Monday, December 13, 2010

Hunkered down with mysticism

It's 10 AM here in Wisconsin, the morning after a major snowstorm. The landscape's been done over in pure fresh white, the sun is out, the sky a clear high blue.

How inviting!

How deceptive.

Right now, it is 4 degrees F (-15 degrees C).

The cold long ago killed the annuals. The perennials' life hums low, low in their crowns. In the vegetable garden, two kinds of kale bend under a cap of snow. The hybrid teas struggle, their styrofoam hats a lifeline. Down in the ground, everything is locked tight: bacteria, earthworms, Japanese Beetle grubs sleep together in a frosted bed. The little birds have fled, the only thing moving are crows and seagulls--streaks of black, streaks of white.

Fast forward a few months and the landscape will shout in yellow-green "Vegetable life resurrected!" The kale will land in the cooking pot, the roses will shoot red red red. For now, though, everything lies still, as still as a grave except the wraiths streaking overhead, black, white, black.

Death, the clear cold sky, the sleepers in the dust.  Then, rebirth in the garden. We're hunkered down with mysticism here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Among the big plans around here are a plant-starting room for the garden, and a photo-studio where knitting projects can be photographed for use in my parallel universe, TECHknitting blog. Both of these projects require BRIGHT lights.  My sister's idea?  Meld these two projects into one and call it ... (wait for it)...


She is brilliant.

...runs off to find out what kinds of lights will grow plants and work well for photos...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Strange Harvest

I'm not sure what the thinking behind it was, but every year, every kid in my elementary school got an order form for garden seeds from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Sounds normal at first, maybe, but this had to be the most quixotic venture of its time--every kid in my elementary school, and every other elementary school in Manhattan, lived in an apartment.  The outer borough kids on their postage-stamp lots were rural compared to us.  We were inner city, with no conceivable use for garden seeds.

Still, the seeds were cheap and everyone else was ordering.  Despite living on the 14th floor, I got in on the action.  Having ponied up 6 or 8 pennies from somewhere, distribution day found me with three buff-colored envelopes of seed in my grubby little hands--nasturtium, morning glory and tomato. I seem to remember spending hours playing with the seeds, first mixing, then separating them. I know I cut a few open to see what could be in there.

Printed on each envelope were cultural instructions--spacing, sun exposure, days to germination.  I memorized these words into a kind of a chant, but they actually meant absolutely nothing to my mind.  More worrisome than how to plant these seeds was where.

I finally hit upon a plan, comical in recollection, but the result of serious consideration by my seven-year old self.  I would plant the seeds in the park.  To prevent dogs peeing on the flowers or strangers eating my tomatoes, I would plant them out of harm's way--under a bush.

Getting to the park was easy. I was often taken to play at the Soldiers and Sailor's monument, an acre of white marble in Riverside park.  There, under a particularly large bush by the foot of the stairs, I dug with a stick, then dumped all the seeds in one hole. Every later visit found me darting under that bush--behavior peculiar enough to be remarked, then forbidden.  Not, of course, that anything actually grew under the bush.

Another year, another order form. This time, my plan centered on my dad.  He lived "in the country" (a rented garage-apartment in Greenwich Connecticut) and sometimes took us there on custodial Sundays. Not a man inclined to extra work--his idea of Sunday was to snap at anyone who woke him--I can only imagine the kind of whining I must have put up for him to ultimately plant one packet of the seeds outside his rented digs, four o'clocks, this time.

My dad had no more idea than I about planting seeds, because the four o'clocks all sprouted up from the same single hole.  However, at least there was sunlight, and my first visit on Greenwich Sundays was always that side of the house. Then one day, there was no dense tangle of green: there was nothing.  The landlord had pulled them for weeds. A half-century later,  a little ember of grief still burns for having never seen the flowers.

After this, I bought no more seeds.  Instead, I thought it over for a long time.  The only solution I could see was owning my own patch of land. This may sound like an obvious ambition, but it arose from much thought, and was an absolutely novel concept, original with me.  We had never lived in anything but rented apartments, as most of my family do to this day.

