• Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 291 other followers

  • Blog Stats

    • 324,278 hits

Blueberry Season Opens – and Closes 4 Days Later

How harsh was last winter in Northwest Indiana? It killed off half the blueberries. Monday the season opened; it usually lasts a month. This year it ends on Friday.

Both of my cherry trees blossomed this spring, but one tree didn’t produce. I only got to pick two or three times and now they’re gone.

This is terrible news for fans of the Muffin King™. (I am both the king and the only fan – but look at these pretty babies.)

Royal Blueberry Muffins

I’ve always used frozen berries for my muffins; they work perfectly well. But on Monday I headed up to Little Holland (DeMotte, Indiana) where all the blueberry farms are, for Opening Day. I chose Eenigenburg’s Blueberries, the original blueberry farm in the area since 1943, because they have a website and are easy to get to. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The owners are very friendly and helpful, they know their berries and their customers, and their prices are good, $3 a pound for fresh-picked, $1.90 for U-pick. Since it was Opening Day the only option was U-pick, but they sent out a granddaughter to help me and we got five pounds in 20 minutes, gabbing the whole time. They tied a small plastic bucket around my waist so I could pick with both hands; that’s definitely the way to do it. (I should try it for cherries, too.)

Her mother told me it would be a short season this year because of the hard winter, but by Wednesday she had to post a message on their website, “Closing Friday.” I was lucky I got there in time! Now I kind of wish I hadn’t sold three of my five pounds to Scott’s family; I had no idea what five pounds of blueberries look like or how fast I’d use them.

Monday night Scott came over for dinner, so I made my mother’s fruit salad – though I’ve only kept two ingredients of hers, bananas and mini-marshmallows. She used canned fruit, but all mine is fresh. I grilled some Italian sausage, threw together a marinara sauce with my own garden herbs, and we feasted.

Tuesday I baked some muffins. Now I have about a pound of berries left and the season is almost over!

I’d thought I’d buy an extra five pounds and freeze them to tide me over this winter, but no such luck. I’d better freeze what I have left and hope next year will be better.

We’ve all heard of global warming, but when it starts killing off Indiana blueberries, that there’s serious! Sheesh already.

Today, Thursday, the Eenigenburgs called everyone on their customer list and gave us the news, “come ‘n’ get ’em or forever hold your peace.” That was nice; it’s why I wanted to buy from local farmers in the first place. Who wants to give all their money to Con-Agra? I will go back next season.

Turns out blueberries don’t grow just anywhere. I asked the owners why DeMotte and Wheatfield have so many blueberry farms and we talked about the sand that blows south off Lake Michigan. (The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is just 30 miles away.)

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

It has the right pH for blueberries, she said, though some years they have to apply lime (ground natural limestone) to reduce the alkalinity. I told her my Unca Deed, who lives about 15 miles south, used to sell and spread lime for his neighbors. Maybe he sold some to them back in the day – all the more reason to buy from Eenigenburg’s.

South of DeMotte, the sandy soil quickly changes to black loam – river muck from ancient flooding of the Kankakee and Iroquois Rivers – so Unca Deed grows the corn and soybeans most people think of as typical Indiana crops. Farmers grow what their soil is suited for, and it’s quite a science to match the soil type with the best genetic strain of beans or corn; the exact soil composition varies from one field to the next, and even within a field, because the dirt was there before the property lines were drawn.

On my way home I drove past Unca Deed’s farm and reminisced, but I couldn’t stop because a thunderstorm was coming and my dog Luke was in the backyard. Later that night we got the summer version of last winter’s polar vortex; temps went down to 50º and haven’t really warmed up yet.

All this climate change doesn’t seem to be discouraging the weeds in my garden one bit. They don’t need science to tell them where to plant themselves, right in my back yard.

On the other hand, my tomato plants are going great guns and I’m expecting a bumper crop; they have dozens of green fruits on their branches, but they’re waiting for warmer weather before they ripen. Tomatoes like sun and temperatures up to 85º. We’ll get back there in a few days, and I’ll get to bite into my all-time favorite food, a big juicy tomato from the garden.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy – except for the polar vortex, thunderstorms and tornadoes. I would rather spend the warm months here than anywhere else on earth. Indiana isn’t a glamorous place, but to me it’s all about the soil – which comes from the water – which first attracted the Dutch (and my British forebears) to these river plains.++

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the United States Geological Survey, 2000.

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the U.S. Geological Survey, 2000.

The Simplest Garden Can Be a Joy

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don't last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don’t last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

A few weeks ago I went to Indianapolis to see my bishop for our first official visitation, and she asked me a question I’ve been pondering ever since. “What do you do for recreation?”

I didn’t have an answer at first, but finally I said, “I garden.”

A bishop does not like to hear that her ministers have no recreations. Working all the time does not make a person healthy, but the clergy are prone to be consumed by their jobs, so they must have ways to relax and do something completely different, or they’ll probably develop burnout. Their job is demanding; people get sick, have emergencies, they die, and priests and deacons are apt to get calls at all hours of the day and night. I am only a lay minister without parish responsibilities, but dailyoffice.org is my full-time job, and I too receive pastoral demands in various forms. Bishop Cate was glad when I could tell her I go outside and do something physical, even just weeding my garden. It’s remarkably therapeutic.

So we talked for a few minutes about gardening. She doesn’t have much light where she lives, though it’s next to a forest and probably beautiful. I have good light in places and not so good in others.

I cannot say my yard is beautiful. But I can say it gives me joy.

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don't get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don’t get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Of course I love planting, and enjoy the results of my labors – the rebirth in early spring of perennials (oregano, dill, chives), the progress of flowers, the blossoming of cherry trees, the first strawberries of the year. But it isn’t all about the harvest, it’s all about the process.

