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Glad About Glads

gladiolus

The gladiolus I planted in June are just starting to blossom. So far I have a blue and a yellow one, and another bud-stalk has formed, seemingly overnight.

I bought mixed bulbs at the local grocery, 20 for $4. That’s 20¢ apiece, for late summer flowers – to me, a huge bargain. But I’ve never grown them before, so of course I was anxious about how they’d come out.

I planted them in very rocky soil, and then waited to see whether they’d survive. Weeks went by without even a shoot. Did I plant them upside down?

And then one day, there they were. So I planted another box of them after Peter left; they say you should stagger your plantings, because once they bloom they won’t be around for long.

By the time these fade, the others should be coming along. My goodness, what an improvement over the mess I had last year.

Live and learn; experience is the best teacher.

The other day I finally solved my cultivating problem; I bought a $6 hoe, not a $106 digging machine that would sit in my garage gathering dust 364 days a year. I’m okay with doing everything by hand while I’m still young enough. People buy too many gardening machines they seldom use.

I have seven evergreen bushes, mature ones, in front and on the east side; by the end of summer they start to get pretty straggly. Come September it’s time to trim them back; I have old-fashioned clippers like my grandparents did, not a hedge-trimmer. With a machine I might get the job done in less than an hour, instead of the two days it takes me to trim them by hand—but what do I do with the trimmer once I’m done? It just doesn’t seem cost-effective to me to buy one. Prices at Lowe’s range from $30-$110, but the cheap model isn’t even UL certified; if you want that, you’re up to $50 for a Black and Decker. If I amortize the $50 model for the 10 years I plan to be alive, it’s five bucks a year for a product I use one day a year. I suppose it’s worth it, but there’s one other consideration; the joy of going to bed that night exhausted because I worked my body. I’m all for labor-saving devices, but physical exertion is good for us. Not only do I feel alive in ways I don’t routinely feel, I get the satisfaction, even the pride, of a job well done. I go to sleep with a smile on my face, knowing what I accomplished because I can feel it in my body.

Would you buy a $50 breadmaker, but only use it once a year? How about a $300 stand mixer that gathers dust and takes up space on the kitchen counter? I just don’t like the idea of buying a machine you only use once a year.

Mind you I don’t have a leaf-blower either, and I’ve got huge trees; I put out 40 giant bags of fallen leaves every October. Do I like raking? Hell no, but I love sleeping.

My Unca Deed, who’s about 85 now, still farms 1000 acres of corn and soybeans. Been doing it all his life, will never stop until the day they find him keeled over in the dirt. He loves his life. He’s done well for himself, although the money was never his biggest concern; for for 50 years, five full decades, the price of corn never rose, while the price of everything else did. If he was in it for the money he’d have quit long ago. But he didn’t, and why? Because he wants to be outdoors, growing things.

Once his nieces and nephews tried getting Unca Deed to consider farming more comfortably, instead of having the sun beat down on him all day. “Tractors have got air-conditioned cabs now, Unca Deed. You don’t have to be hot and dirty all the time. Since the cab’s enclosed, you can get a radio in there and listen to the Cubs games.” Well, being an open-minded kind of guy and a lifelong Cubs fan, not to mention respectful when the “kids” (we’re all 50) come together as a group to say, “We’re worried about you,” Deed decided he’d try it; why not? Maybe the kids were right. They drove him to the implement store so he could try out the big, shiny new tractor; the salesman showed him all the features, a GPS that gets satellite signals to tell you right where you are, the internet keeps you right in touch with the latest info about soil types and seed suppliers and up-to-the-minute data from the USDA, plus the commodity markets! “Didja ever think of that, huh? A farmer needs to know the latest prices, the yield forecasts, even the micro-weather.” Deed listened raptly to the man.

And didn’t last an hour in the air-conditioning. He tried to break it to the kids, “It just don’t feel right, farmin’ without bein’ in the sun.”

He felt like he was indoors in that fancy souped-up cab with the AC and the micro-weather. He didn’t want to be indoors, he wanted to be outdoors. He wanted to farm like God intended, where a man earns his bread by the sweat of his brow and is proud of himself.

