Monday, August 30, 2010

8.25 Rainy Season

The rains came. The rains went. Two poems pop up in their wake, the first a haiku, the second a somewhat longer effort.

Downpour (haiku)

Three days in an ark
Turn the barrel upside down
Send it to July

Three Days’ Rain, but No Monsoon

Rain in the interstices.
I can’t see through the screen,
The garden misted to a greeny blur.
Surely this is some message from
The folks who teach us primal events
Catastrophes, floods, creation stories, death and resurrection
We are the aging cohort
The rain will clear… and grow us back.
Some of us.

I wonder if this rain will fill up the garden. And the answer is yes, for three days. On the fourth, a Sunday, I am back to watching the top layer of soil stiffen and gray.
Since I cannot go gracefully into that good night of no more flowers, I have acquired at season-end prices some flats of annuals and plugged them in, here and thee. That gives me something new to worry about, something new to worry about. I decide the season is late enough to dig up and transplant some perennials, I put a shovel to a colony of evening primrose which are bright and happy yellow in June but increasingly gray and skeletal as the weeks pass, especially this dry year. I decide to clear a row of them out, transplanting them to a shadier spot, and put in a flat of petunias as a temporary fix.
This means I now have transplants to worry about keeping moist in their early vulnerable days just as the weather turns dry and hot again. Four days of ninety degree weather forecast for the last days of August? It would be an anomaly except that now, increasingly, everything is.
So go back to hand watering, once again, with new seedlings to worry about. Also red salvia, portulaca and coleus in the front garden. I’m not sure how well any of these will do.
At the very lest, it’s a way to toss a few more ingredients into the mix of earth, stone and cellulose, and stir the pot. What we get is pot luck. As always, larger forces are at work.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

8.26 The Hum of the Workers

A murmur in the flowers.
It rained for four days in all, including a calamitous downpour Wednesday morning that soaked commuters walking to the train station. I was housebound, short on exercise, sunshine, fresh air. Though also liberated from a six-week ritual of watering first thing in the morning, tut-tutting over how dry the hydrangea looked, or the potted morning glory, or the struggling eggplant in the vegetable garden (which insists on producing bonsai fruit the size and shape of an elongated seedless grape) even though I had watered them all the previous evening.
Freed from watering for at least for a day or two longer, cheered by the silence of the morning-after (what, no rain?) and the hints of sunlight through the windows, I got myself outdoors for the anticipated pleasure of seeing how different things looked after their first good dousing in months. Foliage had the shine and fleeting glamour of truly moist things. The air smelled sweet, but retained the tang of the ocean which had offered its waters to the northeast winds. Tall stalks of phlox and Queen Anne’s lace swayed and hung down. Oak leaves scattered amid the sedum. A few stems broken. Some still open flowers lolling at shoe-top level.
I bent to the task, cutting things back to the shape of the season. Blown flowers, broken stems, tall waving stems whose day on the parade ground of the seasonal march was over. I pulled a few weeds, and the ease with which they gave up their rooted hold on the earth reminded me that wet days (not that we’d had any) were the best for weeding. I knelt to pull up crabgrass from between the bricks in the circular walk. I heard a hum.
A deep, steady mutter. Sort of an engine noise, a constant tickling of the ears that almost assumed the character of white noise. But once you tuned in, it was unmistakable.
Bees. There must be some bees around here. I lifted my head to look around.
It was not immediately obvious where they were. I started to rise and my eye level crossed the pink blossoms of a tall, eccentrically flowering Meadow Rue. There they were. Pretty much on top of me.
Three or four of these slender-stemmed plants had continued to blossom, producing new blossoms too, through the rain. They were all open for visits today from the local collectors of the honey bee sorority. How many bees? Maybe a dozen. Together, they made a hum.
One of things we miss when we don’t get outdoors is the sounds. The crickets. (Where did the crickets go when the rains came? The dry little whirr of the leaping, leaf-brown grasshopper. Late August is a quiet time for birds, but other animals grow more active. The bees are still gathering nectar, whatever they get from the flowers, to build up their winter nutrition reserves back in the hive.
We have a common interest, the bees and I. Flowers.
I back away from the tall stalks of the Meadow Rue, less out of caution than to give the bees room to maneuver. Pardon me; you were here first. They have a right to make a living. Besides, I like that hum; it’s life.
I get snippy somewhere else, and a monarch butterfly skips into view and darts from plant to plant. They move too fast for me to have a fix on what they’re looking for where.
I keep reminding myself that I won’t have this all winter. Not just the long flowering season as each perennial species takes its turn in the parade. But the whole sensory bath of the outdoors. I won’t have open windows. I had closed them when the rains fell and the temperature dropped; the days felt like winter. Today I am sitting in an indoor space that is partly an outdoor space as well simply because sights and sounds and fresh air are stimulating the sense organs and massaging my brain.
Green things keep us growing. The bees are keeping busy. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I close those windows for good.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