Some weeks it’s all about the weeds! And mowing the grass, which I do not enjoy. I’ve developed plant allergies in the past few years and have to remember to take a pill a half hour before I go out. I got all my planting done on time this year, then in mid-May I took off for eight days to visit friends in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. We didn’t get any rain here the entire trip, and I was a little worried for my plants. When I got home, most things had survived, the all-important impatiens on my covered side porch and the tomatoes back by the alley. I lost a few marigolds and petunias, but I felt relieved when I got home.

Since then (a little over two weeks) I’ve been out every day but yesterday, when we finally got an inch of rain. Today it was time to start mowing again. I only have a quarter of an acre, but I have to take two days to finish cutting the grass because my nose takes off for the races and I sneeze a lot. The weeds are mostly under control now; I’ve finally gotten around to working in the front yard with its problematic northern exposure. Much of what I planted there years ago needs more sunshine, and maybe I will do some transplanting after the peonies are done. Thus I doubt my front yard will ever be picture-perfect – but oh, I do enjoy the back. That’s where I live in the summertime, on my covered side porch and in the back.

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

It’s late but I will plant some gladiolus bulbs again this year. I cut back my lone surviving rosebush; it has a couple dozen blooms on it right now. I will trim it some more and make my first attempt at starting new bushes from cuttings. I’ve seen online that you can stick a fresh cutting in a potato and start it that way, or use growth hormone, which sounds creepy to me – or even dip the cut end in honey and plant that. So I will try the latter, and see if it fills in the dead space where I wasted $40 on rosebushes that didn’t survive. It will be exciting if the honey trick works; I will be proud of myself.

Today I took a notion to saw off the lower limbs on a pine tree planted on the west side; it’s probably too close to the house and I worry that the roots will crack my foundation, which already seeps water every time there’s a heavy rain. But I didn’t chop the whole thing down today, I started with eight or nine lower limbs that are in the way when I mow. Then I was shocked by how fast that tree has grown in the ten years I have lived here; it’s taller than my two-story house now, as is the blue spruce in the front yard, which I have never trimmed.

My little pruning made me realize I have cut back every tree I own except that blue spruce. There are only eight trees, but I am nobody’s idea of a lumberjack. And I don’t really know what I’m doing; I bought this house with no idea of how to take care of the greenery or how much work it would be. A decade later I am still learning. But surprisingly, I enjoy the work.

There is no one to tell me which limbs to cut, which bushes to try where or how to arrange things. It’s all learning by doing, trial and error. But oh, how delicious homegrown tomatoes are! And oh, what I’ve learned to bake with sour cherries.

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. (Josh Thomas)

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. My cherries start ripening about the 4th of July. (Josh Thomas)

So you will never see my place in House Beautiful. It’s just one more old home in smalltown Indiana. But it is mine, I’m not trying to impress anyone with it, and I probably get more enjoyment from it than a CEO with a $50 million mansion and a crew of landscapers. My failures are mine, and so are my successes. The chives on that baked potato I grew myself, and Lord, they taste good. I grew the basil in this pesto; that’s my dill in the chicken salad.

Those are my peonies, sickly though they are, planted in memory of my brother Dick; my lilies-of-the-valley in remembrance of my Grandma. My mother grew strawberries; my other brother loved azaleas. I bought that little foot-high concrete angel perched under my beloved maple, guarding another patch of impatiens. These are my onions, radishes, carrots and broccoli – my chrysanthemum that’s actually coming back.

Our Lady of the Maple Tree. (Josh Thomas)

Our Lady of the Maple Tree, with her $2 plastic border. The tree’s canopy is so full, grass can’t grow under it, but impatiens and groundcovers are happy. (Josh Thomas)

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

I hate yardwork, but I love gardening. That, God and friends are all I need. Oh – plus my dog!++

Luke loves summer in the backyard. (Josh Thomas)

Luke loves lounging in the summer; we like being outside together. (Josh Thomas)

Crop Rotation: My Hot Date with Orville Freeman

Orville Freeman in 1963.

He was about my speed in 1963.

When I was in 7th grade I took a mandatory course in agriculture at Morocco High School. My family lived in town, not on a farm, so I didn’t know a thing about the subject except what I picked up from visits to Grandma’s – where I mostly stayed in the house with her instead of out in the fields with Unca Deed. She owned about 200 acres in the same county, mostly planted in corn and soybeans; he also raised beef cattle and hogs, while she tended the henhouse. The two things I’d learned were that chickens don’t like you sticking your hand underneath them while they’re sitting on eggs (although you have to do it), and stay out of the “itch dirt” at all costs.

Hens get upset when they're trying to hatch babies but you come along and steal them. Plus I was always afraid of chickens; Grandma had a rooster once that attacked my brother at 5 years old; to this day he's got a scar on his cheek shaped like a chicken beak. (Vital Farms)

Hens get upset when they’re trying to hatch babies but you come along and steal them. Plus I was always afraid of chickens; Grandma had a rooster once that attacked my brother at 5 years old. To this day he’s got a scar on his cheek shaped like a chicken beak. (Vital Farms)

I was so good at reading the textbook in that class that I ended up winning the agriculture award that year, which was truly embarrassing considering that most of the pupils in the class (boys only in those days) were farm kids who already knew the difference between a bull and a steer, while I did not. So I asked, with no idea why hilarity ensued. Grinning, the teacher explained that steers had been “clamped.” That is, castrated; yuk yuk yuk.

When I was 15 and ready for driver’s training, I found out that all the farmboys (and half the girls) already knew how to drive – tractors, pickups, the family car. Not me – but in 7th grade I did know the name of the Secretary of Agriculture, which impressed the teacher quite a lot – and the farmboys not at all.

Thus I have never been a farmer, one dinky award or not, but I read all about about crop rotation; don’t keep planting the same crop in the same field year after year or you’ll wear out the soil.