The kids were sorely disappointed, but they learned not to mess with what works. The man’s 85, he has a right to die in the dirt if he wants to.

Unca Deed’s been hospitalized twice in the past year, but each time it didn’t amount to much, and he was back the next day. I pray for him constantly, that he gets to live and die doing what he’s good at.

Why buy a fancy new tractor if the old one still works, and you’d only use the AC once a year? Who needs a GPS when you already know exactly where you are?

—-

The tomatoes are now coming on strong. I planted mine a little bit late, but there’s no sign of the dreaded blight that’s killed tomato plants up and down the East and Midwest, and today I picked a couple of big ones, sandwich sized. It will be time to start freezing and canning soon; I’ve got ten on the counter, a slicer in the fridge and a big bowl of pasta salad I’m working through.

For God so loved the world he gave us August in Indiana.++

tomatoes

Yanking Out the Vines

Ivy

Ivy’s no friend of my house.

Today is my birthday, and I’m going to spend the afternoon gardening. Then I’ll get cleaned up and give myself a good meal, salmon ponzu with citrus-soy reduction, a baked potato with sour cream and fresh chives.

I’m behind schedule in the garden thanks to several days of rain. I got three new perennials last week but have only one of them in the ground. Here it’s only mid-May and I’ve been consistently active for a month, but several of the flowerbeds have already been overrun by vines. I’ve found myself in a remake of Christ’s Parable of the Seeds (Matthew 13): “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up… Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”

The last two days I put in some very physical labor. A previous owner planted four yuccas, which have to be cleaned and trimmed every spring, like the palm trees that are bankrupting Los Angeles and San Diego. First I finished my herb garden on the south side with one tomato plant, next to which was a yucca. So I stopped planting to clean it out, then did the other three while I was at it. Two big garbage bags later, I was pretty tired. The yuccas have lots of babies, and for the first time in the five years I’ve lived here, I was able to remove some of the dying parents. I now know more about the sex lives of yuccas than I ever wanted to know.

The east side of my house is done; the side porch looks better than ever with its hanging baskets and planters. Peter from Amsterdam is visiting in two weeks and we’ll hang out there a lot. So I moved on to the north side and found that the English ivy Previous Owner planted had overrun my hostas and irises. I ought to have a dozen irises but only four puny ones have come up! I liked the ivy’s groundcover aspect, but not its aggressiveness—it climbs the walls, eats the mortar from the bricks, curls around the old wood pillars and wants to take over the porch—so it was time to yank it all out. I really had to put my back into the effort, pull with both hands, crawl under bushes, and three hours later I was exhausted.

I got one of the new plants in (I’ve already forgotten the name of it, a gift from my spiritual director’s yard) and that was it. The one good thing was that the azaleas are finally in bloom, ones I planted in memory of my brother Steve, whose birthday was yesterday. I learned that azalea blossoms are much bigger than I thought, about two inches across, not the little bitty things I used to see. So the azaleas are in bloom for Steve, right on time.

On the west side of the house is a different vine, a kudzu type that no one planted, and I’m going to have to do more yanking. That will make space for the other two plants I bought at the daylily farm. And none of this work gets my vegetable garden going or the gladiolus in. The deck isn’t finished, the house needs cleaning and Peter’s started his countdown to America!

(He just called and sang Happy Birthday to my voicemail, his Marilyn Monroe act.)

In Jesus’s parable, the seeds are the word of God, from which great miracles of beauty and food develop. The rocky soil some seeds find (like where my vegetable garden’s supposed to be) is the superficial approach we often take to the gift of God’s seed; the plants pop up but the roots stay shallow. Invasive vines, Jesus says, are our worries and the seductions of this world, which crowd into our lives and choke out all other ideas. We have to uproot those vines if our seeds are to produce anything—and yes, uprooting is work; get sober and turn off the TV, ’cause addictions are killers.

But some fraction of the seeds find their way to good soil, where they invariably thrive. But even then we’ve got to wait; there are few instant rewards in this world.