8.16 Busy Thoughts

Mostly, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing.
It’s just being there. And some busyness of the hands frees the mind.
I sit on the brick pavement and pick weeds out of our “steppable” groundcover.
It will not survive without me, not indefinitely. The weeds make their ceaseless inroads. They are stronger, wilder, more native, less needy. They survive on nothing. Grow on dust or sand, between rocks and bricks, the slightest gaps. They push their way up, stem, leaf, the occasional flower, the inevitable seed – next year’s expansion policy.
Violets find some millimeter of dirt between the roots and stems of our various species of thyme groundcovers. They mar the esthetic uniformity, driving particular gardeners wild. I can stand a few of them. I am no totalitarian prince. But the more allowed, the more appear, breeding on their own success – well, what can you expect of these people? One violet this week means a half dozen next week, or two weeks at the outside, but surely they will come.
Not just violets, of course. Clover. Clover I like because, as I have read, it is good for the soil. But our clover, with its purple-tinged leaves and tiny bright yellow flowers – what variety this is I don’t know – will soon overrun the acaena, the steppable (Microsoft insists this must be “stoppable,” but no, it means you can step on it) groundcover with the overtly ruby-purple foliage, which I have babied through the years. And which is fading as it is.
And then come the Labrador violets, those lovers of winter, pushing in from the side. They multiply faster than I can remember how many used to be there, and before I can determine a clear immigration policy for Labrador intruders they have colonized Arizona. The acaena originate from New Zealand, I am told, and appear to want to go back there.
Perhaps I should allow only native species to flourish. Then we will have only local variety violets, clover, crabgrass, dandelions, and the familiar-to-the-eye but nameless-to-the-mind host of local tenants who were here before I was, fighting their own survivalist wars beneath a knee-high forest of coarse and mostly ugly – there is no other term for them – weeds.
These are the things, or some of the things, one thinks about, sitting, or squatting, on the brick pavements between the planting beds – the clock circle, the flower island, the tree circle, the “graves,” the “back forty” – and pulling out weeds. Deciding, that is, often on the fly, which green creatures before me truly are the intruders.
Things generally look a little better when I am done, so there is a sense of accomplishment.
But mostly it is spending time with the plants that shapes these hours, or minutes. There are words – therapy, meditation, centering, slowing down, getting out of the house – that may apply.
The garden you are really working on is with you always.