Since then farmers have largely abandoned rotation, because corn is the big moneymaker, so they all practice monoculture now and repair the damage with chemical fertilizer instead – which runs off into streams when it rains, and winds up causing giant algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. When your world is as small as a farmer’s you don’t pay much attention to what happens a thousand miles away.

Mind you, I like farmers; I like the human culture where I’m from, but I still believe in crop rotation, especially when it comes to planting tomatoes in the garden. They’re a relative of nightshade, which is poisonous, and you shouldn’t keep sticking them in the same spot year after year.

Fruit of the silverleaf nightshade.

Fruit of the silverleaf nightshade; you can see the resemblance, but these guys are not good for man or beast.

This year I’m experimenting with growing tomatoes in containers on my deck – full size fruits, I hope, not those tasteless cherry tomatoes. I’m a little worried about whether this will work out; the vines can grow very large, so you’d think you’d need very big pots, but I only have one. So I did the best I could and we’ll see; I’ll learn something, and that’s half the fun of gardening (and half the frustration).

Is this a big enough pot for a tomato?

Is this a big enough pot for a tomato?

Meanwhile, what to do with that space in the back garden? Planting was late this year; spring has been cold and wet. But now, a month late, everything is in the ground or the pots, and all I have to do is weed and water. I actually like weeding; it’s something physical and mindless to do outdoors, so I don’t live in my head all the time.

All I have in the back are strawberries, a couple of rows of onions, and some flowers, marigolds and petunias. They don’t really fill up the space. I tried to buy some gladiolus bulbs, but Murphy’s isn’t selling them this year, so most of my ground will lie fallow. That’s good for the soil too; it doesn’t have to work every year, so let it rest, like in Bible times.

Strawberries mostly, with some petunias, marigolds and onions just starting.

Strawberries mostly.

Now about my big disaster last year: try to picture a Gay 7th grader who was all thumbs (none of them green), lived in town and didn’t know nothin’ about farming or gardening, because that kid is still me. I got very bold with my experiments last year. Previous experience had taught me that rabbits are the bane of my existence. We’ve got tons of them around here, 4-H projects gone awry maybe; smalltown rabbits love smalltown gardens. Two years ago I tried to grow green leafy vegetables and the rabbits got ’em; I would take Elmer Fudd’s shotgun to them if I could. Last year I mustered all my courage and built a fence, using bamboo sticks, plastic chicken wire and twist-ties. Afterward I felt so butch – so I checked it again the next morning and it was still up!

Take that, you wascally wabbits.

Ready at the rabbit hole.

Ready at the rabbit hole.

Well, my fence lasted a week or two, then one day I came home from Murphy’s to find a young guy and gal messing with my plastic fence, looking all concerned. I parked, investigated and found out what their problem was – a baby rabbit got caught in the fence and was now dangling by a leg.

Personally I’d have left him there as an example to all the other critters. But it was obvious that the girl was all worried about the poor widdle wabbit, which was hopelessly stuck, and the boyfriend couldn’t figure out what to do but for damn sure didn’t want his girlfriend upset. So I sighed and got the scissors and cut a hole in my handmade fence, thus inviting every rabbit in the county to free admission.

I couldn’t have cared less about the girl, and you already know my attitude about rabbits, so I guess I ruined my fence for the guy’s sake. Then a drought came, and what didn’t get eaten by the bunnies withered on the vine, while I swore off building any more damn fences.

I have no mechanical ability whatever. I’m not ashamed of it, it’s simply a fact of life; the same gene that turns on a Gay guy’s verbal ability turns off the switch on his motor skills.

So it’s time for some crop rotation. If I can grow tomatoes and peppers in pots on the deck, where rabbits seldom venture, maybe I’ll fill up my vegetable garden with perennials and tell the rabbits to kiss my grits.

***

Last year I didn’t get cherries because of a late frost after the trees had bloomed. The year before that birds came and ate all my cherries, because I didn’t pick them the very day they ripened. This year they’re back and starting to turn, but they’re not quite ready yet. So I will stay vigilant, with my ladder, plastic bag and maybe a stick or two of dynamite.

Almost ripe.

Almost ripe.

Elmer Fudd was right. When you live in the country it’s all about the shotgun, baby, whatever works, so you can eat.++

Luke would chase the rabbits if I'd let him - he caught a baby one last year and ate half of it - but he's too little to be left alone unsupervised.

Luke would chase the rabbits if I’d let him – he caught a baby one last year and ate half of it – but at night when the critters come out, he likes to snooze in his bed. A workin’ dog he ain’t. (He’s pure entertainment instead.)

A Gardener’s Hope Springs Eternal

I bought onion sets today at Murphy's.

It’s Monday, after a big weekend of good highs and one horrible low that threatened to leave me depressed all day. But now things are looking up, because I’ve been gardening on the first day of spring. It was 75º in Indianapolis this afternoon, tomorrow will also be warm, and I’m just back from the village market with onion sets ready for planting. Onions like cool weather, which will return by the end of the week.

My outdoor activity today consisted mostly of cleaning out the remaining beds I didn’t get to last fall. The vegetable garden is ready, the strawberry plants are putting out green shoots and the perennial herb garden is already producing chives, oregano and the first tarragon. I know there’s a baked potato in my future, and tonight when I make enchiladas the sauce will be enhanced by some baby oregano leaves. Plus my crocus are starting to pop.

Up front, with its northern exposure, the hostas are stirring; no sign of them yet under the big old maple tree in the back yard, but that may be because there are no leaves to shade them from the sun. I’m also hoping my lily of the valley bulbs start to wake up; May will be here in 40 days, my birthday month, and that’s the time for lilies of the valley. The azaleas have new leaves, the tulips are rising, and I even hauled a trunkload to the recycling center. Things are starting to look good at my house.