A wise gardener learns to be patient and enjoy the growth, because one day, sooner than we realize but longer than we hope, the feast will come.

Meanwhile put in your day’s work, and look forward to that salmon ponzu. Fresh chives!++

Postscript:

Now the work is done; the kudzu is gone, though I know it will come back. What’s so frustrating about it is that the roots break off so easily; there’s never a point at which you can find the taproot and dig it out. But it has no leaves above ground now to nurture its rapid growth; if I keep after it all summer I can prevent it from taking over.

What feels best is that now I have only two projects left, three days’ worth of weeding and a lot of shoveling, then my vegetable garden can go in. There may be a bit of rain this week, but temps will rise into the 70s and 80s, and with luck I can get this done before Peter gets on the jet for Chicago. He’s to spend a week there meeting friends and seeing the sights, before getting on a train and coming to my neck of the woods.

The other lesson today relates to those flowering plants I bought at the daylily farm. It’s 15 miles north and 15 miles east of here, but the soil is completely different, much sandier. Here we have rich black loam from ancient river flooding. It might sound hard to believe, but being 15 miles further away means that we don’t get sand from Lake Michigan blowing south. Those same winds created the world-famous Indiana Dunes, and similar ones in Michigan east of the lake. They’re pretty to look at, a great place to swim and picnic and vacation, but you can’t grow flowers or vegetables in sand, as any tour of the Miller section of Gary reveals. The houses don’t have yards there, they’ve got sand and rocks and potted plants; in the winter, the lake-effect snows are horrendous, like Buffalo, New York. The people in Miller have their lake, while I’ve got a little plot of the richest soil on the planet. They wouldn’t trade, but neither would I, so happy birthday to me—Mister President, happy birthday to me.++

The Exhilaration of Putting In Some Flowers

redwaxbegonias

I planted flowers all last weekend, but Monday the weather turned rainy and a bit colder, so I stayed indoors. One generally doesn’t want to plant in the rain, although it depends on what you’re planting and the equipment you’re using. A farmer driving a tractor hauling a 20-row planter may end up stuck in the mud, while a gardener setting out a few seedlings is free to get as wet and dirty as he likes.

My excuse is, I don’t do cold. Dirty is fine and wet is okay if it’s warm enough, but I don’t do cold, which is anything less than 70º.

But what this meant was that I was stuck indoors for three straight days when I had dozens of seedlings waiting for me out on the patio. So I woke up this morning determined that I’d make some progress outdoors.

The morning was wet; I checked the weather radar. I sniffed the air, I looked at the sky, I read the forecasts. I prioritized my tasks, depending on how much time Mother Nature gave me outside. And I went to work.

The first thing was getting the marigold terrace finished; I’d had to quit Sunday evening about 2/3 of the way through. This terrace is just a little landscape feature, maybe 25 feet long, that levels out a slope in my backyard. Any kind of flower would grow well there, but when I first bought this house (five years ago tomorrow!) I planted marigolds, and was so pleased with the results the terrace acquired a name. In previous years I planted several varieties, colors and sizes of marigolds, but this year I decided to cut back to fewer, bigger flowers. Marigolds have to be dead-headed and I’m trying to get away from having to do constant maintenance all summer. Spending less on marigolds allows me to diversify elsewhere. Now the terrace is done and I even had a few plants left over, which I put in a couple of planter boxes on the deck. I hadn’t planned on getting started on the deck but they’ll be happy there.

I cleaned up the last of the leaves and twigs around my old maple tree, which has such a huge canopy that grass won’t grow underneath it. I’d previously planted a dozen lily of the valley bulbs, and today I added a few leftover impatiens. Had to extend the little plastic fence so they don’t get run over by the lawnboy. That was fun; I’ve never put impatiens in the ground before, but they’ll be well-shaded there, extending the color from my side porch with its planters and hanging baskets into the yard itself.

