Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

Prisoner for a night

May 21, 2010

It was hot this past week.

As we stumble out of winter and into spring, bravely facing the elements in the garden to start the yearly ritual of planting so that we can sit back in the summer and watch the vegetables grow, we complain. It doesn’t matter what we complain about. We simply are in the habit of complaining.

It starts this way:

“Spring will never come. It’s so rainy! Aren’t we ever going to get some sunshine?” followed by:

“It’s too hot!” This last complaint comes after the first morning of sunshine in a week – but this time with a bit of force behind it. It’s not the weak thready sunshine of winter. No. This sunshine has some punch and it heats up up to a whopping sixteen degrees. “We’re not complaining though, ”  we follow on, but really we are.

We start to wear layers and can be seen tossing off one of them or putting one back. The sleeveless padded down vest is replaced by a fleece one. We rake up the leaf mould and put it in the compost to rot some more with kitchen  compost and the first grass clippings, mixing as we should the brown with the green.  After a few moments of such labour, off comes the sweater. It’s too hot.

Stand in the shade – it’s too cold.

On Tuesday, the sun came out in full force. It was mightily pleasant and I wore my shorts in a devil-may-care attitude although I shouldn’t be seen in shorts in public any longer. No matter! I was in my own garden and sure to be overheated if I remained in my winter fleece.

In late afternoon, I took the car to pick up some bread and milk at the grocery store. The black interior had absorbed the day’s heat with a vengeance. The black leather was ready to barbecue my tender flesh, but I had changed back into decent leggings and sat for a few minutes to let the hot air out and to soak in the delicious heat.

When I got back, both front windows wide open letting in the eighteen degree weather, I reflected that it takes a bit of time to adjust to temperatures. Normally even in winter, I only keep the thermostat at nineteen degrees throughout the house, so why was it, on this day, that I was feeling cooked while indulging in temperature that was a degree less? It’s all relative. I would have to adjust to summer one more time. For summer was surely coming. Four more days of this heat were forecast.

So as I  left the car, I opened the skylight a fraction of an inch to let hot air rise and leave and I left only one of the front windows open a wrist’s worth, not open enough for a car thief to get in, but open enough to let a breeze go through. I parked it in the shade of two grand cedar trees that surely began life in the early 19oo’s. They are easily one hundred feet tall.

Next morning, we had a mission, Frank and I. Yes, Frank has come back into my life a little bit, returned from the Far East where he wintered for a couple of months, and he phoned up to see if he could help me turn the decommissioned sauna into a storage space. That was last month.

I went on a trip of my own to Victoria to visit some friends a few weeks ago and he, knowing that I wanted some work done in the garden, asked if he could help me with that as well. He’s at loose ends and is looking for company.

It suits me. I know that he has a work ethic bar none, and that I can trust him to do a good job. That being said, if he doesn’t approve of what I want him to do, he pulls an adult tantrum and I often bend, if it doesn’t really matter to me.  I might also end up with something that he wants rather than what I asked for, another familiar manipulation that a gal learns after twenty years of marriage and ten more of on-and-off relationship.

It was in this manner that my two garden beds shifted ten feet to the west and lost their unique U shape.  He insisted that the sun I would get would be much better where he wanted them. I didn’t hold my ground (nor stick to my brand new, not yet fully paid for,  garden design). It seemed like a little concession and I could fudge the design back into looking much like it was supposed to.

All the way up until the end, we talked about the U shape. When he laid the planks out in the garden to show me where it was and for my confirmation that the beds were parallel to the fence and acceptable for my design, the U was still there. But when he called me to see his final product, somehow the little end  of garden had disappeared.

“What happened to the U?” I exclaimed is some disbelief. But with a sinking feeling, I knew what had happened. He didn’t approve of it. I wouldn’t be able to get the wheel barrow in t either end. I would have had to back in with it to roll it out forward. With both ends, I didn’t have that problem. He recognized that the design was prettier than it was practical and with out saying, just made a one-sided decision.

What was the point in protesting. If he didn’t want to do it, I would have to get someone else to do the work. It wasn’t worth the argument and the bins looked quite handsome the way they were. I let it go.

But this little detail of my story comes after my saga of the prisoner, so now I regress.

On the morning where we were going to pick up the lumber for my raised beds,  we headed out to the car and nothing looked unusual.  It was when I opened up the driver’s side door that I was confronted with a robin-sized bird flapping with panic.  It had somehow thought that my car was a likely candidate for a summer’s nest.  That wrist-sized opening had just been enough to get into the car but the configuration of things had not been sufficient for him to get back out.

I looked him up in my bird book later. It was a fairly rare Rufous-sided  Towhee.

He must have cried for help because both rear-view mirrors were decorated with a thick layer which I imagine was deposited by two family members, one on each side, keeping the prisoner company.

Frank opened the two doors on the passenger side and I opened the back driver’s side door and the panicking bird flew off without so much as a thank-you for its liberation.

Talk about decoration! We spent half an hour getting the car cleaned before we could drive away in it. The steering wheel had made a perfect perch for the night but it wasn’t the only place to be cleaned, by any means. All the frustrated wanderings of the poor bird to discover some means of escape had been marked of the passage.

As nests go, it was spacious and luxurious – leather padded lining, plenty of wing-room, some practice-flying space but it lacked in accessibility – or should I say exitability.

In the afternoon, I spent an hour and a half re-cleaning the interior of the car and then the outside. It was a good thing.  I rarely do cleaning, not to say that anyone else does it for me, so it had become dusty and full of Sierra’s dog hair – my sister’s pet whom I had dog-sat for the month of May.

I just want to add this little bit of adventure, which relates to our search for lumber.

On the bird’s liberation day, we went to a big-box hardware store to find the wood we needed for my raised garden beds. Good grief! It was very expensive. With my green thumb which tends more to a dainty pink colour, I would never grow three hundred dollars worth of vegetables. This really was a hobby farmer’s luxury! Each two by ten by twelve was worth almost twenty dollars.