Two good things happened last weekend; I made a presentation to the adult education class at St. John’s, Crawfordsville about dailyoffice.org, and Luke spent a successful night at the doggie hotel, the first time we were apart since I got him. I accepted the speaking invitation before I realized I’d have to make provisions for him, and that proved surprisingly difficult; my hosts Helen and Marc have cats, so they really didn’t want me to bring him, my vet was full, the county extension agent (any pet sitters in the 4-H club?) didn’t return my call, and kennels in Lafayette wanted me to come in and fill out paperwork two weeks in advance when I was already past their deadline. (I don’t fill out paperwork for the privilege of giving somebody money.) But Helen found a pet boarding place in the country outside Crawfordsville, it was a lot cheaper than anyone else, and the couple who runs it were as nice as could be. Pa took a shining to my dog. Sunday morning he put Luke inside his jacket, went indoors to eat his own breakfast, and fed the boy a few morsels of toast. “They don’t come any better than him,” he told me when I picked Luke up. I was thrilled – because he’s right. He also wished all his dogs were as quiet as Luke, who doesn’t bark indoors.

The people at church were warm and friendly, a responsive audience, and I’d put together a little outline of what I wanted to say about the Daily Office online (Morning and Evening Prayer on a couple of websites I run). Saying the Office regularly is the best way I know to get closer to God, who gets closer to us every time we turn to him/her. The more often we do it, the closer we get; and after 1.3 million site visitors, I’ve learned some things about online community. I’ve come to “know” a lot of people I never would have met without the internet; when I ask them to pray for someone they do it, and they write e-mails and leave comments that fill me with joy. Now here I was with a real congregation (maybe 30 people) who wanted to know about the Church of the future and how the online experience fits with that. It’s no substitute for the sacraments and belonging to an ongoing community, but God wants us to communicate with each other. We looked at parish and diocesan websites on a big screen and watched part of a video of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir singing his composition “Lux Aurumque.” It’s quite moving and we all wondered, “How’d they do that?”

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/D7o7BrlbaDs?fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0

I’ve spoken in public a lot, and I was well-prepared for this gig, but I also felt myself rambling a little as I spoke; it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked to give this presentation, and I could probably have gone twice as long if anyone would listen. Praying the Daily Office has changed my life; I’ve learned an awful lot about the Episcopal Church these past six years, that we’re much stronger and more faithful than anyone thinks, but we do have to make some changes if we’re going to attract more people. Using the internet well is one way to do that.

At any rate Helen said the crowd at St. John’s liked it, so I guess I didn’t do too bad. It was lovely to go to church afterwards, since I don’t get to make my communion all that often, stuck here in the hinterlands.

Crawfordsville is also personally significant – it’s the setting for my next book – and I learn more about the place every time I visit. I have some rewriting to do now on my novel in progress; I’m writing this first, then I’ll break for enchiladas and spend the rest of the evening composing new sentences.

Meanwhile for the first time Luke is sitting quietly on my lap as I type; we’ve never done this before. Usually when he sits in my lap (a little rat terrier, ten pounds) he’s all hyper. Maybe he knows that farmer loved him like I do.

As for the thing that bummed me out, Purdue men’s basketball team lost in the NCAA tournament to a team they should have whipped like heavy cream, the worst performance I’ve seen in decades; it was bad coaching in my view, and it’s too bad because they’re great kids who’ve had a fantastic season. College basketball is my other religion, and it’s hard to watch your team Go to Hell, Go Directly to Hell, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

But it was just a game, and when you’re down, do something constructive instead. Take out the recycling, love your dog, clean out the flowerbeds and the herb garden, ’cause there’s baby oreganos already, yours for the taking. It’s spring, and good eating’s on the way.++

Even with directions on their butts, Purdue lost.

Dog & I Prepare for Winter

My backyard maple tree in October 2007, as published in the Chicago Tribune.

The weather’s been a bit unstable here lately in Northwest Indiana; we’ve had some cold days and some warm ones, and the clash between them gave us a tornado watch last night. Indiana is #2 in auto manufacturing, corn production and tornadoes, but Luke and I got through the night okay.

Football is giving way to basketball; Purdue football is gone with the wind after season-ending injuries to the starting quarterback, the #1 wide receiver and the leading running back. I expect we’ll beat That Other School though and win the Old Oaken Bucket.

The men’s basketball team is doing great, even after the devastating loss of star forward Robbie Hummell, who blew out his right knee again in pre-season practice. Purdue was rated a Final Four team before Hummell went down for the year, and analysts everywhere downgraded the team’s stock to second-rate, despite the presence of NBA prospects JaJuan Johnson and Etwaun Moore. So what’s happened? The bench has stepped up mightily, led by John Hart, D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Purdue has climbed in the polls to #8 in the nation; those kids are getting better and better at defense, and last year’s wildly inconsistent freshmen are turning into sophomores who can score.

Where I come from all this matters; you may not care for sports, but these are Indiana kids by and large, playing for and studying at the university our ancestors built.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band will lead off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; 9 a.m. Eastern on NBC.

Now the trees are showing off their nakedness and Turkey Day is almost here.

I’ve been raking and cleaning out the gardens on the warmer days, while my dog’s been taking advantage of what warmth there still is.

This year I have not been a diligent raker; I’ve maybe put out 10 huge bags of leaves, not 50. I deal with leaves the old-fashioned way, by hand; and yes, I do get tired of it and quit early. Maybe I should buy a $70 leaf-blower, but I just can’t bring myself to shell out even that modest amount of money for a power tool I’d use only two days a year. My neighbors have leaf-blowers and nice clean yards; I suppose I’m too rigid. But there’s something character-building about raking your own damn leaves, and I don’t mind doing it as long as it’s warm out.

The good gardeners on my block have long since cleaned out their gardens; I’m still working at it. The strawberries of course stay in the ground; I’ve cleaned out the peppers, broccoli and cabbages. The tomatoes are so gigantic and overgrown in this black loam that I’ll have to take clippers to the vines.

