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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.”
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.