On an off chance, the day that we picked up the wood, I insisted on going to the local lumber yard /hardware store to see if we could get a better price – or even just support local business.  Wouldn’t you know, there was someone very knowledgeable who directed us to something called garden-grade lumber. It was really all that we needed.  There were some faults to it, but nothing major. Instead of twenty dollars a plank, we paid  seven. That’s a mighty savings.

Frank insisted that a six foot plank would fit into the car if we simply put the front seat down as far as it would go. He would travel back and forth in the back seat behind the driver (me).

Now if my car was a clunker, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so worried. But my car is a Lexus with black leather upholstery and I would never have had this car on my own doing if Frank hadn’t insisted that it was a bargain that couldn’t be passed up.  I would never have thought of buying a luxury car.

Last year when the prices came down on cars because of the market crash, I looked for another car, a newer one with less intrinsic faults than this one. It is, after all, seventeen years old now. But anything I drove was so heavy to drive, so clunkerish, so tinny, even though it was new.  The clincher for keeping this vehicle of mine is that the car dealers will only give me three thousand dollars for it! Some luxury! I’ll just keep the thing and run it into the ground!

But by that I didn’t mean losing the ceiling cover to some rough piece of cedar, nor scratching up the fancy leathers. I cringed at the thought.

Once again, I bent to his insistence. I did not gain my way to have the lumber delivered for fifty dollars.  We made three trips in the pouring rain (and the temperature fallen to ten degrees once more) back and forth with eight pre-cut six foot long planks piled on the passenger seat.  I admit that I prayed for the leather and was prepared to curse if anything befell it.

Frank’s smiley face at the end of the third round tells the tale. “See, I told you so” he says. “Trust me!”

So those were the adventures that surrounded my new garden beds.

I must say though, I can’t help thinking of that poor Rufous thing locked up in the clink all night, weeping and gnashing its “hens-teeth”, abetted in its frustration by two watchful friends on the rear view mirrors. Poor Towhee!

I bet his lady isn’t buying the “Trust me!” quip.

In fact, I might even have heard her saying, “I told you so!”

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Day hijacking

October 26, 2009

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I had promised myself a time for drawing in the morning, and in fact, picked up my tray of most recently used chalk pastels from last spring, six months back at least, to draw something. Anything, really. Just something to get going with. I’m have been going through such an artist’s block that it’s no longer funny. I need to do something to get myself in gear.

I chose a cream coloured piece of Ingres paper to start with and since I didn’t have any expectations of a fine drawing in the end, I chose some scraps of chalk pastel to work with. I had lots of splinters and crumbles and short pieces of various reds.

I pressed these into the paper making incoherent marks, not knowing really where this was going, just looking for some inspiration, just wanting to exercise my experimental side of drawing.

Soon I had some flow. I overlaid the bits of red marks with charcoal, still trying to work freely. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and was getting hungry. I hadn’t even had my first cup of coffee, but I knew if I didn’t keep at it, I would abort and abandon the work.

Soon I was forming the charcoal layer into a heart shape. It’s one of my themes but I feared for this one because it was not being formed from some inner feeling; it was just starting as an exercise and perhaps would not achieve the substance that the other ones had done.

I didn’t like the white background and started to fill the outer edges with more dense reds.  Finally I got to a stopping point determined by my realization that if I continued on I would spoil what I had done which wasn’t too bad.  I’d have to look at it a while before I could either take another step towards another layer of chalk marks or decide that it was done and spray it with fixative. I left it up on the easel.

While I was preparing my first coffee, Mrs. Stepford’s doorbell rang. You might remember that Mr. Stepford, annoyed by my door knocker, decided to give me an electronic door bell for Christmas last year. He even installed it for me. The only glitch in the system is that their frequency is the same as mine, so when their doorbell rings, so does mine.  It might not have been important, except that in the time it takes someone to walk from their place to mine, mine rang.

I can tell the difference because, when their’s rings, it rings once. Mine rings twice.

I was fearing the worst – religious persuaders, newspaper promotions, some cocky sales agent of fixed energy payment equalization (this has been a nation wide scam since utilities deregulation). All I could see was a tall dark man’s shape through the machine lace of the front door curtain. I wished that I had gotten into the habit of at least putting the latch on the screen door.

I could see that he was wearing a tee shirt and a none too clean one, too; that ruled out the other people I was loath to see, since they usually came in inexpensive ill fitting black suits and carried clip boards or brief cases.

My fears were laid to rest when I opened the door. It was Daniel, our lawn maintenance man, all grubby from his hard labour, his open face smiling broadly.

“I’m back from Prince Edward Island,” he said. “Do you want your lawn cut?”

I looked out at my mossy green front yard. There was hardly any grass to cut. If you remember, I discovered a ninety percent ratio of moss to grass as I was pulling out dandelions by hand this summer. The moss was thriving now in this cooler wet weather. It had rained overnight and everything was still damp.

“You know, Dan, I’d rather have you prune the apple tree out front. Could you do that today instead?”

Dan started visibly calculating behind his serious blue eyes.

“Yeah. I could do that.  I guess I could. Mrs. Stepford is not home so I don’t know if she want’s hers done. I was planning on lawns. But no, I could do the apple tree. ” As a non sequitur, he added, “I brought you and Mrs. Stepford a gift from Prince Edward Island. It’s been frozen all this time. You don’t need to worry about that. I brought home thirty pounds of buffalo meat all packed up by a regular butcher. I don’t know what you do with it, cook it slow, I think. ”

“How sweet of you to think of us,” I said and he blushed, a little shy at my effusive thanks.

As he turned to go down the stairs to his truck, I mentally groaned that I had given away my drawing day. I might not return to it again today and then, who knows when?

For good or for ill, help or hindrance, I always work with Daniel when he comes for a tree trimming project. These are projects I can’t manage by myself – I’m not knowledgeable  about chain saws and I’ve been warned I’m klutz enough that I shouldn’t insist on learning. “You wouldn’t want to be missing a few fingers or toes, would you?” Frank had said.

Thus it was that my drawing day was hijacked; but when I got outside to point out what I wanted done, I was not one bit sorry. It was likely the last mild day of autumn.