Tonight I indulged once again in a summer ritual. I saved several green tomatoes before the frost, and all have ripened now, so I ate one over the sink with a salt shaker in hand; delicious. I happen to think home-grown tomatoes are the world’s most perfect food; not milk, not bananas, Indiana tomatoes. Ones I grew!

But the wind does blow colder and it’s time for things to change. The biggest impact isn’t on me, but on my dog.

In warm weather I keep Luke outdoors on a lead for most of the day while I mostly work indoors. He loves sunshine and running around on his own, making his presence known to the neighborhood dogs and getting into whatever innocent mischief he can find. When it’s hot out I take him water or let him lick an ice cube in my hand; on the hottest days I bring him back indoors to the air conditioning. But today was cool enough that after two hours he wanted back inside.

He’s a little 11-pound rat/fox terrier mix, no fat on him, all energy, and I can’t tell that he grows more coat in the winter. I don’t want him too hot or too cold.

Now is that transitional time of year when he doesn’t want to be outside all day, so I decided it was time for us to go into winter mode as far as our routines. One thing I’ve learned from having this guy, he is all about the routines.

I got Luke a year ago last month, a rescue dog from the Humane Society of Indianapolis; he’d just turned 3, and we think he grew up on the streets until one day he got run over by a car, which led him to the vets and other kind people at HSI, who fixed him right up. He wasn’t house-trained and didn’t know much when I brought him home, though I could tell he was hugely affectionate. He still doesn’t know how to play ball or chew on a balled-up sock.

We’ve spent a year learning about each other; I think we’ve finally got the toilet-training thing down, as it’s been months since he had a so-called “accident.” He’s quite good at learning, as long as I can make him understand the rules. Indeed he’s so scrupulous about pleasing me that sometimes he misinterprets my confusing directions; in other words his guardian’s not that competent. My bad.

But he’s learned a trick or two and we’re doing just fine.

Since it was already cold weather when I got him, we established a winter routine last year; he spends his days in the office with me, except for mealtimes. After he gets food he spends 15-20 minutes outdoors on his lead for the poop-and-pee routine, then he comes back inside. Until this spring, that was what he knew. He learned to jump up in my office chair, where I’d pet him and spin him around. When he got tired he’d lie down in a sunbeam streaming through the windows.

Then last spring I changed things on him and put him outside all day.

Now it’s November, and today I decided to remind him about coming upstairs to the office so we can hang out together. He happily remembered, and I happily spun him around clockwise, then counter-clockwise, and when we came to rest he licked my hand.

So we’re back to winter mode, and I’m glad. I still shut my office door on us because I want to keep an eye on him, don’t entirely trust him in the P&P department, but he’s doing good.

The great thing about him is how much he makes me laugh. That’s sure worth a 59¢ can of dog food that lasts three days.

I like that he remembers “winter mode” from last year. He knows that summer mode has come to an end. As the days grow darker earlier, he tries to manipulate me into feeding him earlier, but I don’t do it. He’s a fascinating study in human relations.

I hate winter, but I love going into winter mode with my dog. He’s glad for his chow on a regular schedule, for being indoors when it’s cold, for hanging out with me and whirling around in my swivel chair. He licks my hand more in the wintertime, and when he’s sleepy he finds a sunbeam to snooze in.

I love my dog; taking care of him is just like posting tomorrow’s Daily Office, a spiritual discipline which I do whether I feel like it or not. Often (the work is mostly formatting, and ever-changing) I do not feel like keeping my promises.

But I have an audience, I have a dog, so I do what I said I’d do.

That’s how to get closer to God, by adopting a routine. When we have someone else we’re responsible for, we learn to conform our habits, no matter what our transient emotions. Most people don’t want to say the same “Magnificat” every day of their lives, but when we go ahead and do it, life becomes magnificent.++

Beta dog. Ice cube lover. Prettyboy. Sweet as cotton candy.

Garden Wrapup, and I’ve Got Broccoli!

To harvest, you need a sharp knife.

The forecast low temperature for tomorrow night is 27º, so I was outside this afternoon doing the last harvesting of my garden – and lo and behold, I’ve finally got two heads of broccoli!

I couldn’t believe it, but they’re beautiful things. One is as big as you’d see in a store, one is smaller – and there’s a little bitty floret all on its own, cute as the dickens.

Took ’em long enough; I planted them months ago, and they didn’t seem to do anything. My cabbage never did form a head, and though I only planted it for decoraton, I yanked it out today and put it in the compost pile. But I have broccoli, plus three whole shopping bags full of produce.

I ended up with two dozen bell peppers, three dozen tomatoes (some green, but they’ll ripen indoors), a dozen or so onions (which didn’t grow as big as I’d hoped) and a whole huge mess of leeks.

I ran into my friend Jayne this evening at Murphy’s grocery, and she’s coming by tomorrow after school to get some leeks, peppers, fresh oregano and green tomatoes. I love her, but I’m not giving up my broccoli!

[Sidebar: Until now I’d have said I am “almost never” a selfish person. I know a lot of others like me, including my best friend Stephen; indeed, none of my friends is the least bit selfish. They’re kind, loving people, which is pretty much my criterion for who gets admitted into my circle of real friends. I have a lot of them.

[But when it comes to my own produce, I am both generous and self-interested. I’ve only got 2.1 heads of broccoli and dammit, them’s goin’ into my soup!

[So come to find out that regarding food, I am as greedy and protective as my dog Luke. He’s developed a habit lately at breakfast. He’ll go and look at his pellets, but he doesn’t start eating until I leave the kitchen and start opening up the blinds to let in the morning. At suppertime he’s entirely different; he knows that meat and veggies are his, and he races to dig in. But in the morning I have to prove that I’m not interested in his stuff.

