State of the garden, May 2017, a delirious retrospective.

June 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

After the “coldest, wettest spring ever”, May brought the sun and the heat and squeezed all the wetness out. Where we had only ever known mud, dry ground and grass filled in the girls’ well worn paths.

“Mother’s Day,” everyone told me from day one, “Mother’s Day is when you plant the garden.” I had impatiently waited 6 whole months, my longest non-planting stretch in 10 years without a newborn as an excuse, poking at the ground, squeezing hopeful, premature mud-balls, drawing charts and graphs, doing all the things around the garden, waiting for the day I could grow anything. I played with soil testing kits, I dutifully checked the temperature of the dirt.

(Now, if you’re from the north, and you’re a good gardener, you’re reading this going, “Well of course you did. This is what gardening is. Why is she whining?” But if you’re like me, and from the south, you’re like, “She checked the temperature of the what? How does a person even do that?” I know. It’s weird. They make a thing.)

Everyone was right. Mother’s Day arrived and conditions to grow things in the garden were perfect.
Conditions to grow things were right everywhere.

The earth, bombarded by 14+ hours of sunlight, goes a little insane. As a gardener and amateur naturalist, of course I had been paying some attention to life beyond the borders of my vegetable patch. Of course I’d made my kids sketch the drooping maple blossoms and the ferns as they uncurled. We watched in feigned horror as the blackberry shoots pressed up into the yard, and cheered heartily when Dado ran them over with the mower. I googled new things every morning, trying to decide if something was a weed or just another kind of geranium (it was often both, but once it was a calla lily).

Turns out that everything that’s so lovely and interesting to watch grow in March and April will swallow you whole in May.

By the time I figured out what everything was, it was clear that May was about six weeks too late for figuring to be very helpful. Weeds that were two inches high in April were two feet high in May. Grass that had just barely begun to wake up in March needed to be mowed three times a week in May (yes, you could sit on the porch and watch it grow).

From sun-up (4 something) to sundown (10 something), I fussed with the farm, stopping only to visit the chiropractor 3 times a week. We crammed school into a couple hours midmorning, then did the rest outside. When my body had to stop, I was in my notebooks, farming on paper. Whether with the pitchfork or the pen, I was digging, mowing, pulling, hauling just to keep up. It was the first time I had the thought, “My goals might be a little aggressive.”

But toward the of May, despite the shocking heat wave that helped us discover yet another way we could become millionaires in the PNW (after the breakfast taco stand), ceiling fan stand, I was feeling genuinely optimistic. I’d cleared and hand tilled three of the five beds, weeded the raspberries, blueberries (where I’d found rogue asparagus!), and grapes, skimmed two ponds, hauled 22 loads of compost, and planted the first round of summer crops. I was going to make it after all!

And then I got pneumonia.

Now the photos:

The garden in early May. Note how it looks like I’ve done absolutely nothing. This is a lie. The results of my mulch experiments are pretty obvious (never -don’t- mulch, maple leaves were best):

The garden on Mother’s Day. All the dry, workable soil ready for planting. Everything unworked is still very wet. Soil temps under cover just barely at 55 degrees:

Lest you think I do it all alone:

 

A morning hunt. The population reduced radically once the soil was worked and cleared:

Sweet Duck on the job. By the end of the month she was sitting on a nest. Look for updates on that soon:

It was all going so well:

State of the Garden, March and April 2017.

April 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s been a cold, wet spring.  That’s what everyone tells me. I wouldn’t know. I’m still new. “It’s a wonder you’ve made it through this spring with such joy,” my priest said last week,”it’s really not like this. I promise.”  My neighbors have all been exasperated by the weather, coming by to see how we’re faring the “coldest, wettest, longest spring ever”.

The rain here is like the heat in Texas, it seems to bother the locals far more than the transplants. I’ve yet to meet someone from out of state who hasn’t said, “It’s really not that bad! Why does everyone say it’s so bad!?” or a local who hasn’t said, “Welcome to the Pacific NorthWET!”

If I weren’t a gardener, I honestly wouldn’t have noticed. The blessed otherness of the weather here has been so welcome to our family after a lifetime of oppressive central Texas heat.  My kids are thriving in the constant 50 degree days, running and climbing and swinging until they pass out at the end of the day, hair matted with moss and sticks, knees crusted with mud and slug effluence.

Dado built an epic swing that hasn’t killed anyone yet.

This is the whimsical before photo of the “fort tree”. I did not take an after photo because my children’s use of cardboard and blue tarp insulted my aesthetic sensitivities.

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Harriet and the chickens finally made peace. Put the kid behind a fence, it all works out.

