from the path of my sharp tools… most of the time. Inevitably I find myself apologizing to severed halves of these beneficial creatures. Of course, the joke’s on me — the sorrow I feel upon slicing a worm is about as logical as the triumph I feel upon getting out (almost) a dandelion root. It is only a matter of time before what appears to be violence reveals itself as nothing more than a means of propagation.