These are my first attempts to fill in that area under the tree, which has the potential for being a real beauty spot in coming years. I once drew up an elaborate plan using dozens of bulbs and bushes, but it was more ambitious and expensive than I was prepared for at the time. Now I’ve established a precedent; I’m not just growing weeds under that tree anymore, it’s going to be landscaped. Start small and go on from there.

It’s hard to describe how exhilarating it is to sit on the ground and dig those little holes, taking care with the earthworms so I don’t hurt them, drop in the little starters and pat them in solidly, generally making a huge mess and yet putting everything back where it belongs; it’s the soil that’s so exciting. It’s some of the most fertile earth on the planet, rich and black, like having a yard full of potting soil, except better. It’s river muck really, carried here by a great flood eons ago. Living here is like farming on the Nile Delta back in the days of the Pharoahs.

king-tut700

This area was once part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, a swamp as big as the Florida Everglades and teeming with life. Then the White man came, drained the swamp for farming and the Army Corps of Engineers finished it off—environmental rape of the first magnitude, an international scandal. You’ve heard of the deforestation of the Amazon? Hoosiers beat ’em to it, and I live on the results.

I grew up on this land, a hundred years after the devastation was done, and all we were told as kids was, “Look what was underneath the water, all this beautiful black loam!” But so it is, better than a yard full of potting soil.

When I moved back here five years ago I put in four tomato plants. I bought cages for them but they still spread five feet wide, producing fruit the size of softballs. I knew it was great dirt but that opened my eyes. I’ve been trying to take advantage of what I have ever since. It’s so much fun to work it between my fingers.

I filled up two more planter boxes of wax begonias for the deck, then I was done for the day. The only thing left, and a huge project it is, is carving out a new vegetable garden in the back by the alley. It will involve a lot of manual labor, digging and moving rocks. That’s where the broccoli and cabbages, strawberries, peppers and tomatoes will go, along with tons of sage to keep out critters, and gladiolus bulbs. I’m not expecting perfection this first year, it will be enough just to get the area dug out. I can expand it next year and have a more coherent plan. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that. Maybe all I’ll get done this year is a space big enough to accomodate the plants I’ve already bought and the seeds I’ve started; next year I can go bigger.

I came inside the house with wet, dirty pants, filthy hands, my hair a mess, and I’ve never felt better in my life. Does gardening fire off endorphins? I don’t have anyone else to grow this stuff for, no visitors yet, only a handful of blog-readers, so I can’t even sublimate and say “I’m doing this for other people.” I’m not, I’m doing this for myself.

It is incredible fun to dig in the dirt and start something new.++

My Favorite Kind of Weather

tulips_from_amsterdam

It’s warm and windy today in the Midwest, my favorite kind of weather, which we only get in the spring, usually in May; President Obama’s been out playing golf, while I’ve been gardening. A farmer’s favorite time of year is the harvest in fall; mine is the planting in spring.

Of course I like eating my harvest too, but my wallet doesn’t depend on it like the farmer’s does. Plus I don’t have to wait six months to harvest my grain all at once; I’ve already copped some chives, the oregano is amazingly big and pretty, and the radishes are thriving. Even the onions, planted the same day, are finally sending up shoots. I’d given them up for dead, so clearly, I’m still learning.

I like the planting as much as the harvest because it lifts my mood from the winter’s misery to be outside and not cold, cleaning out the dead wood from last year, working the earth with my hands, helping make something new. It completely fits the meaning of spring and Easter (which lasts 50 days, not just a one-time event). Besides poking little holes in the ground and dropping in seeds, I get to enjoy the rebirth of everything planted previously. My cherry trees are in full bloom today!

And if ever there was a flower more beautiful than a tulip, I do not know it. I just went out and picked some for a bouquet on my desk, five fat blossoms red and yellow, in a wine carafe. Tulips you don’t leave outside for the neighbors to look at, you bring them indoors where you live, so they can brighten your life every time you see them. These are a conventional variety much like everyone else has, while the Dutch bulbs Peter sent me from Amsterdam (four unusual varieties, but the squirrels got one) take a little longer; when these are gone, his will start popping in vastly different colors, some pink like roses, others yellow and fringey, and others bred to remind you of parrots. Wow.