If I weren’t a gardener, all I would know is that the sun comes up at 4:00am, cheered on by a ridiculous chorus of birds, and stays that way well past my bed time, illuminating approximately 80,000 plants that I can’t identify (yet) but am tasked with caring for before they swallow up my house Planet of the Apes style.  Since I am a gardener, I am painfully aware of the weather, and the impending doom of being swallowed by plants, and the fact that if this were the real Oregon Trail we would totally die of starvation. Unless we figured out how to eat the beavers.

Behold, a 36 hour photo essay of that time I thought I could outsmart a beaver:

The garden would’ve been late this year anyway, since I did something stupid with a pitchfork in early March and wrenched my ribs out of place.  Only up side to that was the discovery of an 8 year old fractured vertebrae, the missing link in the long saga of my back woes. Story for another day, but the arthritis and general instability of my thoracic spine turned out to be somewhat incompatible with my ambitions as a first year homesteader (and 5th year homeschooler, and 30th year writer).

There have been many other things, a steady flow of house guests, a long trip to help my sister-in-law with her first baby, the uphill march of homeschool, the horror of delayed potty training, and a cluster of infuriating health problems that have made my deep desire to be an excellent farmer and mediocre writer impossible. So I’ve just been an okay farmer and a shitty writer. And that seems to be working out for me.

Dado and Beatrice bend hoops for the garden. She’s very strong.

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Seedlings in my ultra hardcore grow room/laundry room. Because who wouldn’t want to fill a room designed to make things clean and fresh with lots of dirt and fish emulsion?

And finally, an adorable, free spirited kid with lots of beautiful and fascinating weeds. Otherwise known as everything that bites me in the ass with my parenting and gardening philosophies.

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State of the Garden, February Redux 2017.

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

February was a trickster. I thought I had it all figured out. The grapevines and raspberries were pruned to perfection, the beds, all cozy in their horse manure blankets, got a fresh layer of leaf mulch (well, two of them, the others seemed just fine!). There were days that inched above 50 and the girls insisted it was officially springtime and, though my feet were still firmly planted in thick wool mountaineering socks, theirs were bare. To be fair, back in our homeland, this is when the bluebonnets would be making their appearance, so our internal clocks still chimed with all the alerts of impending flip flop weather. 

We graduated our “baby” chickens (which we’d raised in a horse trough in the garage over the winter, yeah…don’t do that) in with the big birds and felt like champion farmers when they didn’t kill each other.

We celebrated two birthdays, super-style, with a hybrid Wonder Woman/Little House theme in which no ultra-flammable costumes combusted while cooking exclusively on a wood stove.

And we welcomed our fourth wave of house guests in four months, while trying our damndest to maintain homeschooling and the appearance that we knew what the hell we were doing out here. It mostly worked.

State of the garden, February 2017.

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

Garden lessons part 1: Pride comes before a fall.

February 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Zeal without knowledge is not good — how much more will hasty feet miss the way! Proverbs 19:2

I spent my childhood spring breaks and summers on my grandmother’s farm in Arkansas, snapping beans and canning tomatoes, locking chickens under the house to spare them from the axe.  Her place was a lot like the one I have now — a house in the middle of a few acres, a big garden, red barn, ponds, even a creek with a little bridge, all surrounded by evergreen. Only difference was the color of the dirt.

The year we got married, Bryan bought me dirt of my own, two 1×3 foot plastic flower boxes for the fire escape on our apartment on S.Mathilda in Pittsburgh. Drawing upon my lifetime of gardening experience, I grew three very small inedible carrots.

Baffled by my failure, I did what the Browns always do next: built a library. I cleared out all the Half-Price Books in Western PA and by the time I’d read every book on gardening in the northeast, we moved back to Texas.

Drunk on my theoretical expertise, my Texas garden was slightly more ambitious, four 4×4 and two 4×8 foot raised beds in the front yard of our house in Smithville. By this time I was home with my first baby, and I parked her in a playpen on the shady front porch while I slaved over my perfectly mixed soil, picked off every last stinkbug, patched up squash stems after carving out vine borers, and trapped slugs with beer. She almost choked to death more than once on Japanese beetles who are mysteriously drawn to babies in cages.  I, along with the majority of my brassicas, battled heat stroke as I figured out that “full sun” means something very different in Central Texas than in any of my pretty gardening books.

That year we ate arugula at every single meal, gave away 10,000 tomatoes, and never grew one single squash of any variety.

I dug my next garden on my hands and knees while pregnant with my second daughter. I ripped out a 20X4x15 foot section of Bermuda grass in the front yard of our house in Austin and built another raised bed (this one with some shade). Over the course of the next 7 years, that garden transformed over and over again, and eventually grew another two feet in either direction, and added two more 4×8 foot beds. Some years it was a spectacular scene — 15 foot tomatoes, pumpkins running halfway down the block, green beans for nine months straight, zinnias that  made me weep for joy. Other years it was volunteer basil and Bermuda grass…again.