[The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are very concerned about human selfishness; “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That constant refrain and warning have never really made total sense to me; I was already brainwashed/in love with Jesus at a very young age, I got the message the first time. I’m a social worker, a Gay activist, a commissioned evangelist; I chose voluntary poverty when I was 14 and I’m glad I did. I also have the tremendous blessing I call the Shared Gay Personality™, which in my experience is wonderfully altruistic. But here I am guarding a dollar’s worth of broccoli. “That’s mine, dammit!”]

This evening I made my friend John’s recipe for potato-leek soup. It’s perfect in terms of technique, though naturally I tweaked it a bit. Mind you, as a smalltown Hoosier I’ve never eaten leeks before, much less grown them. First the recipe, plus my additions in parentheses, and then my reaction.

Puréeing is good, but leave some lumps in, I say.

John’s Potato-Leek Soup

5 leeks, sliced (mine were less than an inch in diameter)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
2 T oil (1 T butter, 1 T olive oil)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
14 oz can of chicken broth
4 C water
S&P to taste
(1 C whole milk)
(chopped parsley to taste)

Heat butter and oil; add leeks and onion and cook to opaque but not brown. Add broth, water and potatoes; bring to boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Purée in blender (but only two-thirds; I want some lumps so you know I made this by hand). (Add milk, return to low heat; add parsley.) Serves 8 maybe.

The result? It’s very good and technically perfect, since you also get the flavor of the potato broth. And it’s very, very easy.

But the leeks are too mild for this to be as good a potato soup as you can make. For that you need onions, not leeks.

Mind you, I regard onions as a kitchen miracle; they add so much to so many things I cook. Stir-frys, meat loaf, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, omelets, pizza; when I’m chopping onions I know I’m cooking.

Yet I would never describe myself as an onion-lover, as if I can’t get enough of that taste. I use them in proportion, they’re seldom the stars in my cookery, any more than garlic is, another onion relative that adds depth and flavor.

But I guess I do love onions, and my Grandmother made a fabulous potato soup with them, better than this potato-and-leek version. Potato soup was one of the first dishes I mastered, when I was maybe 13.

Leeks are wonderful (and the leaves are so pretty), but so far to me they’re bland. Why would anyone eat this soup when they could eat Grandma’s?

Leeks are described as sweet and mild. But the pungency of an onion adds so much more flavor. Considering that potatoes themselves are bland, why add mild to bland? I did find out to add more black pepper than usual, a dozen twists on my little mill at least, when ordinarily I’m cautious with the peppercorns; I’m a Hoosier, we don’t do spicy food.

My big satisfaction this evening was, as it’s been all summer, growing some of my own food. And you can’t get fresher than just picked today. No fertilizer, no herbicides, just good old Indiana loam, some of the richest soil on earth.

This land is so fertile that my tomato plants bent their cages double. I’m used to the vines growing a yard tall and five feet wide, producing scores of fruits per plant, but this year they just went nuts. Tomatoes are my favorite food, but I let some of them rot on the vine after I’d put up all I thought I could use.

Still, as the season wanes, the last few tomatoes become ever dearer; when winter comes the ones for sale in the stores are pretty much worthless. So even though I had bags and bags of produce to clean and make decisions about, I had to eat one of my ripe tomatoes fresh over the sink with a salt shaker in my hand. You ain’t Hoosier till the tomato juice drips off your chin.

At season’s end I feel like I made great progress as a gardener this year; I had an actual vegetable garden for the first time, instead of my previous haphazard experiments. I cleared out and marked off a good large space with a southern exposure, instead of planting things in flowerbeds next to the house and seeing what worked. I grew several new species; it’s not good to just grow the same old things year after year. I had strawberries and broccoli and leeks, as well as the usual herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I tried new things; I don’t know why the cabbage didn’t work – or maybe I do.

Some people love to eat cabbage; I mostly like to look at it.

The biggest learnings come from failures, including that cabbage. I should have enclosed it, and the broccoli and peppers, in chickenwire to keep the rabbits out. I’m so unmechanical I don’t know how to build things, but I think next year I’ll try driving some sticks in the ground and wrapping plastic fencing around. This won’t entirely deter rabbits, who are happy to dig underground for free rabbit food, but it will slow them down and maybe give me a cabbage or two to look at. I have nothing against eating cabbage, it’s good for you, but I’m a single guy who can’t possibly eat the whole thing before it goes bad.

My other big failure was not watering the garden when I should have. From spring to midsummer we had plenty of rain here, but by mid-August we went into a mild drought, and I should have been faster on the uptake; tomatoes are nothing but sunshine and water. Instead of huge and perfect juicy fruits as I had in early summer, in time they started to split, which invites bugs and then it’s all over. A good gardener keeps track of the rain.

I am not a good gardener yet, but I’m getting there. Most of my strawberry plants survived, but a few of them died, probably because I neglected to water them. That’s okay; instead of planting the ever-bearing variety as I did this year, I’ll plant the spring-bearing “ohmygod it’s a strawberry festival” ones next year, and make jam with the surplus like I used to for my mother.

I doubt I plant leeks. I don’t dislike them but I wasn’t that impressed, and I think I’ll put down onions instead, and maybe some radishes again. Planting leeks as seedlings, which is how Murphy’s offers them, is a pain in the ass. They are tiny little things, 400 to a four-compartment plastic container, and I didn’t find any good advice online about how to deal with them; all the articles from state extension services discuss planting from seed only. I separated my seedlings as seemed best at the time, planting 20 or 30 of them in a hole instead of one by one, but what that gave me was a clump of 30 ingrown leeks. Why would I want 400, especially when they’re “sweet and mild?”

Nope, I want onions instead.

This year I tried out a new type of triangular tomato cage made of plastic, where you can put the crossbars where the plant needs them, instead of where the stamped-out wire happens to go. That plastic cage is the only one still standing; the wire ones I’ve had for some years proved worthless in this rich and juicy rivermuck. In very fertile soil it’s much better to build a modular structure as needed, knowing the vine’s going to grow five feet wide and spill all over everywhere if you don’t control it.