Now the lilacs are coming on, surely the favorites of all native Hoosiers. Their perfume fills the air and they remind you of Grandma, bringing tears to your eyes.

The crocuses have passed on, leaving behind their sweet skinny leaves, green and white stripes, and in that same bed, the hostas grow half an inch a day; the nearby irises are stirring too. I may have to clear out the groundcover vine so they don’t get choked.

Two days ago I planted a dozen lily of the valley bulbs under my huge old maple tree, and pounded in a little plastic fence to mark their territory. They won’t bloom until next year, and I don’t know if they’ll shoot up some leaves in 2009, but if they do I don’t want them ambushed by the lawnmower.

I also bought $40 worth of starter plants at Murphy’s, including 20 strawberry plants for the new garden in the back. I’m hoping to go in with my next door neighbor on renting a tiller to break the ground; if not I’ll have to do the job by hand, and a $30 rental makes more sense for both of us. But one way or the other it will happen this year; the Great Recession puts everyone in mind of growing more food. I also bought four tomato plants, even though I’ve got my own seeds planted inside the house. I’ve never grown them from seed before, so I don’t know how they’ll do—but I must have tomatoes, my favorite food.

I also picked up four cabbages and four broccoli plants, but curled my lip at the nearby cauliflower. Yeah, it’s a recession, but I ain’t that desperate.

I got the peony bushes staked up; strange doings with them, all planted in front of the house with a northern exposure. The ones closest to the house have shoots three feet tall, while the ones in front of them are six inches. But maybe that’s because white peonies take longer than red ones or vice-versa. Peonies are for my oldest brother, while the azaleas for our middle bro don’t look so thrilled. Come on, guys, the Masters has come and gone.

The herb garden is finished now; I am delighted to see the chives and oregano, and the tarragon is lively, but four others have disappeared. Basil’s considered an annual here, and I got so much last year I don’t need more, but I was hoping for the thyme and rosemary back. Cilantro is a biennial, so I bought Italian parsley and two thyme plants, because they’re little things and one doesn’t give you a year’s worth. If my sage from seeds works, I’m going to have more of it than McCormick’s.

Meanwhile my biggest news yesterday is that the side porch is done, ready for the season, open for business, with four hanging baskets, two plant stands, a yucca tree, eating area and a clean grill. Impatiens do well under the roof, the area’s 8×24, and it’s my favorite place to hang out with friends in the summertime. Peter and I will spend a lot of time there a month from now when he visits. I grilled a couple of burgers for practice (and eating), my first fire of the year, and I’m always amazed at the details of barbecuing I forget during the winter hiatus. The charcoal grate is adjustable, dummy! I began to think of how to store common items so I’m not running back and forth to the kitchen all the time. I need a storage box with salt and pepper, hot pads, plates and stuff; a dorm refrigerator might be nice. But oh, it’s just so wonderful to be outside.

For today, I’m kind of stymied without that tiller; if we’re going to do it we have to wait until the hardware store opens on Monday. I think I’ll go buy stock for the marigold terrace. I want dirt under my fingernails, the sun on my back and wind through my hair.

Damn, those tulips look good. Thank you, God, for the world you have made.++

yucca-in-bloom

It’s Pansy Time!

pansies

Today was Pansy Day at my house. Make all the jokes you want.

Pansies are the first flower to arrive at my local garden supply shop (also known as the town grocery store). They like cool weather; it was a little over 50º here today. In Texas people plant pansies in October, but here in the Midwest they’re a spring thing.

I have two concrete planters on my front stoop, and even though it was windy and a bit cold (I’m not like those other pansies, I like it hot), I got them planted. Mine are purple and yellow, clear-faced (not monkey-faced like the ones above) and the blossoms are a good three inches wide, bigger than I’m used to, nice and showy.

The job didn’t take but a few minutes, including a strange little visit from a squirrel. I saw him a few feet away under my spruce tree; he startled me so I growled at him a second, then I laughed. He didn’t run away; in fact he came closer, within inches of my foot, like he was tame and we knew each other. So we talked a few minutes. Squirrels don’t eat pansies, so no problem. He’s probably eaten some of my tulip bulbs over the years, but I don’t have the evidence to accuse him.