8.18 What the Trees Said

What was here before us?
The big double-trunked oak tree. A few other shade trees, but the oak is clearly the monarch. It extends over the air space of more neighboring households than I want to think about. If I need luck, there is plenty of wood to knock on.
The tree harbors squirrel families, and I have seen juveniles chase their way all across the back garden to the place where the trees touch hands and jump from the oak to the big tree on the other side of the yard.
Families of birds have worked their way through its leaves in their nesting time hunger, chirping (at each other, presumably) and darting from branch to branch. Were there caterpillars, inch worms, there among the leaves for them to harvest?
There are often nests of torn leaves. Squirrels chew through the ends of twigs and sent them wafting down upon the flowers and the wrought iron table where we breakfast. Is the tree trying to banish us? Some years squirrels chew off sachets of still-green leaves with acorns attached to the twig because they are tired of waiting for them to fall. They fall on top of the flowers; I harvest the leaves.
One year the tree dropped feasts of acorns, a bumper crop. They fell everywhere, throwing their caps in the air, littered paths and plantings. The squirrels ran mad with excitement; what to do with such bounty? The solution – squirrel logic – they buried them everywhere. Wherever I disturbed the soil for an autumn planting, a squirrel added an acorn. I was doing their work, digging graves for acorns.
What accounts for the magic of trees? Why do we grow silent among them? Why does their dry, unworried silence work its way into our thoughts, slowing the rhythm of our thinking, turning us into listeners?
People are the same everywhere under the skin. Trees are the true other. They covered the land before we got to it. Sometimes I think they are waiting us out, knowing it will be theirs again when we leave. Trees are the bones of wilderness. They are “nature” as opposed to civilization. They are what we get to when we get away from it all. They are “country” as opposed to urban.
They are home to magic, ritual, myth, fantasy, other worlds, other ages of the planet, other generations.
And yet we harbor them, a few of them – a prized few – within our homesteads. We adopt a few of these others inside our own numbers, our built, man-made, terra-formed world. We have domesticated them, I suppose. We grow them on “farms,” sell them in “nurseries,” picking them out like children for adoption. We have tamed their magic, thinned their numbers to a manageable few, separated them a proper distance one from the other. Made it harder for them to whisper their secrets one to the other. We have thinned out their silence.
But we rely on those whispers. We count on their shade, their balm on sunny days. We rely on them to soften the hardness of our created world, its paved, concrete impervious surfaces. We count on their green to soften our eyes, to link hands above our heads when we frame our image of home, village, neighborhood, street, city. Tree city. We all want to live in a tree city.
We plant them now in despoiled places to balance our carbon output. They breathe our waste. They consume our waste and render it – some part of it – harmless.
We want them in our lives. People, houses, pets, trees: these are the fundamentals, the things we want in our lives. When a pet dies, we weep. It is easier to forget the role of the tree, who does not follow us about, wag its tail, greet us, meow for supper. Who simply guards the sky for us and holds down our earth with its roots.
We don’t realize we rely on them until they are gone, or threatened. That’s our tree, we say. You can’t cut that tree down.
Our spreading oak is there for us when we pause and rest in the garden. It murmurs in the breeze or speaks its peculiar and peculiarly restful silence. We don’t speak its language and so can’t put what it’s saying into words.
It doesn’t need words. It knows. Sometimes, wordless, we know too.


Who knows what they hear
Neighbors speak in tongues of wind
This year we turn soon

8.7 Window Flower

In August things are quieter in the garden. Most of our perennials have come and gone. I busy myself cutting off faded blooms, and cutting back dried foliage, flower stalks and stems. Meanwhile the morning glory takes a gulp of sunshine, mixes in a little water, and climbs voraciously – I don’t think it’s hungry but that’s what it looks like – up the shingles on the back of the house.
The vines form a pyramid under my work room window. I see the tendrils pirouette and twine against the screen. If I opened the window, I have no doubt they would come right in and begin turning my desk into a real, as opposed to a metaphorical, jungle.
You can see how abandoned houses soon get birch trees in the parlor.
This is our second year of planting morning glory – whose blooming habits are as good as its name – at the back of the house. Last year we built an ad hoc trellis from pieces made of lightweight wooden crisscrossed battens left behind by the two men who built our front porch. We drove the wood into the dirt and tacked the tops into the shingles. We planted the morning glory, an annual, in pots of soil. It was late in the season by the time we were ready so we bought seedlings. They climbed and bloomed in September.
This year we built the morning glory wall from seed. I planted the seed in my garden seedbed early in the season and transplanted the seedlings into the pots. They grew fast, climbed aggressively. I realized they needed a new height to strive for, and hammered some nails into the shingles below my window. Now the tendrils are climbing above the window. Ain’t no mountain high enough.
Where will they go now? While we wait to find out, I’m kept busy watering the pots every day.
There comes a time in late summer every year when you turn to annuals for color. We’re had luck with a Mandeville rose we put in a big pot on the patio with its very own specially purchased trellis. It makes showy rose-red flowers, set off by deep green climbing foliage. As soon as it started growing we began speculating on how we could keep it alive over the winter.
After morning glory seedlings grew up and left the nursery, I grew cosmos in my seedbed. They sprouted thickly, too thickly, because (sentimentalist that I am) I never thin successful germinations. We ended up with a couple score of eager cosmos which I now realize were probably already too thin when I transplanted them. We now have thirty or so rather spindly cosmos plants scattered in strategic locations around the front and back gardens, making tall stems with little round discs of flower on top. A few, owners of the choicest location, are growing sturdier stalks and flowers in a small plot near the vegetables. Another art to master.
But the morning glory blossoms do light up the mornings in the waning days of summer.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