The first shovel went into the ground here in 1984. Yet, the first seeds of this garden were planted in 1962--planted under a bush in Riverside park when some quixotic soul at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden promoted garden seeds to Manhattan school kids.  A large garden and a lifetime interest--a strange harvest to pour out of a little buff envelope.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Very educational

People often ask me why I garden. Partly, I do it because it's so very educational.

When you've tried cutting flowerbeds out of the lawn using only the power of your own back, you suddenly--click--get some idea what "clearing the forest of the new world" really means.  The first settlers on this shore weren't bringing 20 square feet under cultivation from an expanse of lawn.  They had first to fell the trees and grub the stumps and hack the roots to bring the soil to a tilth capable of being seeded. We read about this, of course, and teach it to our children, but the most attentive study of the words "brought under cultivation" just don't compare for real understanding to a couple of hours of grubbing in the lawn with a pick and shovel. (Optional for even better understanding: splitting wood with an axe.)

Gardening doesn't just illuminate agricultural history, either.  It illuminates all history in a most fundamental way. Two college boys--athletic, strapping fellows--were hired to hand-dig a sunken garden in my lawn--a 17 x 25 foot hole in the ground, three feet deep.  Over the course of two summers, working two to four hours a day, they got about three-quarters dug and lined with limestone blocks--blocks which were delivered on pallets.  It's true that the two fellows weren't working very hard, and that they were often interrupted by other projects, yet it was truly a slow process.  How sharply this illuminated the work invested in hand-made buildings.  Two summers to dig part of a smallish pit and roughly line it with pre-cut limestone--compare this to a Gothic cathedral, all built by hand of tight-fit stone which first had to be quarried, then hauled into position.  With labor limited to what an agricultural landscape could yield in the fallow seasons, it's no wonder a cathedral took 600 years to finish. And how the builders must have loved and feared their God to keep at it.

Or how about an Indian mound?  The landscape of my adopted home state, Wisconsin, is dotted with these earthen mounds, built up into the shapes of bears, eagles, panthers. The fellows who dug my sunken garden dumped the excavated soil into a sort of a little sculpted hillock, and it went so slowly! Yet think--to the Indian-mound builders, a modern rubber-wheeled wheelbarrow and a steel-bladed shovel would have been unthinkably labor-saving devices.  How much work those long-ago builders did to make their mounds, digging with sticks and hauling the soil in willow baskets on their own backs!  How much did I not realize that when I walked over them, and some of them an eighth-mile long or more!  Now that I've seen at first hand how slow hand-excavation goes, how hard to make even the smallest mound, the true achievement of an Indian mound makes me dizzy.

Gardening not only illuminates history, but even recreates it.  I am completely certain that the first agriculture arose from chance-spilled seed growing near a human dwelling--seed collected elsewhere. Further, I know as if I had seen with my own eyes what that first cultivation looked like--weedy, clumpy patches, utterly lacking the linearity of a modern garden or farm.  To most people alive today, this ancient agriculture would be indistinguishable from the background vegetation but to the gardener's eye it would look completely familiar.  It would look, in fact, just like the ground around the compost pile.  There, many plants, self-seeded from compost tossed last year,or even three years ago, sprout in ground which has been disturbed by the feet of those carrying the compost out and are fertilized by the compost itself. Modern archaeology's pollen counts and carbon-dating studies can recapture these first stirrings of civilization, but I recreate an actual living model every time I take the compost out.  I know with certainty what it looked like because I see it every day.

Gardening doesn't just light up history, it also illuminates current events. No modern gardener in the US has experienced a famine, but crop failure is certainly a common experience.  Some years, the tomatoes don't succeed, or the crows get the pepper seedlings, or the weather blasts the broccoli, or the bugs get the lettuce.  When my crops fail, no big deal--it's off to the supermarket.  My consternation at crop failure is but a pale shadow of an faint echo.  Yet, when the conversation turns to the politics of the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, I have a real understanding, infinitesimal as it may be, of some background to North Korea's seemingly insane behavior. I understand the real evil Kim Jong Il creates in forcing subsistence farming as a way of life, and the consequent famines facing millions of North Koreans. His regime's bone-deep necessity to stir bitter fear among these starvelings is also evident--no lesser justification for his draconian rule could keep order amidst such misery.