The sun was working hard to reverse the effects of rain and some northern cold fronts that had  spent time in our corner of the world. The grass was still filled with dew even though it was near noon. Light filtered throught the red and orange leaves of the Japanese maple; the magnolia leaves were bright yellow gamboge.

Gamboge, Wikipedia tells me, ” is most often extracted by tapping resin from various species of evergreen trees of the family Guttiferae.  The trees must be at least ten years old before they extract the resin by making spiral incisions in the bark and by breaking off  leaves and shoots and letting the milky yellow resinous gum drip out. The first recorded use of gamboge as a color name in English was in 1634. ” It’s also one of my favorite yellow pigments in watercolour with its robust yellow tending to orange.

The magnolia leaves lay like a skirt below the lightly clad tree as if it were only dressed now in a flimsy petticoat.  The colours all about were magnificent. I started to pick up beautiful leaves, not only from the maple and the magnolia, but from the Dogwood and the various nut trees deposited from neighboring homes. I soon had to stop that, or I would have carried a bushel of them into my house to paint – the painting of which I was foregoing for this beautiful day of garden work outside. On the south side of the property, I could see into Mrs. Stepford’s yard. Her sumac was one solid block of vermillion. Against the brilliant grass green, the colours just popped!

Daniel, by this time, was sawing off low branches and water-shoots on the apple tree.  That didn’t take long. It was quite surprising how much he could clear out of the tree while still standing on the ground; but there was still a lot to be brought down. Agile like a twenty-year-old, he propped his chainsaw between lower branches, grabbed two sturdy limbs and climbed up in amongst them. He grabbed his saw with one hand and continued to climb until he was in the top of this overgrown tree. He proceeded to saw away unwanted growth, then to pull these free of the branch tangles and throw them down to the lawn.

I realized it was the first time years that I had seen someone climb a tree. I searched back. My first boyfriend and I used to climb the cherry tree in his back yard to collect fruit for his mom. That was the last that I climbed a tree. Before that, we had climbed the dogwood in the back yard on 36th Avenue before I was ten and had earned a ferocious scolding from mother who was fearful of us falling. When Jason had cut back the Bing cherry in my yard,  he had used a ladder.  There had been none of this balancing between branches nor the acrobatic extensions to reach out and saw.

Daniel stayed aloft while, from the ground,  I tried to guide him to cut the right branches at the right length so that in the end, we would have a nicely shaped tree. In the end, he had taken a good six feet of height from the tree and cleared out the crossing branches.

The long part of this project is loading up the branches for the yard-waste dump.  I began dragging the smaller branches to his pick-up truck and soon had if filled with  them. He brought the bigger ones.

Undaunted by his full truck, he continued to pile on more and more, occasionally leaping up into the mess of tangled  limbs and crushing them down with his feet until he had almost all the branches in the back. Such was the entanglement that they all held together when he drove off.

He left me to watch over his tools – the saw, a leaf blower, a rake, two large orange fuel containers looking much like pumpkins in this autumn landscape, and a large green garbage bin with a plastic lid that he used to pick up smaller debris.

I couldn’t make progress on the tree while he was gone, I couldn’t leave the yard and his worldly wealth of gardening equipment, so I took the secateurs and headed for my hapless vegetable garden. There I cut the little crown cabbage heads off  the top of each stem which, by doing so, supposedly promotes the growth of the Brussel sprouts  that are  burgeoning out of the stem at the point where each leaf starts. I picked the one lone bean still growing on the vine. I pulled out the blackened tomato plants that had succumbed to the last overnight frost as had the butternut squash that had flowered but never fruited.

I heaped up some soil around the fennel which apparently likes this cool weather, although, novice that I am in the vegetable gardening business, I don’t know when enough is enough.  In other words, I busied myself with little garden tasks until he returned.

We finished packing the truck, raked the leaves and rotten apples that had fallen in the process, cut back main trunks from two of the flowering shrubs and he loaded my six large bags of yard waste into the truck. I added the woody stems of fireweed from the garden beside the front door since they won’t rot easily and while I was there, cut a few glorious hydrangea heads all purples and pale blues for cut flowers in the house.

It was four o’clock when I came in from our labours. He had headed down to the yard-waste dump again. He was back in an hour for his pay cheque to which I added a frozen container of apple sauce made from that very same tree that we had trimmed.

I was happy to have had some split pea soup with ham already made up. I wasn’t about to cook myself dinner after all that work. I felt invigorated but tired too. All that fresh air. All that lovely autumn colour and sensation. It was worth having the drawing hijacked… There would be another day.

Radish greens

August 13, 2009

The saga of my productive garden is becoming legendary for its inability to produce.

We had a lovely day at 22 degrees Celsius and a mild breeze making even full sunshine very pleasant. I tackled the front lawn, if you can call it that.

I have a young man come to cut my lawn every two weeks, but I canceled this week because the grass had not grown. The only thing that had grown was a fine crop of dandelion-like weeds. They were waving their pretty yellow flowers about a foot off the ground. My basic goal was to get the flower heads off; while I was at it, I dug up as many of their roots as I could.

I found a little red-handled tool, distressed with age that my father had used many years back – he died in ’80 so it’s almost 30 years, give or take a few months.  It looks much like a shortened sabre with a curved handle and the blade part  forked at the bottom like a snake’s tongue. One inserts this in at the centre of the weed and levers the tap root free of the soil. Then, the weed can be wiggled out of the soil easily, most times without breaking the root. If the root breaks, then the remainder left in the soil persistently will simply re build the plant and give up another finely rooted yellow flower waving, mockingly, “ha ha!!!” in a week or so.

As I was pulling out the deeply rooted  weeds, I was pulling out anything that was just starting. With each of these littler weeds came fistfuls of moss. I didn’t have a lawn. No wonder it hadn’t grown in the past two weeks. Moss and weeds – that’s what my lawn man has been cutting!

Typical of my gardening efforts, midway through my allotted time for weed-pulling, this very effective tool split in half just where the metal part and the handle met; so I gave up weeding and turned my attention to other bits and pieces that needed doing in the garden.

