Saturday, May 21, 2011

Zen and the art of garden maintenance

Gardening is the pursuit of the patient.  You plant but must wait for it to fill in.  You might plant something that doesn't thrive in your space or not live at all.  You have to take the long view and be willing to sacrifice hours and days and weeks and months.  I have never been a patient person.  Ask Brendan.  I have the utmost regard for people who garden because honestly, it takes a heroic effort that, when we moved in, I wasn't sure I could ever put forth.  Our house, and the couple who built it, are local legends.  Mary was a tiny woman but she was a gardening powerhouse.  She created extensive planting beds around the property and they're the kind of beds where there is always something in bloom.  Since mid March, we have not once been without some type of blooming tree, flower or bush.  It's beautiful.  And, it's deceiving.

I was talking with a neighbor down the street about our house and the gorgeous surroundings.  She said, "it's such a natural place."  She's right, it IS a very natural looking place.  When you come up to the house, it feels a bit like you have entered a wood that might be inhabited by fairies.  The children even made fairy houses as Mother's Day presents so we now have a housing project for any magical inhabitants.  But, it was very carefully designed to LOOK natural and that's a very different thing.

Mary passed away several years ago and keeping up the gardens was maybe too much physically for Ed  and maybe also too painful emotionally for him.  Interestingly enough, I didn't notice the weeds when we bought the place.  It's funny how that works, isn't it?  I look back now at the pictures we took and there they are - everywhere - but I couldn't see them then.  And, this Spring, when things began to grow, I was unable to tell what was planted and what was weed.  I had to wait for everything to grow in order to see what things were.  And, thank goodness I waited because the result has been extraordinary and it is rewarding to go outside every day.

I've always suspected that I might have a slight case of Attention Deficit Disorder.  I believe this is why my favorite room to clean in the house is the bathroom.  It gets so gross, with the kids spitting toothpaste everywhere - except in the sink.  And we have a four year old boy, so I don't think I have to tell you how disgusting the area around the toilet can be.  Plus, my children seem to get dirtier than everyone else's children.  Catie likes to war paint herself with juice from berries, for example, so the tub can get rings that are the stuff of legends.  You'd think I'd hate cleaning it but no.  I love that it's such a small room.  Even if it's completely trashed, I can have it spotless and gleaming in less than half an hour.  I adore instant gratification.

And so, I am astonished at how much I enjoy weeding the garden.  Flower beds, vegetable garden, around the fruit trees, you name it.  I am a completely schizophrenic gardener - working one day on the grapevine and the next on the front flower bed.  I have yet to actually completely finish working on any one area.  But, I think that's how gardening works.  I don't think you can ever be done.  I can weed around a fig tree and the next day, literally, the weeds will be back.  Not just peeking out of the soil, but 2 inches tall!  So, I don't worry that things are in a constant state of half doneness.  I just keep going, imagining that one day - far, far into the future - I might "catch up" to the gardens.

Before weeding

After weeding
For me, weeding the garden is a very zen thing.  Ripping out weeds is cathartic.  And, when a particularly large root comes out with my pull I am disproportionately proud.  I lie in bed at night, sore from bending over the beds, and I'm happy.  It's been said that successful gardening depends upon your enthusiasm keeping up until your back gets used to it.  My back is clearly not yet used to it but my enthusiasm is going strong, so I've got that going for me!

Friday, May 13, 2011


Well, it's been a busy couple of weeks around here.  In addition to all the usual things, like work, gardening, keeping the house, tending to the chickens, and extracurricular activities, we've been beset by plagues.  I always thought that only happened in biblical times or in some third world country, but no.  We're in the middle of not one, but two unwelcome invasions.