Not all such reflections are so dire or so deep. A woodchuck's depredations in the vegetable garden brings to mind the thought of fences.  Fences brings under review the
 hortus conclusus of the Medieval cloister--a thousand years of social history enclosed in those ancient garden walls--and slide onward to Mr. McGregor's fight with Peter Rabbit.  How food-secure Beatrix Potter must have been to draw loving water colors of  Peter and  Squirrel Nutkin and Diggory Delvet--agricultural pests, all of them. Next to mind is what the success of her work says about the role of representational art and the position of children at the turn of the last century. There follows consideration of Peter Rabbit as the ur-spring for the Disney-fication of ancient human enemies like mice. Perhaps these animated varmints are a root cause of the culture wars?  The cuddly view of nature vs. those who see things differently is pretty neatly captured, I think, by comparing PETA's campaign against glue traps to the music videos of guys blowing chipmunk runs sky high with a "rodenator."   

The next thought---Oh! this could go on and on.  The lessons are endless. So that's a pretty good reason to garden right there, no?

You have been reading "TK in her garden" on "why garden?"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fishkeeping--a bit of gardening in winter

This is the first year of our keeping goldfish.  We started off with six at about 3 inches long and six at about 1 inch long--tiny little things that cost 13 cents each.  Of these initial twelve, eight survived.  And boy did they grow! We now have five large ones at about 5 inches, and three smaller ones at perhaps 3 inches, so perhaps 34 fish-inches altogether.  This is not a lot of fish for their summer home--a 1700 gallon circular tank grandly styled "the fish pond."  However, it turns out that it is a lot of fish for their winter home--a 60 gallon tank.

When I first hatched out the scheme to keep fish, it seemed sensible and easy to take them into the house for the winter.  Their summer tank could be scrubbed down and drained, and the fish would provide entertainment for the house--a sort of living collage for the living room. A filter and aerator would keep the water clean, and an ingenious German-made gravel-vac would do spot upkeep. The water would be kept fresh via a sort of a mini-ecosystem.  Every day a half-gallon watering-can worth of stale fish water would removed and used to water the plant starts and the overwintering cuttings, and one watering-can of fresh water would be put back in to keep the tank fresh.  The mild nutritive value and lack of chlorine in the fish water was a definite plus.  Yet, as the poet said, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and so it was that this little scheme turned out to be a wishful-fishful fantasy.

Oh, it didn't start badly at all.  When they first came into the house, the fish hardly ate.  They were quite cold, and warmed up only gradually.  It actually took them a couple of weeks to emerge from near-hibernation, and during this time my plan worked to perfection.  However, once their metabolisms revived, so did their appetites, and they now greet their pellets with a mob display of frenzy. More food equals more you-know what, and it now turns out that their water becomes quite foul quite quickly, despite the 300 gph filter, the "water clarifier," the gravel vac and all the other little dodges which seemed so foolproof in the planning.

It has now evolved that every week, one-quarter of the water must be removed and replaced.  That's 15 gallons of water.  At about 8.3 pounds per gallon, that's 125 pounds of water taken out, and the same amount put back in--waaaaay more water than I first thought had to be moved.  There are nowhere near enough starts to use up all this water, not so early in the winter for sure, and almost certainly never. Further, the water is actually quite fishy-smelling--not something to store for long periods. So the water has to be dumped outside, and fresh water treated with anti-chlorine chemicals, then brought into the house in a bucket.

Surprisingly, I am glad of this unanticipated manual labor.  Usually in the spring, it takes several weeks of sore back, sore knees and strained muscles to get back in shape after the winter lethargy.  Worse, every year it takes longer into the growing season than it did the year before, until I can spend an entire day outside working without feeling faint.  However, moving 250 pounds of water a week should help keep some sort of strength going--the bucket holds 3 gallons, so that's 25 pounds or so at each go, repeated 10 times in short order--strength training for the non-athletic.

So, despite the failure of my labor-saving devices, and despite the miscalculation of my "well-laid plans," I am actually quite pleased  to have become a winter fish-keeper. It brings a bit of the garden (garden labor, that is!) into the house in a way I wouldn't have anticipated.