One of these was harvesting the radishes. Of course, we all know what a radish should look like. You can get them at fifty cents a fine bunch of about ten radishes. The leaves were so high on my radishes I was convinced that I should get something for my diligence in planting and tending these crunchy, refreshing,  “easy to grow” “ready to eat in 45 days”vegetables.

It was no surprise to me. My green thumb having once again received the inept award this year, the radishes came out with red roots alright, but there wasn’t an edible round globe to be seen. The roots were long, like two inches long or more, hairy and thick like a straw. I couldn’t resist, thinking that perhaps I had purchased an odd variety of seed, and I chewed into one of these once they were washed.  Woody. Unchewable. No taste at all.

But I was in possession of a vast amount of radish greens.

If that’s my crop, I say, then what can I do with it?  So I hopped onto the Internet and Googled “radish greens”.

Much to my delight, there were a number of references for radish greens.

I started and ended with this one. Its pages look so yummy. And since the recipe was out there for everyone to see, I thought I just might try to cook up some Radish Greens  Soup.

http://veganvisitor.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/dont-toss-those-radish-greens/

I’ve been at it all night. After washing them, I tossed them in a large pot to steam for ten minutes. They were soft and very green.When I tasted them, they tasted pretty green too. There’s not much flavour – but then again, there are a lot of vegetables without flavour that are made delicious by the spices and herbs or garlic and butter that one seasons them with. So I added in onion and parsley, salt and pepper and some chicken flavouring. That made it taste much better.

Then I took my hand held blender and began the blending process.  The greens don’t look too appetizing by themselves and the photo on the Vegan Visitor blog looks so scrumptious.  I was looking for that kind of smoothness. Only, every time I put the  blender in the pot, it would start dancing on it’s own. It did not want to be led systematically into chopping up my soup.

Finally, it began to whir in an unfamiliar tune. You know how motors all have their own sounds. I drew it out of the pot. It was as tangled as if it had gone underwater and been attacked by green octopus; or perhaps it resembled Medusa’s head full of tangled snakes.  The stems, you see, are woody and stringy but I didn’t know that in advance.

So there I was at midnight, still trying to free the blender blade from these incredibly tough  threads of Radish. They are so durable they could be used for dental floss. Now there’s an idea. Organic dental floss!

I had a long needle from my upholstering project and I’d dig it in under the tangled mass and pull out what I could, then cut it with scissors; extract that, and then begin again. I got it all, alright, but I was weary of it long before it was done.

Did I taste the soup, you may well ask? Of course!

It’s an interesting taste. The bit of mint lifts it right out of the ordinary, and yes it’s good. I added some yogurt to get it to go creamy and that improved the recipe, if you ask me. I would have tried sour cream if I had any, but I wasn’t about to go grocery shopping at midnight.

In the end, after three hours of work, I have three large yogurt containers filled with radish green pulp more or less blended. With the rich harvest this year, there’s not much room left in the freezer, so I guess I’ll be living on Radish Greens soup for the next little while.

Anyone want to come over for soup?

Five cents to the good

August 4, 2009

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At fifty cents a bunch, mid summer, radishes come in tens or so. I figure the  nice round edible one I pulled from the ground yesterday puts me five cents to the good on my profitability count for the vegetable patch.

Don’t get thinking, though, that this luscious zucchini flower is from my garden. The glorious thing comes from Mrs. Stepford’s garden. Miracles happen in her garden overnight. Especially zucchini miracles. She will take all the fresh zuchinis out of her garden and give them away to friends. They are growing so fast that the next day, she will find another whole crop! They grow over night. It’s creepy, in a way. This long vine-like plant just keeps marching across the lawn with its giant green prickly leaves, sending down toe-holds onto the grass, producing one fruit after another. Amazing!

I’ll have to go out this afternoon and see if I have any flowers developing.

News from the garden

August 2, 2009

Frank came by to install baseboards on the main floor. He did an excellent job of it. We hadn’t seen each other in months.

In my solitary life, I’ve employed my time with writing, gardening and painting. I see friends and am working at promoting my art work. Of all of these, the only thing in which he is remotely interested is the gardening, so I took him on a tour.

I’m rather proud of what I have accomplished in the two years I’ve had this place. It was overgrown. Shrubs had to be cut back. The boxwood was so prolific that a car could no longer drive up the driveway. The iris beds were overrun and so thickly matted together that it was impossible to get a spade through them to thin them out as they should be. I’ve still not tackled that problem.

This year I have cleared some areas and turned the soil. I am a rank dilettante at this and happy to be so. I’m mostly interested in seeing what I can grow and with the renewed interest in growing one’s own food, I thought I might give it a try.

I understood that several things would thrive on rich soil such as one might find where a compost heap had once been. Whistler, on one of his lengthy visits, found the original compost heap and we used the surface dirt in other areas.

When I planned my food garden this year, I had to work around the fact that really, there was very little space left for food plantings. In May, the Triple Tree Nursery had a door crasher sale on seedlings. I went to get some tomato plants at sixty-eight cents each. There were cucumbers and squash plants as well and I had the luminous idea to put one or two in the old composting area. Since the trees had been cut back, lots of light came into this little corner of the yard.

I had an ulterior motive. All that garden area needs to be dug over and it’s a big spot.  It’s riddled with buttercup and I’ve only taken out a fraction of what needs to be removed. I had a hopeless thought that perhaps the squash and cucumber family of plants would grow so prolifically that their large leaves would cut off all the light from the buttercup and my garden woud not look quite so unkempt.

Then I lucked out on a purchase of several flats of annuals from a local farm. They were finished with their sale of plants. In amongst those things that I bought were fennel, so much Brussels Sprouts that I had to give more than half of the seedlings away,onions,  a few more tomatoes, some celery plants, more cucumber plants and what else I no longer remember. I spent perhaps fifteen dollars on the total of it, and seven dollars could be attributed to potential vegetables.

When I said I didn’t know exactly where I was going to plant them, that the garden was already pretty full, the farm lady said, “Your Brussel Sprouts can go in with the flowers. They are tall and their leaves very pretty. When they flower they are magnificent.

