Archive for the ‘garden’ category

spring & fall

September 16, 2013

Yesterday I began taking down the tomatoes—not that they need much help from me. The heavy vines have been pulling their spindly “supports” down for weeks, sometimes ripping them right out of the earth. Greenery is browning fast, some branches shriveling to dusty nothingness while others, still juicy, play host to a dark creeping fungus. And everywhere, cracked fruits blacken, ooze, spill, stink.


Tomatoland in early fall is not a very nice place to visit—so says the human. But if the plants could describe their ambition, this would probably be it. For this moment, the tender seedlings climbed toward the sky; they put out their modest yellow flowers to tempt the bees and butterflies; they dug deep, sucking water and nutrients out of the soil. All so the fruits could swell, burst, and spill their seeds back to the earth.

It’s all very lovely but, alas, I have to interrupt the cycle. Those ratty vines and rotting fruits can also harbor pests and disease that will re-emerge next year, so I drag the spent plants to the back of the property, then (ick) pick up bucketloads of liquefying fruits. Every few minutes I’m startled by the sound of a pinecone falling five, six stories from the tall trees on the north rim of my property. Across the street, someone tends a grave in the hamlet’s cemetery.

There are a few bright, unblemished specimens, so those go into the kitchen, but after a day spent among the dying I’ve kind of lost my appetite for tomatoes. Early summer—when I would tenderly pinch suckers on the way out of the house, then leave for work with the furry green scent of young tomato plants on my fingers—seems so long ago.

Except…in the shadow of the compost pile, for a late-starting volunteer, it’s still spring. Small green fruits have only just begun to swell on the vines, which show not a hint of decay anywhere. There are even a few flowers left on the plant’s shaded backside. Sitting with it is a nice way to restore the senses after a day of less-pleasant chores. But from a tomato’s point of view, this may be the saddest plant of all, as it will most certainly be cut down by a killing frost before today’s hard green spheres have a chance to swell…color…soften…crack…collapse…spill.Image

what [plants] want

June 26, 2011

Friday night I actually escaped work early enough to have dinner at home, but I found myself too tired — not too tired to cook, but too tired to eat. My intestines recoiled at the thought of digesting that last serving of  roasted beets/walnuts/arugula waiting in the fridge. I mentally tried on the idea of something simpler — say pasta with olive oil — but my salivary glands were unresponsive. And a lovely fresh salad from the garden — well, that seemed like a whole lot of chewing. I was tempted to just go to bed, but Saturday was the day off and I didn’t want to be prematurely pulled out of bed by an rumbling stomach. After pondering a bit longer, I knew what I wanted: a few walnuts, a couple of leaves of wild arugula, and a length of garlic scape pounded in some olive oil, eaten with the last of the bread.

Saturday morning I made a quick trip to the farmers’ market and then put on my grubby gardening clothes to see what I could do for this year’s garden tenants. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, talks about thinking like a plant, learning to give them what they want. “Once you understand what makes plants tick,” she writes, “you’ll understand what you need to do to help them grow well.”

One thing young plants want is a space clear of competition. Weeding is never-ending, and I have to confess, I kind of like it. Last month, with renovations on my kitchen way behind schedule, I took my rage out to the garden, patiently wresting the long, hairy roots from the soil. I really should have been attacking the layer of carpentry dust that covered everything in the house, but it seemed so pointless, with the work not done yet. Why waste my time washing dishes in a construction site when I could be clearing the soil for my summer grocery store?

Except: even if I possessed the skill, determination and luck to get every last dandelion completely out, down to the tip of its taproot — and I don’t — a soft breeze across the downy heads left in my neighbor’s yard will soon sully the soil again. In the garden, there is no such thing as finished. And the same thing is true in making a home.

The renovations are down to the last details now, and I’m able to keep the house pretty clean, but some part of me has continued to resist really inhabiting it — I’ve been waiting for the installation of those shelves, the arrival of that last piece of furniture before I finally put everything in its place.

One day last week, a couple of hours into a really thorough job of weeding the legume section, I made the mistake of allowing myself to take in the entire garden, rather than the single plant I squatted next to. Completely overwhelming. The only way to avoid despair was to bring my focus back to plant-by-plant hospitality — pulling weeds, pinching suckers, training tendrils to wrap around supports. I didn’t do any of these jobs perfectly, but I knew the plants were going to be much healthier — and more productive — because of my efforts.

Something about the work of tuning in to the needs of my little green tenants made me more attentive to my own requirements. When I was through in the garden, I went inside and moved a small chest across from the kitchen sink to stand in for the island that will not arrive for weeks.

Having that workspace — temporary and imperfect though it may be — has transformed my ability to operate in the kitchen. Yesterday, during a late morning rainstorm, I came in from the garden and worked on putting together meals for the next few days. I started out by roasting beets and fennel from the morning’s market. Since the oven was on, I threw in the last of 2010’s butternut squash (time to clear the pantry and begin making way for 2011).