It's the year of the Magicada here in NC, a 13 year cicada that apparently REALLY loved Pittsboro last time around.  It's known as The Great Southern Brood and it's a fitting name.  The periodical cicadas are really interesting, if for no other reason

than that they spend all but a few weeks of their 13 year life cycle underground and live for only a few weeks up above.  They began emerging here about 10 days ago or so and at first they weren't all that noticeable.  Then, one day, they were everywhere!  Their molted nymph shells can be found clinging to what seems like every leaf and tree trunk or forming a crunchy carpet under the trees.

Sidewalks and driveways are a war zone, strewn with bodies that were squashed underfoot or by car tires.  But, it's the sound that is most pervasive.  The males produce a high pitched whirring noise that is their mating call and when you are surrounded by millions of male cicadas looking for love it sounds as though an alien spaceship is hovering just overhead.  You can't escape the sound.  Even indoors with all the windows and doors closed, it's still there.  And, overlayed with the mating call is the response of the female cicada.  She clicks her wings to tell the males where she is.  The clicking would sound much like grasshoppers or crickets (without the chirping element), if you had hundreds of thousands of them in your backyard.  And they will land on you without a second thought - shudder.

But, as loud as they are, the cicadas are the more tolerable plague that is currently tormenting us.  Worse is the intestinal parasite that has decided to hang out here.  For more than two weeks now, one or more of the children has been ill.  Abdominal cramps and random vomiting have become the norm.  Evan's tally is most impressive, having thrown up in a restaurant dining room, the kitchen sink at a friend's house (thanks for being so cool about that, Kelley!), and for the win - in my parent's brand new car.  It was only 24 hours old.

Because we don't actually live in the middle ages, the most likely culprit for this bug was our well.  If ground water seeps into your well, you'll also get all the yucky stuff that comes along with it.  However, the health department tests of our water came back negative, so the mystery continues.  Even though my research into the parasite says chickens don't carry it, I'm planning to kick the birds off the porch this weekend so that I can soak the entire house in Purell.  The kids are on antibiotics also, so hopefully we'll win this round.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The View from the Tractor

I am neither as organized nor as informative as my lovely wife, but shall endeavor to offer a bit of my thoughts on our grand experiment….

Do you have an inkling, a modest comprehension, a well-informed opinion or a post doctorate level of knowledge on exactly how much grass is incorporated into 11 acres or so?

Neither did I.

It is a veritable sea of grass, not in any sort of post-Victorian poetic way, but in a tick infested, pollen hurling and downright vindictive way. I could actually sit and watch this grass grow.  It grows almost with malice, with a total disregard for my great plans to cultivate it and harness it - it grows that fast.  Of course when there is finally a time that presents itself to me in which I could mow this nefarious turf… it rains.  5 inches into drought and it rains!!!  Aargh.

Into this fray roars my bad-ass John Deere 2140 compact utility tractor.  Does a blog have sound effects?  If it did we’d need something very triumphant.  Superman perhaps, but not anything too orchestral, nothing John Williams.  It is 24 horsepower of raw green power - I literally swooned when I drove it for the first time.  It cuts grass like crazy and is more than a little fun to drive around.  When the neighbor came over to check it out I geeked out about it.

So problem solved?  Brendan gets a tractor, the grass cowers and all is peaceful in the land?  No.  People who visit the farm need, in a diabolical, neurotic, and somewhat obsessive manner, to tell him how much he needs to mow his grass, or even better how to do it.  This commentary is meant to be helpful, encouraging even - your neophyte farm owner knows this.  But did you really think I didn’t know that if you leave grass clippings on the lawn it might have a deleterious effect on the grass?  Geesh.  Sorry, Dad, I know you mean well.  

In other news I am still able to hoodwink people into thinking I can cook which means I am gainfully employed.  This seems to be a good thing, but I’d rather be taking sustainable agriculture classes down the road.  But since I am about as clueless about farming as I am about string theory I’ll keep making food.  The new pork shoulder is actually pretty good.

The chicks are getting bigger, Leslie finally got stung by a bee (justice), flowers are blooming and I still have to pick up the dog’s poop, so all is right with the world.