Within three days, all was planted. They were not in a vegetable patch. They were, as she suggested, in amongst the flowers with which, normally, I have a modicum of success.

That was the end of  May. When Frank saw the garden it was the end of June. It’s the end of July now and this is a progress report.

In the cheeriest voice I could muster, almost knowing before I said it, what his reaction would be. I said to Frank, “How do you like my vegetable garden?”

I chuckled inwardly as he struggled to keep his disdain from his voice. We have a tenuous friendship now and he was keeping his response in mind of this fact.

“I hope you didn’t outlay too much money for all this,” was all he would say, with as neutral a look as he could muster.

Since, I’ve had several occasions to doubt my ability to grow vegetables.  All previous attempts in my earlier years were disasters. Why would this year be an;y different? Notable  was the year that the deer got everything just a few days before I intended to harvest.  I consoled myself that they had not eaten the root vegetables, except for the tops of them. When I pulled out the remains, there were no roots. I think I had not watered them as I should.

Last year, the only food crop I had planted was yellow beans, but they were not successful. I gave the only bean that produced – yes, just one bean – to my sister to eat, and it was so small and tender that it did not even need cooking.

I took Lizbet to see Lillian’s wonderful garden on the fifteenth of July. Now, there is a garden! The cabbages are twenty four inches across. The garlic flowers stand six feet high. The raspberry canes are calling out for passers-by to steal a few of the plump berries. There are rows of tall onion plants. The lettuce crop has come and gone. She allows them to go to seed for next year and they are really rather beautiful, standing a good two to three feet tall with large leafy bases, some ruffled with red, some with a pale soft new green. Everything is developing, growing robustly, big and bountiful.

Several times, I’ve thought I should see whether or not my twenty dollars of seedling purchase could be justified. I would love to say that I had profited from my labours.

I’m inching up in this regard. The strawberries – perhaps a bowlful as the entire crop – doesn’t count. The plants were free, a gift from Lizbet. The handful of raspberries are already harvested. There were so few at a time that I ate them at the start of my gardening session, a kind of encouragement for my labours. They too, don’t count – the canes were a gift from Heather from her garden. Twice I have given a haircut to my chives and eaten them chopped fine in an omelet shared with some visiting relative. Again – no monetary return.

On Tuesday, I harvested ten lovely big broad beans, tender, full of goodness and tasty with just salt and butter. I ate them for dinner. I’ll hazard that I’m thirty cents to the good on that one. More are coming.

I don’t know what got into me today. The thriving potatoes that I had planted from sprouting old ones in the bottom of my fridge vegetable bin started to annoy me. They take up too much space. The Brussel sprouts are not growing and I suspect it’s because they don’t have enough light. So I pulled one out this morning only to find a potato half the size of a baseball.  I was encouraged.

I kept digging, dreaming of a new potato dinner. By the time I was finished, I had a pound of potatoes, I’ll hazard a guess. There’s another fifty cents. I replanted a few of the potatoes that had tiny new potatoes coming to see if that might work. You never know.

I cooked my harvest up for dinner. They have rather rough skins which I peeled away. When they were cooked al dente, they nevertheless fell into a powdery mush. Ach! I fried them up with butter, trying to make the best of a doubtful deal. They are the mashed potatoes type of potato. The little bit of butter became a big bit of butter. It didn’t matter how much butter was added, they simply absorbed it. I ate them all – and I didn’t even really like them.

I will add though, that my rhubarb is finally eight inches high, the celery is not any higher, the Brussels sprouts are on the average six inches high (my friend Lillian of the green thumb, hers are four feet high. Raspberries and strawberries, are of course, finished for the year. I have one big beautiful flower on the Butternut squash and the leaves, just today, have become big and are beginning to travel across the garden in a direction opposite to the buttercup they were supposed to disguise.  The onions that are supposed to be big like a baseball are still looking like bunch onions – small, weak and thin.

And that’s my progress report.

I think I’ll go out and rip all the potatoes out when it gets cool tonight. I didn’t even like them!

Mud pie

June 16, 2009

After four days of visitors and a bit of partying on Saturday night, then on Sunday, me going to visit Frank, my mind was quite full of non-spiritual thoughts. I drank my first cup of hot coffee of the day, then gathered my little kit of gardening implements – a trowel and and secateurs – and went out to water my thirsty plants. There’s nothing like gardening (for me) for giving me time to contemplate and meditate. It’s grounding (sorry for the pun, but I can’t find another word) and calming.

It’s been unseasonably hot here. Usually June is a thoroughly wet month. One June, 1983 I think it was, there were forty days and nights of rain; well, the rain spilled over into May and July a bit, to get that count. I remember it well because I came home from France that year when my Dad died. I arrived in time for the funeral. And if the rain was not depressing enough, and then my Dad, there was a recession going on, just about as bad as this one of 2008 and 2009. I was penniless and in need of a job.

When I phoned Mother, she had said, “Don’t come. There’s no work here.”

But Frank and I had shut the doors on our antiques and collectibles business. Spending had stopped short and money was going out, but it wasn’t coming back in. I came back to Vancouver anyway and then I had to find work.

I did any work I could find. I signed up with a temporary personnel agency. I was a writer in the Provincial elections. The writer is the person who finds your name on a list and crosses your name off when you get your ballot. It’s a bit of a misnomer. No one really writes anything. Just the opposite. The writer strikes through typeface.

It was through the temp agency that I got the clerical job with the Property Management company and that changed my life.  I doggedly hung on and I finally became a Property Manager, even though it took me six years. It was during that time that I taught at the local Art College – at night, during my annual leave, on weekends. Anything was good. And day after day, I went to work, in the middle of June, wearing a raincoat and umbrella.

But now it is just about the opposite. I can’t remember when last we had rain. May 15th, I think. The soil is dry and crumbly like desert sand. Water sits on the surface and does not soak in.

I don’t need to work; I’ve retired and I’m thankful for it. All the work I have is self-imposed. With my new, large garden to take care of, I decided to plant a few vegetables. I’ve never been very good at this. Last year the crop was two thin underdeveloped green beans (yes, just two) and one potato the size of a golf ball. This year I’ve been more adventurous and more hopeful.