In truth, it wasn’t until maybe 4 years ago that I had any idea what I was actually doing. The bulk of my gardening career has been assuming I could assimilate hundreds of years of gardening knowledge by skimming books and websites and just going for it. The year round growing season in central Texas, my husband’s endless patience and bottomless pockets, and my tireless zeal have made me very lucky.

So when I showed up here, I thought the garden would be the least of my worries. Ten years of urban, raised bed, central Texas gardening under my belt! Of course I know how to transfer that to a rural garden in a maritime northwest climate. How hard could it be to go from year round square foot gardening to a seasonal garden planted in deep rows of soil, cultivated over 25 years, that don’t dry out till Mother’s Day? (MOTHER’S DAY!)

Hard.

I spent the first month in complete denial. “Maybe the Mother’s Day thing was just because they didn’t want to garden before May? Or maybe they were too stubborn to embrace different techniques that would extend the season? Too chained to old ways. Maybe the master gardener and landscape architect we bought the property from just haven’t read the same books I’ve read.”

Ahem.

I put the garden to bed in the late fall, tucked in the overwintering carrots and kale, pulled the onions to dry in the barn, and felt more confident than ever that I knew exactly what I was doing.

But then the sun disappeared. And the snow fell. And when it washed away in the rain my boots sunk down six inches between the rows when I went to pull the frostbitten broccoli to feed to the chickens.  I stared out over the over the rows of corn I had just learned to chop with a machete I had just learned to hold, and realized I had no idea what a person plants after corn when there’s only one season per year for crop rotation,  or where one would plant that corn this year so that it doesn’t block the rest of the garden when the angle of the sun is such a factor here. Angle of the sun? Oh, Lord, where are the science books? Where are WE?

I looked down at my boots, sunk into most beautiful mud I’d ever seen, at the kale and carrots, beet tops still going strong in November. I looked up at the sky, past the trees that towered higher than the buildings in the city I’d come from.

And I began to feel very small.

 

Encouraging: a saint on sadness.

February 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

I came across this blessed gift of an article this morning and wanted to share it with anyone (everyone) wrestling with sadness. It reminded me immediately of that list of Life Rules I scribbled down a while ago and made me curious if I have been faithful in following them.

Please do read the article (here’s the link again), as it’s far more eloquent, comprehensive, and smart than my list, because…well…it’s written by a saint. But here’s what resonated with me the most, especially in light of everything this blog — and my whole life — has ever been about:

Our bodies, brains and hands and eyes and stomachs and quads and intervertebral discs, are essential to the purpose of our lives. They are not in the way of our spirits, some temporary torture chamber from which we must be liberated or some hideous distraction that we are tasked to ignore.

When I was coaching, I would always ask, “If your body were not an obstacle, what would you do with it?” The answers that would come on the first day were typically harsh. There was this view that being fat, sick, depressed, exhausted or broken in any way disqualified the body from serving any purpose. The body needed to be punished, pushed out of the way, so that the “real person” could finally break out and grab hold of their true destiny. But every single time, without fail, as I saw people care for their bodies (often through the the sneaky trick of calling it a “challenge”, discipline words) — feed them good food, give them good rest, soak them in sunshine, expose them to beauty — their answers changed.

 

The question was never, “If your body (pain, weakness, depression) didn’t exist, what would you do with your ‘real life’?” It was always, “If your body were not an obstacle, but an integral part of the story, an asset, what would you do?”

I still set my body up as an enemy all the time. I shout at my body, curse my brain, slap myself with rules and challenges and strict discipline. Sometimes, a little discipline is what I need, but more often than not, I just need a shower or a poem or a very long time in the garden. Maybe a pot roast?

And all of it is prayer. All of it is setting my face like flint before the Lord.

 

Missing the point.

February 1, 2017 § 1 Comment

I don’t pay attention. I am hard headed, heavy headed, neck bent, eyes on the ground right in front of me. The mess being made, the battle being fought.

I keep a record of of my wrongs, this swirling, non-chronological mass of mistakes, things done and left undone, and call it my True Story. I go over it every day, all the times I should have died, all the wounds that I’ve been given, all the wounds I gave: the monster of depression and mania that never stays dead, the decades of medication gnawing at my brain and liver and thyroid, the father who crushed my heart, the weapon of my words against my mother, my silence, my absence, my refusal to love others, the shame of obesity, the absolute impossibility of motherhood, the deadliness of my temper, my razor sharp tongue, the pounding disappointment of pain in my body, the unending tangle of marriage, and the persistent drip of my daily failure.

But what of the victory all around me? What of the vast landscape of victory behind me, the impassable mountains climbed, hideous dragons slain, opposing armies crushed and swept out to sea? What of the children, sitting at the breakfast table, sewing doll clothes as the sun comes up?