Deer like pansies, but I’ve never seen one in town. They’re all over this area from the Iroquois River to Lake Michigan and I used to see a ton of them driving home from the north late at night, but they pretty much like woods and water in the country. I’ve grown pansies before on my back deck and nothing ever bothered them.

Best of all, for my 15 minutes of work, was the great sense of satisfaction and well-being I got from the planting. I can’t articulate quite why that always happens; when I plant herbs and foodstuffs, I can anticipate good eating in the future, but flowers just make me feel good on their own, without any ulterior motive. Of course I love the blooms, but it’s the sitting them out in the dirt, giving them a good start, that connects me with life. It’s fun to participate in the growth of another creature. Some people keep pets; I garden.

Last Sunday I got the rest of the pepper seeds potted; they have to germinate inside, it’s too cold for them yet. I potted the first batch a couple of weeks ago, so I’m trying to string out the maturity dates. Once peppers come they all seem to arrive at once; I’m doing the same thing with the radishes and scallions. The first radishes have sent shoots and leaves out, but the scallions are still lollygagging.

When it starts to warm up more consistently, I’ll have a lot of planting to do; I’ve got lily-of-the-valley bulbs which can go any day now, plus gladiolus for later on. I’ve got carrot seeds and sage waiting on me too, as well as lots of flower seeds Peter sent. If I were really dedicated I’d just bundle up and dig every day, but it doesn’t take much of a chill to drive me inside.

Once the pansies were in it was time to start cooking dinner; gardening and cooking just seem to go together. The plan was pot roast; it takes a long time, but man, was it worth it. It’s an old-fashioned dish but you can’t beat it. I figure I spent about $7 total and will get three meals out of it. Mmm, the gravy!

Pot Roast with Vegetables

2 lb. chuck roast
1/4 C flour
1 T salt + 1/2 t salt
1 t pepper
2 T soybean oil
[2-3 oz. horseradish]
1 C water
3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
3-4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, or 12 baby carrots
3-4 small onions
1/4 C water
1 T cornstarch

Trim most of the fat from the interior of the roast, separating along the muscles into 2-3 pieces of meat. In a small bowl stir together flour, salt and pepper; rub into meat. Heat oil in Dutch oven, brown meat on all sides; reduce heat to low. [Spread horseradish over half or all of meat, depending on your taste.] Add a cup of water and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Add vegetables and 1/2 t salt, simmer another hour.

Remove meat and vegetables to a platter and keep warm. Turn up heat under broth and get out your glass gravy jar and lid. (You’ve got an old jelly jar, don’t you?) Shake together cornstarch and 1/4 C cold water till starch dissolves; stir into broth and heat to boiling, stirring often. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Enjoy!

Tonight I did something a little extra, given I’m just one guy by myself: I poured my gravy into a gravy boat, just for an added touch of special. I’m convinced gravy tastes better that way. Even on a work night, even single guys: use your gravy boat, it’s why God invented the dishwasher.

I don’t even like cooked carrots, but man, they all disappeared. Cooked onions are sublime in a pot roast, I am always up for potatoes, and the meat has that robust beef flavor you can only get by a cheaper, slow-cooked cut. And the gravy, did I mention the gravy?

Okay, so this won’t be as popular a post as the one about Lust. But it’s all about appetites, enjoying our bodies, keeping life in balance, nurturing other growing things; as good as the food was I didn’t make a pig of myself.

I hope your week is this holy.++

Snow on My Radishes

snow-flowers

The weather’s been bad this week over much of the U.S. from Fargo to Savannah, so I don’t have any right to complain. When did that ever stop me?

I’m a little plucked to see snow on my radishes. Of course, they don’t mind cold weather, which proves that radishes aren’t very bright. But still, I don’t like snow around my garden.