Last week, I lucked out (or in) as the local farm was closing its annual plant sale. I managed to buy four flats and about ten individual plants, many of these were edible – a flat of Brussels Sprouts and four inch pots of  tomato, fennel, one artichoke, two cauliflowers, two cucumber, golden globe onions – and I’ve spent spare moments in the last few days trying to get these planted in full earth.

The gardens of this house have been neglected over the past few years. The soil is good in some parts but in others, its poor, sandy and dry. The poor plants need better than that if they are going to develop and produce. Luckily, Whistler brought me ten packages of mushroom and steer manure from the nursery last year when he was staying with me. I haven’t used them up and so I mixed them, one to one, with the dirt that I had shoveled out and then cleared of grass and buttercup mallow.

I was just pouring a half bag of steer manure into my mixing box when I began to think that this activity was no more, no less than the activity I engage in when making cookies and cakes.

With the grass and roots that I had dug out of the front yard beds, I shook off as much loose dirt as possible then let the remainder sit out in the hot sun until the dirt dried out more.  Next I used the wire mesh sieve that I have for the garden to screen out the pebbles and rocks; then I poured in the manure and mixed it around until the enriched soil was half and half, broken up like the crumble on an Apple Betty.

I admit that the shovel I use is bigger than a spoon and the pitch fork is bigger than your average kitchen one, but the activity is the same – sift, blend, stir, spoon out into a pot or a garden bed.

It’s rather satisfying to improve the dirt and put back goodness into the soil. I am counting that it will reward me with a better crop than last year, but I’m crossing my fingers too, and saying my prayers too.

Reaping the benefits of the garden

June 3, 2009

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Kay had been laid up with a bronchial infection. She ignored it until Saturday and then went to the doctor for some medication.
“You’ll feel a difference by Wednesday, and the cough may last a lot longer than that, but the infection will be gone,” said her GP. “Rest lots; don’t do much gardening; stay out of the sun and drink lots of liquid.”

She left the doctor’s office, exiting to a brittle light and promptly protected her eyes with a good pair of sunglasses. The weather was magnificent: four days in a row with high heat and clear magnesium blue skies.

Early in the evening as the sun’s rays were dancing long shadows on the lawn, Kay took pity on her poor, ignored flower beds and her neophyte vegetable garden.  They hadn’t been watered through this daunting heat wave and it was time to give them a soaking.

She set up a soaker hose in the front yard along the north fence-line. In the back, she set one up along the western fence where the potatoes, garlic and strawberries were sharing accommodations.

The  pots grouped around the small herb garden were on the Saharan scale of aridity.  Kay filled ten gallon pail with water then doled it into the various large pots filled with geraniums, lobelia, petunias recently planted and all crying out for a drink of water.

In this same spot, she had collected a nursery of transplanted shrubs, a few lilies, Japanese Iris, some winter jasmine, two small Japanese maple saplings and several other pots containing lone vegetables that she was trying to germinate to adolescence by keeping them out of the way of wandering slugs, snails and voracious garden pests.

She was only beginning at this home food production and didn’t know what would grow well in the local soil.  Kay checked the radishes that were now up far enough to have two roundish leaves each, albeit going a bit yellow from lack of water. She had planted them at the foot of the seedling Maple since it had been the only denizen of  a 16 inch pot and the soil was deep and richly fertilized.

She admired the two lettuces in another of these big pots, a butter lettuce and a red curly-leafed one, that she had purchase ready-grown to a height of three inches. After a month’s nurturing, they were up another inch and both lacked leaves in the center where she had pinched out a few leaves for a sandwich one day. Radishes were showing first leaves in this pot too.

With this darned bronchial infection, she had not been very interested in food. Nothing seems to have any taste.  Kay had come  into the garden as a distraction from her vague dinner preparations. She had decided on a plain Angus hamburger patty because she hadn’t eaten meat in day, but for the rest, nothing else seemed palatable to accompany it.

Now she watered the lettuces. They looked stalwart, healthy and crisp. The idea of a few leaves of this with chives and the chive flowers might just be the right, light accompaniment to the meat,balancing her meal with token vegetables. After all, what was the use of a garden, if you didn’t eat the produce it yielded? She picked a half dozen leaves.

Kay pulled off six or seven small fluffy chive flowers and stems plus a sprig of  fresh thyme. All she had to do was add a dash of dill dressing and she would not have any kitchen work to do.

Clutching this bit of salad in her hand, she finished her watering then went back into the kitchen filled with purpose now that her meal was decided.

It’s incredible how in simply watering and encouraging plants, one’s hands can get so dirty.  She placed her salad fixings on the counter and scrubbed the soil from her hands. There was a mixing bowl in the sink and she filled it with fresh water, dunking the lettuce and chives in it, swishing them around to get any dirt or little bugs off of them. While it soaked,   the meat sizzled in the small fry pan.

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Kay had a new pottery serving bowl and she collected her dinner into it, proceeding to the living room to eat whilst a bit of television entertained her. It was a perfect dinner – was just enough to satisfy and no more.

When the program finished some twenty minutes later, Kay picked up the bowl from the floor where it lay. A small piece of lettuce was stuck to the rim of the bowl and she picked at it, to finish it off rather than let it slide down the drain.

It was no leaf! It stuck, glued to the edge. It was a baby slug, clinging for dear life to the darkest part of the glazed decoration!

“Ew! Yuck!”  said Mr. Stepford, when she recounted her tale hours later. “… but it’s just another piece of protein.”

“I couldn’t have eaten one, ” replied Kay, belying the worry that had assailed her since her distasteful discovery. “I would have tasted it…. but my dinner was just fine.”
“Ew!”  said Mrs Stepford. ” How did you feel?”

“” I’m still feel slightly nauseous.  I’m glad I didn’t discover it while I was eating. I’ve been thinking about it all evening. Gardening,” she laughed,”  is not for the faint of heart.”