Tomatoes supported on a cage don’t get down in the dirt where they can be attacked by bugs. I’m tellin’ ya, I had a tomato jungle again this year. Leonardo thinks Guatemala’s wild; he should see what grows in my loam.

One last thing: a very old woman who’s an expert gardener lives four doors down at the end of my block. I’m told she’s a farmer’s wife who moved into town with her husband when they retired; that’s common here, because life in town is more convenient. When old age stops tying you to the land, you move to town.

I’ve never met her, a widow now, though I’ve seen her hobbling along on occasional walks, a little old lady in Reeboks. Her home, lawn and vegetable garden are impeccable. She already has her garden cleared for next year; has had for a couple of weeks.

Today I learned that there has to come a time when you say about a garden, “That’s it, I’m done for the year, this is the best I can do.” She gets a head start on next spring by preparing her land this fall. For the first time I emulated her today, as I finished my harvest and started ripping things out.

Every year she builds her own rabbit fence; does her weeding in the morning before it gets hot. Doubtless she measures the rain day by day and waters her garden as needed; it’s always lush. I envy her for knowing so much more than I do, and doing her work instead of getting lazy once the thrill of planting fades away. Anyone can get excited about growing things in the springtime; the key to a garden is regular maintenance.

I did a better job of weeding this year than ever before, and I cleared that land, marked it off and planted new species. My marigold terrace is still half-fabulous, at least until tomorrow night; I had chives and oregano and parsley and tomatoes and tarragon to beat the band. My impatiens and dill, lilies and peonies gave me enormous pleasure. I grilled out on the side porch all summer, and taught my dog to stay there with me.

But there’s no substitute for experience; for trying and failing, for learning by doing. Grow some leeks, see what they’re like; switch to onions next year if you like, or petunias or pumpkins. Keep the water steady and the weeds under control.

The rules are pretty basic but you have to pay attention.

I hope I get to meet Mrs. Voglund someday; maybe we’ll talk about leeks, and why onions are really much better. Maybe we’ll talk about controlling rabbits.

Maybe I’ll tell her how fabulous Grandma’s potato soup was; how she chopped and cooked everything by hand, and never puréed.++

The only image on the internet of a simple potato soup, without garnishes, toppings, machinery or fanciness.

Life with Luke: One Great Year, One Fantastic Day

Luke on Day 2 at home.

One year ago I brought home a little 10-pound rat terrier/fox terrier mix from the wonderful Humane Society of Indianapolis and named him Luke.

He was three years old and had never had a home before. I could tell that he was shy around people, but that he had a good disposition, which in my limited experience is characteristic of the breed. But I didn’t know then what a great boy he was.

He wasn’t toilet-trained, so that became the first priority – and it took us quite awhile; I’d never trained a dog before. He was jealous of his food; I was the one who gave it to him, but he kept expecting me to steal it back.

Apparently he grew up on the streets, fending for himself. He wasn’t that friendly toward other dogs; I wouldn’t call him aggressive, but he’s certainly assertive, and he doesn’t care how big another dog is, Luke stands his ground.

He was good on a leash, though; I figure that was thanks to the Humane Society of Kokomo, where he was brought in after he was hit by a car. Kokomo patched him up, then transferred him to Indy for adoption.

When I got him he was used to living in a cage, being fed and treated nicely within the confines of life in a shelter. No doubt he felt the food supply was good, and he must have liked how the people treated him when it was his turn for some attention.

The day we met, he was stand-offish at first, but then he did take a chance on me, and I had no doubt from that moment that he was the one I was looking for.

Still, the first week he was here he trembled the whole time; it’s hard to get used to a new place and one primary human, especially one as ignorant as me. My family had a series of foxies when I was a kid, but I’ve never been the main caregiver before. I had to study all the training materials HSI gave me, and read a lot online. In a few days, instead of letting him sleep on a blanket in the dining room, I bought him a crate. That was a good move. He likes his house.

Still, his social development and even motor skills left a lot to be desired. He was afraid of stairs, and I live in a two-story house. He’s a little bitty guy, as you can imagine, but hardly the smallest of breeds; he could handle stairs physically, but he needed to learn. Then he got to where he’d run down, but not up!

He has made me laugh a lot this past year.

There are still things he can’t do; he has no interest in chasing a ball or wrestling over a tied-up sock; with him it’s either a squirrel or a rabbit, or no dice. He’s a hunter, though I don’t let him hunt. He doesn’t really know how to play, and maybe once they get a certain age you can’t teach them. I’ve never met a dog who wouldn’t go bounding after a tennis ball, but not this guy.

He’s learned a lot, though, this past year. One of the biggest lessons was Sit, but that only took a day or two. (Today when we visited the vet for his second annual physical, I saw him sit for the tech, then the doctor, which filled me with joy.)

He’s learned that at suppertime, he’s to sit quietly in the dining room while I get his food ready. I’ll be damned if I’m going to have a dog begging underfoot in my kitchen; I feed him canned food or some human food at night, which means I’m moving around, rinsing off utensils and putting them in the dishwasher, and he’s to sit and wait out of the way.

Considering that this is food, he doesn’t mind one bit.

But oh, the instant I’m done with the prep, he comes and sits on the little rug by the sink, still out of the way. We have a routine for this; he knows he’s not to move until I put the leftovers in the fridge. Once I pick up his dish, he used to try to follow me, but again that only took one time of being told to Sit for him to get the message. (I still reinforce it occasionally and pretend to give him the evil eye, with his dish in midair. He doesn’t move a muscle.)

Once he hears me set the dish down, though, on the other side of the breakfast island out of his sight, then he’s free to move. The first few times this meant we were getting our legs crossed up, and he quickly corrected that on his own; he politely waits for me to exit that little cramped corner – then he eats.