Just yesterday I was thrilled and delighted to find a row of little green leaves outside my back door, the radishes’ first sprouts. My attempt last year to sow radishes and scallions in that bed went for nought, and I didn’t know why; not enough sun, or old seeds? Now I know it was the seeds, not the location. The sprouts this year took awhile, so I’d brushed away the pine bark mulch in case it was too heavy for them; no signs of life on Friday, but by Saturday I had a little row of green. Sound the trumpets! The scallions are lollygagging, but who knows, maybe they’re right on time. If the snow doesn’t get ’em.

Mostly this is a lesson in gardener anxiety; there’s so much to learn in the first few years, so many things that can go wrong, it’s as bad as cooking. One little mistake and your masterpiece turns into an embarassment. It’s a good thing God made me Gay because I could never manage parenthood. Does Johnny have the colic, does he not like bananas or is he just mad at me? Do I call the doctor or jump off a bridge?

And forget it when people say there’s so much gardening advice on the internet. Most of it’s generic bullshit, not nearly specific enough.

But Johnny and radishes have a way of surviving our best attempts to screw them up, and Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. A little snow on the radishes is no big deal.

But gardening really is like parenting, except the scallions never talk back. You wait and wait and wait for the kids to grow up, you try and protect them from every predator you can think of; you build fences, you get them shots, you feed and water, but as soon as you turn your back here comes another thing to worry about.

This weekend I started bell peppers from seeds sent by my friend Peter in Amsterdam. If these things survive they’ll become red and yellow, purple and orange; no common green ones for the Dutch, no sir, not sophisticated enough for ’em. The Dutch think they’re highly advanced in all conceivable ways, which is why they invented wooden shoes and went manic over tulips awhile ago. As a Hoosier I’m highly skeptical of Dutchery; they send “farmers” over here to build animal concentration camps and ruin the environment, because they haven’t enough land over there to ruin their own. At any rate, I planted Peter’s pepper seeds in little plastic containers saved from last year. They’re now in a flat pan next to the kitchen window. This morning I lifted up the pan to show them the snow and told them they’d better be happy they’re indoors; peppers like warmth the way radishes like cold. Peppers are smarter than radishes.

But I planted the pepper seeds in potting soil because that’s all I had; not the right thing to do according to the online advicers. I should have used soilless dirt (?) made of Canadian peat moss and vermiculite and… if I bought a $10 bag of that stuff, how exactly do I save money growing my own peppers? What did gardeners do before there was an internet and university extension service?

I’ll tell ya, somehow they muddled through. So fuck my Dutch pepper seeds if they can’t take a joke.

The other thing I don’t get is planting seeds close to each other, then thinning them out once they sprout. Why not just plant them farther apart? I’m starting to think that gardening advice is one giant conspiracy to drive me crazy. (Or maybe I’m just inclined on my own.)

This I know: I love pulling up a radish, washing it off and slicing it into a salad. I don’t even like radishes that much (my Grandma grew these white icicles that would burn your tongue off), but when you grow your own, by God you love ’em.

I suspect it’s the same way with parents and kids. Forget the parenting instinct, there’s no such thing; kids are work, but after you’ve invested that much time, money and effort into ’em, you want ’em to grow big and strong, if only so they don’t make a fool out of you.

Now tomatoes, they’re a whole different story. Spare no expense with tomatoes; if they want soilless dirt, run to Wally World and buy it for ’em. Run speakers out to the garden so they can hear Mozart. Read ’em poetry, tell them they’re gorgeous; put off your vacation in case there’s a drought. Enroll them in Montessori school, buy them tutoring, save up for Harvard, it’ll all be worth it.

And once they’re finally ready to graduate, take your shirt off, get out the garden hose, grab a salt shaker and march straight for the garden with a gleam in your eye. Bite into that sucker till the juice runs off your chin.

Then you know you’ve been a good parent, your child has fulfilled its destiny. It’s food—and children exist for parents, not the other way around. Yumbo!++

1st Spring Flowers & Planting

crocuses

The crocuses are in bloom today, two purples and two yellows so far. What a happy day at my house!