BTW, if you can help Kay identify the potter, creator of the beautiful bowl pictured above, please do. It’s made in B.C. ; it’s got this signature with Scott marked on the bottom, but I’d like to know more.

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O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

How many times have I sung this song in low alto, tears welling up, as a child beside my father in church, around our home Christmas tree or the piano, caroling in the streets, in church basements, at Guides, in the elevators and at every mall in the universe from November First onwards. Countless times, really.

In the weeks preceding Christmas, one musical ensemble after another came to Mother’s senior  residence with carols and favorite Christmas tunes, singing them, leading the aging, nearly deaf and nearly blind, in their favourite tunes, and always there was “O Christmas tree“. Sometimes they came with ukuleles, sometimes with guitars, or violins, or double bass or piano. The back up changed, the tunes remained the same.

I called Mother to hurry, to put on her housecoat, to rise from her bed and come to the common area by the elevator so that she could see and hear the carollers singing a capella, better. Ray, the doctor-patient across the hall wheeled himself into the hall. Nursing aides came to assist the residents closer to the singers. Those who could struggled out into the hallway. Ray hung back, refusing the help of an aide. I asked him if I could be of assistance.

“No, no!” he signalled shakily. With a hand crippled by Parkinson’s Disease, he made jerky shift of his forefinger towards his eyes that were brimming. He was not alone.

He didn’t want to be seen with tears in his eyes – he rathered to stay back and yet he was compelled. Slowly, at his own pace, he  moved forward, to see, to hear, to sing.

Mother paddled forward with her feet, the walker advancing slowly. She too did not want to be too close; but she was eager. Hymns! She chanted them softly to herself as she went to sleep each night. Familiar, comforting, emotionally catching deep in her memory, they took her back so far to the Stella Mission of her childhood in Winnipeg in the nineteen twenties.

With great respect for these residents fragile hearts and souls, I offered no more help to those around, and I concentrated and  succumbed myself to the Christmas music. I dabbed my eyes with a small white handkerchief to keep runnels of salt water from descending my cheeks.

I have a love-hate relationship with Carols. I love the feeling of family and normality that they conjured. I hate the helpless feeling of grief they engender in me that catches  in my jawbone with an ache and the triggering of guilt that they bring that I hadn’t turned out the perfectly innocent and fine Christian soul that my parents had expected me to be. Why oh why did they always get me thinking of failure? My failure.

But this night, I had another grief clenching in my jaw. My cantankerous, sweet, impish, proud, kind, gentle, intelligent, strict, generous and wonderful mother, sat there, dressed in her velvet green dressing gown, ruby-red Indian princess moccasins on her feet trimmed in white rabbits fur,  straining forward in her walker-chair, eagerly like a child, to hear what she could of these songs and sing along within the confines between her ears. She was fading away.  She might or might not make it to Christmas.  That grief  was powerfully conspiring to undo me, when I needed to be strong, to appear unemotional. It wasn’t just for Mother, but for every gentle aged  soul in that hallway who, likewise, knew not whether they would ever hear these ancient songs again and felt that fact so deeply.

That was two years ago. Mother  came home for Christmas, a frail suffering body, frightened of the pain, aching to be home, to stay home, in the house she had worked so hard to obtain in her lifetime. But she couldn’t stay. And after a fall, she rapidly declined. In January, she was gone.

Tonight, I was putting up the family Christmas tree for the first time since then. Last Christmas I escaped to distant family. I couldn’t face the changes that had come about in the year that followed. I barely can now. But I have my own home now. It’s my first Christmas in it and I’m decorating. I’m celebrating Christmas with a Boxing Day Open House and I want a decorated tree.

I unpacked the box filled with bottle brush branches that I’ve inherited. The instructions are gone. With sheer logic, I figured that the longest four branches went on the bottom and progressively in series of four shorter and shorter branches, they fitted into the broomstick pole that came with it.  I seriously think it’s on its last legs. Essential splinters of wood have come away from some of these insertion holes and some branches barely hold on. It’s a Charlie Brown tree; there are hardly enough branches to make it look decent.

When I started to put lights on, there were ten different strings only two of which worked, but so difficult to apply to the branches that I ended up taking them off.  Then I discovered a strange net-like web of lights of more recent manufacture. It was almost like a giant fish-net blanket with twinkle light s at each juncture of the net. I plastered this onto the tree to try it on for size.
Lit up, it didn’t look too bad, but when the lights were off, the mass of wires were so evident it looked horrible. I’m running out of time. I can’t spend six days decorating this thing. I discovered that I don’t like doing it. It’s fussy and frustrating.

I left the network twinkle lights on, hoping that the baubles and tinsel might sufficiently camouflage them.  After hours of struggling with the tree, I gave up. It will be what it will be.

In the process, I’ve let some things go – ornaments that have lost their colour, strings of lights that refuse to do their illumination job; three amateur wreaths made of osier and pine cones wrapped with red tartan ribbon.  It’s renewal time. Out with the old. I’ll figure out what’s needed next year. Maybe a potted tree. This is a small house with little space for a medium sized tree, much less a big one. Maybe a tree that has its lights incorporated right into the branches. Forget the lines of lights and all the replacement bulbs.

I’m moving on. I’m letting go. I’m letting be.

O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!

Millie the hen

October 12, 2008

Kay watched her left hand pressing down on fresh parsley leaves as she chopped them for turkey stuffing. Thumb and forefinger pinched together. The yellow handled knife that she had just honed to razor sharpness slid down the nail on her forefinger, bit through the parsley to the cutting board, slid back up just past the pile of compressed parsley, slid down again in a repetitive motion that felt good.

After each chopping motion, her hand moved back a tiny space, and since Kay had begun to let her hands do the thinking, she allowed her memory to scan in the hinterland of her mind. Then she nodded to herself and reflected ‘Yes! That pinched hand position looks like a chicken’s head! The hand moving back, tiny space by tiny space reminded her of the few hens she had fostered for a brief time in Pender Harbour and the story about Millie the Hen and Heidi Dog.

Rousing herself from her reverie, she saw Whistler standing, waiting for something to do. He had placed himself at beck an call in preparation of Thanksgiving dinner and was enjoying the activity of rote tasks that had to be done for tomorrow’s dinner.