He never barks in the house, seldom whines (and only for a second) and isn’t as manipulative as some dogs are. Nor do I have to bribe him all the time; he gets treats, not bribes. He’s got his moves and isn’t a saint, but he knows who the alpha male is here and seems perfectly happy being #2. When my friend Bob visited a couple of weeks ago, Luke was even happier being #3.

That was a very good step forward in his socialization. Thank you, Uncle Bob.

Luke hasn’t “made a mistake in the house” in six months, and now we’re working on more freedom.

Every change in his routine is momentarily confusing to him, but he’s still young and flexible, and he thinks.

I’ve taught him one game: how we do Treats after our midnight walk around the perimeter.

1. He sits motionless on the kitchen rug by the sink.
2. I get out his treat, break it into pieces depending on the brand, put the extra piece in my pocket and keep one in my hand, then sit on the kitchen steps opposite the sink while he doesn’t move.
3. I show him the treat. I hide which hand it’s in, then put it on one knee and cover them both with my hands. Which side’s got it, Luke? (This is easy, I only have two knees.)
4. I count to three: “One. Two. Three.” But this is not sufficient, he doesn’t have permission to come yet; only when I lift up both hands is he allowed to race over.

I almost always lift up my hands at the count of three, but if not, he stays put. What he’s learned is One, Two, Three and Hands Up.

He grabs his treat, races back to the rug (where food jealousy is allowed), he chews – and sits back down for the rest of the pieces and the Game again.

I don’t know which of us is entertained more, him or me.

We might have a little petting afterward, then since it’s midnight and time for bed, I wave my hand and he runs back to his little house in the living room and curls up on a football blanket. I lock him in for the night and he has doggy dreams.

TODAY we had a fantastic day. All week I’ve been re-familiarizing him with Car Ride; to him it’s a big jump from the garage floor to the back seat, but he can do it. Today it was time to go see Dr. Kay again.

I knew from last year how good she and her staff are, but in October 2009 he peed 3-4 times; not this year. I rejoiced; he’s generalized the learning, no marking up indoors!

He got a blood test, shots, sat nicely around these new people he’s only seen once a year ago, didn’t bark and only trembled a little when we put him on the examination table. The doctor and staff of course are experts in loving care, they reinforce but don’t bribe, and he did great. He’s gained a pound and a half, but is still a lean little guy like a ratboy should be. Best of all the doctor spent 30 minutes with us, so I got to tell her all his progress, what his issues still are, and when we talked about his two runaway episodes, which were minor but worrisome the first time, that he doesn’t always come on command if I take a chance and let him loose, she found me some info about a dog park 45 miles away where he can run safely. Terriers need to run, and though I take him for regular walks on his leash, I want him to run freely and safely. I occasionally go to the city where the dog park’s located, and she also had an idea about the county fairgrounds, which are much closer.

All in all I felt she listened carefully to our story together for the past year, provided guidance and resources, and gave us both a great experience. Then he got a bath and a pedicure, like going to the doggy day spa!

Still, with this dog I worry about overstimulation, and when I got him home, instead of returning to his regular programming (outside in the sun on a longish tether), he wanted to go inside for a nap.

I fed him early, took him back out for an hour’s tether time in the sun, and as the day began to close I got his leash for our sunset walk around the neighborhood – where for the first time he did not come at the sound of the back door opening, nor when I called him. I went to fetch him and found two strangers plus a dog in my yard. No wonder he was yapping!

They were a grandma, a 12-year-old girl and an ugly little pugdog that Luke was being his usual assertive self with; not aggressive, but a little worrisome to me because I don’t want him in fights. Who were these people thinking they could come on my property? This is a small town, we don’t do that here. And he’d already had quite a day.

The grandma and the girl were very nice, and both aware that they were on my property with a foreign dog and apologizing, but we talked, I reassured them and kept an eye on Luke with the pugdog. They’d nose each other, then defend themselves with barking and growling, then quiet down and sniff each other’s butts before starting on another round of noisiness. (The smart little girl, who said she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, said she couldn’t understand why dogs would want to sniff each other’s butts. I did not tell her why.)

It turns out grandma and little girl and pugdog often visit Luke in my yard, “because he always looks so lonely” on his tether. I didn’t take offense at that; he likes being outside and I give him plenty of attention. But this meant Luke and the pug weren’t confronting each other for the first time, and these okay humans were dogpeople. I still didn’t like how Luke was acting, which didn’t look happy to me, but grandma said, “Oh, he’s very friendly, always wags his tail, these two like each other.” I was fairly amazed.

Maybe I’ve misinterpreted Luke’s behavior when we’ve encountered other dogs; he’s always seemed to me on the verge of fighting, but here was grandma saying no, this is great.

It’s been a year of learning for me too.

After another few pleasant minutes, I put Luke on his leash and, after checking with grandma, we headed off in the opposite direction for our sunset walk. Everything was back to normal, just Josh and his buddy making our rounds in the village, stopping every 20 feet to sniff someone else’s scent or leave some.

Maybe I’ve just been a worrywart; it’s an adult’s job to worry about the kid. It’s taken him all year to warm up to people, and he still doesn’t like strangers to pet him; I saw that again with the little girl. Let him approach you.

But he was good with Bob, and he truly is starting to generalize his lessons as he needs to (didn’t pee at the vet’s this year), and the girl said he licked her hand once. When Bob was here, Luke even licked Mike the carpenter’s hand, after raising holy hell for “invading our space” like I hired him to.

Today was the first day, after a year of living here, that Luke licked my face.

That, and his five-star healthy reports from Dr. Kay, made it a fantastic day.

I freely admit, I’ve had a lot to learn this past year, and I’m not done yet.

But even a death row inmate can’t be all bad, if a dog’s willing to lick his face.++

Luke's face, with its little vanilla drip from his forehead to his nose.