It got up to 60º this afternoon, and my goal for the day was to get half my onions and radishes planted. I have a little bed just off my back door where I tried to raise onions and radishes last year, but I planted old seeds and got only one little radish. So my goal this year is to find out whether the spot isn’t sunny enough for them, or it’s okay if I use new seeds. I saved the rest to put in another spot that I know is sunny enough.

radishes

From producepedia.com

Before I got started there was some cleaning up to do. I got a trunkload of recycling ready to take to the dropoff place, and worked on my still-experimental compost system to get it ready for spring. I keep it in big plastic bins with holes drilled in them. Compost is inactive during cold weather, so I brought the bins inside the garage; they froze anyway. Now it’s warm enough to haul them back to the garden and see if I can get some usable product this year. Then I went on yard patrol.

I live just south of Chicago, where it’s really windy, and other people’s garbage is always blowing into my yard. One of my cherry trees had a plastic bag wrapped around a branch, so I untangled that, then picked up all the branches that had blown off this winter. The town hauls away tree limbs piled at the curb for free, and we had a lot of dead wood this year after an ice storm. Thus I spotted the crocuses, which have just popped. The previous owner planted just a few of them in an odd little spot that I used last year for my herb garden. In addition to the joy of the first flowers, I noticed something else: the chives have already started coming back! I knew most of my herbs were perennials, but I really didn’t expect that. The other herbs haven’t even stirred yet, but the chives are ready for a first snip and it isn’t even St. Patrick’s Day yet.

chives

I am still getting used to the idea of planting anything this early. The highlights of my garden are always the tomatoes and peppers, and I live far enough north that I have to wait till Mother’s Day before setting them out. I don’t have a basement grow-lamp system yet for starting them early, so I wait until all danger of frost is past before setting out seedlings. Tomatoes are my favorite food and I’d be sick at heart if I planted them too early and lost them to a freeze.

A few years ago my friend Peter in Amsterdam sent me bunches of real Dutch tulip bulbs, which are much more varied than the ones for sale in the U.S. I have tulips that have the coloring of parrots and others that mimic roses, as well as the conventional kind. I noticed a few days ago that the tulips are 4-6 inches tall already, so most of them have survived another winter.

Soon the grocery store will start getting in the first cool weather annuals, and I will set out some pansies in the planter boxes on my front porch. Once it gets hot out and the pansies start to fade, I’ll pull them out and stick begonias or petunias out there. I tried saving some of my begonias from last year by bringing them indoors and keeping them in the basement; I’ve done a fairly good job of watering them this winter and they’ve all survived, so I’ll have free flowers to greet my visitors. At $2.50 a plant, begonias are fairly expensive. Now that I know I can save them over the winter, I may not have to buy many in the future, which means I’ll have money enough to buy other things.

One thing about gardening is that there’s an enormous amount to learn, and you can get only so much info online or in books. Success or failure is as dependent on soil type, drainage and location (sun or shade) as on the quality of the stock that you buy. Put healthy plants in the wrong space and it’s wasted money and effort—as I discovered when I tried growing a few of Peter’s tulips in my concrete planters on the front porch. They got too cold and wet over the winter and rotted out—expensive Dutch bulbs! It would be better to ruin cheap domestic varieties instead. So every gardener lives and learns.

Given the Great Recession we’re going through, I hear that more people will be growing their own fruits and vegetables this year. That might explain why my onion and radish seeds were up 50-80% in price this year. Growing your own is still cheaper but not by that much unless you know what you’re doing. Still, nothing compares to the delight of picking produce from your own garden and eating it for supper—if you make it back to the house, that is.

Everyone around here knows the ideal way to eat a homegrown tomato: out in the garden with the garden hose and a salt shaker. You’re not a real Hoosier till the juice runs down your chin. And if a thief comes along and steals your First Tomato, you’re entirely within your rights to shoot ’em dead. No jury will convict you, so the prosecutor doesn’t even file charges. Survivors might call the sheriff, but he’ll just give ’em a talking-to, and the body will have to be cremated, because even an undertaker won’t bother picking it up, it’s bad for bidness.++

tomatoes