“Did I ever tell you about MIllie the Hen?” said Kay.

Whistler doesn’t talk much. He cocked his head to the right and raised his eyebrows waiting for Kay to go on.

“It was up in Pender Harbour. We had twenty four chickens when we arrived, but one by one dogs, cougar and fox were picking them off. We couldn’t get Heidi and Tokey our two Elkhounds to stop killing them just for the fun of it.  Finally, we had three left and I caught them killing a poor chicken.”

‘I had tried every known remedy to stop them from eating the chickens and nothing worked. So I left them this most recently dead chicken to eat – but before I did, I stuffed it with pepper, cayenne, chili powder, mustard – anything that would make it unpalatable.”
“Poor dogs! They ate it and were so sick afterward. They never chased a chicken after that.”

“I don’t know how they knew it was the chicken that had made them ill, but they knew. Cured at last!”

” That left us with two chickens, a red hen whom we called Millie and a mean Leghorn rooster that we had no name for.”

I don’t know how they knew, but now the chickens felt invulnerable. When I gave the dogs a bone, the chickens wanted to inspect it; eat it, even, maybe.”

“Heidi Dog would have the bone between her two front paws. Millie would come up to Heidi, her tiny head, in comparison, right at the jaws of this former chicken killer, and demand to have the bone.”

“Peck. Peck. Millie would tap her beak on the ground. The dog wriggled back a few inches. Millie advanced and equal amount. Peck Peck. She tapped on the ground. And so it progressed, the dog wriggling backwards, the hen mvoing forward, demanding the bone until the dog would back off, leaving the bone for the hen.’ Kay illustrated the movements with her parsley and yellow-handled knife.

“Then the hen made a desultory inspection of the bone and wandered off, no longer interested.”

“The cock became feisty, dangerously so. He understood that the dogs were now afraid of him and he started to attack the dogs with his awesome talons. When I went out the door, I had to have a rake in hand to keep the rooster at bay. He attacked me too.”
“Then a neighbour proposed a trade. A fox had been raiding their hen house. The neighbour was looking for a mean bird to keep the flock in order and to protect it from the fox. So we made a trade, and I got two birds, a young white cock and another hen. The hens ganged up on the poor cock and henpecked him till his head was raw. They wouldn’t let him eat. I had to protect the poor henpecked rooster – he was getting thinner and thinner.”

“Then one day, we found the remains of our three chickens. They were so good at escaping the coop, to their misfortune – a cougar got them. We could see the large cat prints in the mud of the driveway.”
“About a week later, I asked the neighbour how our feisty rooster was doing at his new job. ”
“He made a tasty soup in the stew pot,” he replied. “He was just too mean.”  And that was that.

Whistler chuckled.

“I knew you lived in Pender Harbour, but I was only born the year you went up there. I don’t remember anything about it.”

“It was my hand moving back and my knife moving forward at the same pace that reminded me,” Kay mused. It was curious that a kinetic motion could trigger a memory and a whole reel of film traipsed through one’s mind on replay.

She gathered the minced parsley with her left hand, shovelled the bits and pieces from the board into it and tossed the parsley into the large roasting pan that was filled with dried bread. She crumbled the dried leaves off the Winter Savory and crushed them; and then she chopped fresh sage and added it. Both were from her own garden.  It was going to be a fine dinner, Kay thought, thankful for Whistler’s company and thankful for the bounty in her home.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Rain

August 9, 2008

It’s been brilliantly sunny for the last ten days. It’s a special day for the Haney Farmer’s Market down at the Laity farm. There are ponies for children to ride and a small maze of hay for little ones to negotiate. There are local farmers and artisans – bread makers, jewelers and the like. I thought about going and still will, but I’m waiting for the rain to stop.

At midnight there was a light haze in the sky obscuring the stars. At six this morning, the rain was coming down in a steady stream – the kind you need a rain coat for – and it hasn’t stopped. I keep looking out the window to see if it’s easing off.

But, no.

On one of these rain quality assessments, I noticed a baby stellar jay huddled under some rhododendron branches. I had to look twice to figure out if it really was a jay or not since the brilliant blue feathers don’t develop until later in their adolescence. It was the crest that gave it away. A huddled crow and a huddled baby stellar jay look much alike from behind.

He ruffled his downy feathers and scrunched tighter into himself as if to say, “Why was I born into this wet, wet world?” The rain wasn’t getting any quieter and the broad waxy rhodo leaves were taking direct hits of rain and then gathering them to drool onto the poor bird’s back. When he finally caught sight of me, he flew off. And by the way, the picture I’ve added above is of a stellar jay, but not this one. It’s just to give you an idea of their magnificent blue feathers.

Meanwhile, out in the backyard, there was avian convention and it was snack time. It’s quite unusual to see crows, robins, stellar jays and starlings all placidly high-stepping about together, cocking their heads, waiting for worms to appear.

I was out there in the late afternoon just yesterday pulling out clover when an earthworm came directly out of it’s hole, straight up, just like an automatic car radio antenna. I’d never seen a worm do that before.

I touched it’s pinky little body with an ever so gentle touch and the worm went straight back down again, quick as a wink. These are good guys in the garden, aerating the soil, munching up organic matter and converting it into rich humus. When it rains, the theory goes that they are drowning in the soil and have to come up for air. Their subclass in animal nomenclature is Oligochaeta. I’m going to call my wormy guy Olig from now on.

When I’m gardening and I move a pot or rake up leaves, often I find Olig and company struggling to get back to a protected shade area, so I help them out by picking them up, usually with a stick because I’m squeamish, and landing them back on garden soil or grass where they can get back to work.

I presume this morning’s peace conference with the multi-variety of birds (who usually dispute territory quite vociferously) were there not so much for subject matter as for the cuisine.

Now it’s eleven fifteen and I can’t see steady streams of rain coming down. I guess it’s time to get on my galoshes and my rain gear and get down to the market.

It’s their special event of the year, so I hope it clears up by noon and gives them at least a few hours of Mr. Sunshine.