7.30 Strange Noises

I hear a funny coughing-like sound from somewhere overhead. Squirrels? A bird with a noise I haven’t heard before. A turkey with a cold? I look up into the trees and see an enormous beast. Hard to make out what it is, but something has clearly made a nest in a tree. Not my tree, though the two are very close together – twin trunks tangling over the property line – but in a neighbor’s tree directly above the fence line. His tree and our tree are all mixed up together there. The idea of a nest causes me to conjure a whole brood of something. But what?
Eventually I decide that one piece of what I am seeing is a ringed tail. So, conclusion: a ring-tailed raccoon trying to sleep through the day’s heat, upside down as well as I can make out. Anne has taken the camera to work, so no chance of an image.
I forget about him, work. Later in the day when I return to the garden, I see a suggestion of a head, an ear. I’m settling on the notion of just one, large raccoon.
Around six with the neighbors home and Anne on her way, I start staking out the point on the stone path where I have a view – oddly enough the only angle with a clear view – when the beast begins to rouse. I see him moving his head; I see a face.
Larry from next door takes my invitation to come over for a view of the beast.
I am understandably worried by the prospect of a large animal nesting in a tree about twenty feet from my vegetable garden. It occurs to me that when a raccoon rouses himself at night and comes down from the tree to prowl, the reason is because he is hungry.
I have also heard tales, ringed or otherwise, of raccoons visiting a garden and leaving it in a lot worse condition than they found them in. I don’t want that to happen to mine.
To make things worse, we are going away that evening, after Anne gets home, to see her parents in the Berkshires and won’t be back until Sunday night. My response is to work my way systematically through the tomato plants, picking everything that’s red and ripe, or almost ripe, and to take these tempting fruits indoors to spend the weekend quietly in a bowl in my kitchen.
There are other vegetables out there, but these are less ripe for the eating and thus, I hope, less tempting to a beast on hunger prowl. (I have noticed from other predations, such as birds in the berries, that wild animals wait for fruit to become perfectly ripe before stealing them). But the truth is I am fond of all my plants, whether they’re producing anything worth eating or not, and would be upset by their destruction.
So I suggest to Larry that while we are away if he happens to see the raccoon in my garden he should give up his principled opposition to firearms and shoot it.
I wonder what the chances are of calling the police department and requesting extra patrols of my yard to discourage trespassing by a raccoon.
Anne comes home and joins me on my vigil to take a look at the beast. The raccoon is now looking back at us. Am I keeping you awake? Maybe this isn’t the snug berth you had in mind after all?
But if I’m not willing to stand outside my house, just where the blue granite walk meets the patio, and gaze up at a tree all night, there’s really nothing to do. I think about covering all my plants with a glaze of red pepper from a spice jar, but in the flurry of last minute preparations for a visit forget about it. We pack the car and go.
It’s already dark two nights later when we arrive back home. I can’t tell if anything's happened to the garden or not.
In the morning, I look up into the tree. The raccoon is gone. The vegetable garden is untouched.
I ask Larry about our beast the next time I see him. “We never saw him again,” he says.
I think the he took the hint and decided to go find somewhere else to sleep where people didn’t give him the eye.
I think it’s the best thing for us both of us, your know, to just move on and get on with our lives. There’s just no peace and quiet for either party when a raccoon is sacking out over your garden.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