I usually make squash stew with ginger and all kinds of sweet, warming spices. Since I didn’t have any ginger — and since I wanted something a little more green and summery — I dug up a small piece of horseradish from the garden and ground that to a paste along with some of last year’s coriander harvest, a garlic scape, a mint leaf, and a healthy pile of black peppercorns. I also made the stew somewhat thinner than usual, ending up with a soup that was both sweet and bracing. Somewhere along the way I toasted the seeds and tossed them with the beets and fennel for a salad of many textures. After a good night’s sleep and a day of work in the garden, my stomach was ready for it. Just what I wanted.

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.

I love a tomato

September 6, 2010

Only two things money can’t  buy

and that’s true love

and home-grown tomatoes.

                      —Guy Clark

 For a long time, ours was a one-sided relationship. I brought the scraggly little things home with me and then spent countless hours kneeling at their feet, attending to their every need. For weeks upon weeks, I got nothing in return but bug bites, sunburn, and dirty nails.

 But recently things changed. The great tomato jungle is now so productive, so overgrown, that I inevitably squash a few underfoot when I go out to harvest once, twice a day. And I no longer apologize.

 While I’ve lived this particular romance before, I am again surprised at how fast it changes from sweet to overwhelming. Suddenly they insist on joining me for every meal—and in between, the big bowl on the counter demands to be snacked upon. Meanwhile, there are pans roasting in the oven and the dehydrator hums on the counter all day long. And when I can steal a few moments away from the tomatoes, there are beans and squash to blanch and freeze.

Isn’t this what I wanted? Yes, but I could use some space. Now when I enter the kitchen and see rows of tomatoes lolling on windowsills, I feel something between boredom and dread. But then I slice one open… and it’s like the first time.

Having tomatoes in your life requires some effort. Some years the plants appreciate the pains you take on their behalf. Other years the crop is meager or nonexistent. Maybe it’s something you did. Maybe it’s something you didn’t do. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe you started with bad stock. Last year a blight collapsed plants for miles around. Still, we tomato lovers press on, laboring at the feet of these mysterious nightshades in hopes that our efforts will someday bear fruit.

Yesterday I was cutting some arugula in the herb garden when I felt a familiar pop-squish under my foot. At first I thought I had dropped a tomato on my way in from the house, but then, shaded between the wildflowers and the sorrel, I found this.

I remembered seeing the volunteer early in the summer. I let it stand—just to see what would happen—even though everyone knows productive plants do not begin their lives in this ground. The growing season is too short. Tomato plants are started indoors while the ground is white and the sky is gray, then planted around Memorial Day.

Who knows what circumstances allowed this impossibility to flourish? Gardeners quickly accept that our best efforts don’t always bear fruit. Once in awhile, we experience the flip side—reward without labor, without explanation. Call it grace.

gone to seed

June 19, 2010

I was gone barely a week, but in that time the sorrel soared, the lettuce let loose, the arugula rocketed, and the weeds…. wow.

volunteer management

June 17, 2010

When I got my first volunteer, I felt like I must be doing something right. What else to do but welcome these green, enthusiastic friends of the cause?

But as any experienced manager knows, volunteers are not really a something-for-nothing equation. If you can’t be bothered to figure out the right placement for them, it’s better to say, “No, thank you.” If you invite them in but do not give them the conditions they need to thrive, not only will their contributions be negligible, they will likely get in the way of the operation you’ve worked so hard to establish.

 Last year, I learned this lesson the hard way. This year, I’m trying to do better. The first unexpected recruits of 2010—self-seeded cilantro—showed up in the weedy, unplowed side garden starting in March. I redistributed these volunteers to the ends of the garlic row, to the kitchen garden, to the blueberry patch, and to various friends’ gardens.

Two years ago, when I ran out of steam for preparing and planting the big bed, I threw out some mixed gourd seed to cover the back third. This volunteer seems to be an offspring of that experiment. Last week I relocated it to the cucurbit area to keep it from strangling the garlic. Also, since last year I’ve been trying to keep like with like so that I can practice some simple rotation.

I’m not (yet) terribly strict about segregation of types, though. It’s becoming obvious that I didn’t harvest the potatoes thoroughly enough last year, because they’re popping up in what is now home to squash, melons, cucumbers. Some of them I showed the door, but I’m allowing a few to stay; there’s tons of space up there, and besides, it probably will not be a terrible thing if they slightly slow the production of yellow squash. Also, I don’t really have anywhere else to put them. Maybe next year I’ll get smart and leave a space in each section—kind of like having an extra cubicle or two—so I can appropriately relocate the inevitable surprises of 2011.

The latest unexpected arrival isn’t, strictly speaking, a volunteer. Last year I put a lot of time and energy into creating an asparagus bed at the very back of the garden. All the books—and all my gardening friends—warned me not to succumb to the temptation of harvesting any the first year.  Turned out that wasn’t much of a concern, because I only saw one or two spaghetti-sized sprouts in 2009. So when I arrived one day in May 2010 to discover that my kind neighbor with a tractor had already taken it upon himself to plough up the entire garden—including the shy asparagus—to make it ready for this year’s planting, I wasn’t all that upset. I had already given up on those sad crowns. What a nice surprise to see a few survivors last week!

Even though the asparagus is coming up exactly where and how I originally intended, I had moved on, so it presents the same quandary as a volunteer. For now it seems like there might be room for everyone to coexist and be productive. We’ll see….

make way for seedlings

April 21, 2010