7/28 Down on the Farm

Solar weather.
I do my watering before 9 a.m. – early for me, though not for the rest of the world – because it’s going to be a hot day. I admire new red Mandeville Rose blooms on the plant we potted on the patio, and the morning glories climbing relentlessly up the back of the house.
I feel the pressure of the heat getting inside of me as I head off before noon for a farm in Sharon, a town about half an hour away. After touring the farm, I have to race back to the house and write a story.
I find my source, farmer Jim, in the packing room attached to the loading dock, behind the farm stand. Produce harvested that day is being packed to go out to customers the same day. Along with a few workers, he is “grading” tomatoes, a task you do by hand. A task he will be doing for weeks, maybe two months.
A young summer helper, working nearby, is packing cherry tomatoes into pint-size containers. You’re going to mound that one up, Jim says. All of those should be mounded up, he tells the boy. The boy builds up his mound of cherries and re-wraps the box.
Farm management is labor intensive. A lot of supervision is required for all this labor, and the farmer does not hesitate to offer it. Farm help are engaged in many different tasks, but Jim appears know what they’re all doing and how they should be doing it. I feel like I’m on a factory tour with one of those fabled entrepreneurs with boundless energy.
Finally out of the packing house, we spend an hour driving a minivan all over the farm, a wide, flat, and largely tree-less expanse of green crops, small fruit orchards, and dusty roads, and rows, between everything. Phone calls come and are dealt with. We see the place where the “old” peach trees were planted, where they can’t irrigate because they are under a power line. “Probably a mistake,” he says, to put them there. We pass rows of thickly growing eggplant – each plant looks the equal of the entire suite of six or seven eggplants doing their usual nothing in my garden.
We pass broccoli and brussel sprouts and kohlrabi. He likes the stalks of broccoli, and that’s what kohlrabi tastes like, Jim observes. We come to the tomato fields, some of the tomato fields – the farm grows over 100 varieties of tomatoes, including many heirloom varieties, now that there’s a market for them by gourmet restaurants and stores.
Tomatoes are their “rain makers,” Jim’s brother (farmer Bob) had told me. They are a high revenue crop. They sell tomatoes to the name restaurants with the chefs people follow. They sell them to Harvard University, at farmer’s markets in the cities, at their own stand, and to a few stores.
Ripening tomatoes are a beautiful color. A dozen or so workers who are picking them stop their work and some walk toward Jim when he stops the van to greet them, raising dark faces to him, uncertain if anything is wanted of them. But he’s merely showing his own face and recognizing their work. “You’re breaking for lunch soon,” he says, “aren’t you?” I don’t know what they reply. They are the Jamaicans, I learn. They are very good workers, he tells me, treating the farm with an owner’s care, and they come every summer.
Jim doesn’t waste the opportunity to inspect the crops simply because, ostensibly, he’s giving me a tour. He slows the van to a crawl, stops, gets out to look, tells me something, but I can barely follow what we’re doing from one moment to the next. “I’m checking these plants to see if they’re going to be ready to pick next,” he says. “But it doesn’t look like they are.”
We inspect the potato hills. It’s hot. My guide gets out of the car again, guesses where the red fingerling plant is, digs up a few hills. Finds it on the third try. A dozen or so red fingerlings, the biggest ones about finger size. Decides they’re ready.
And here he shows me purslane. A restaurateur has ordered purslane, along with whatever else he’s ordered for tonight’s or tomorrow’s menu. It’s a weed. If you’re a gardener, he says, you have it. We find it in the potato field, along with lamb’s quarters, which I do recognize. When he shows it to me, it’s a green with stems covered with small uniform roundish slightly succulent crunchy-looking leaves. I do recognize it though I’m not sure I can find it in the yard now.
“When I get an order for purslane,” he says, “I think of it as found money.”
We come to the pumpkin fields, where the hayride tours take the customers in fall, another big revenue-producer (the sort of thing I am writing about). He tells me about “big pumpkins” bought for carving and “sugar pumpkins” which these days tend to be bought for display. They used to be for pies.
He says this wistfully. Lots of varieties used to be grown that aren’t any more. He is a farmer and likes food plants.
Food is history, and culture too. He grows New England Blue Hubbard squash. They have a hard shell which preserves the flesh through the winter. You can still eat them in March, preserved in a root cellar, when a lot of other produce is no good any more. Before refrigeration, the Blue Hubbard was a product that was essential to the regional diet. It’s locavore history.
Spending time with a farmer is a humbling experience for a backyard gardener. My little dilemmas, decisions, bad calls and occasional good ones are multiplied by a thousand. Commitment –and energy, I think – as well.
After he tours the whole farm, checks on the condition of various crops, gets his hands dirty digging up potatoes to gauge their readiness, gives me a narrated tour which ends with a sampling of peaches, Farmer Jim goes back to the packing room to grade tomatoes.
He’s been there, he tells me, since four a.m.

A Visit to the Farm

Stoop and dig the soil
Red fingerlings scooped and weighed
Ready for the tongue