Tag Archives: gardening

WHO PLANTED TOMATO JUICE?

I heard a story on National Public Radio yesterday about how cannon balls have become a potential problem in Charleston, S.C.

Alexandra Olgin reported that these possibly dangerous relics from the Revolutionary and Civil wars become unearthed during construction projects, after hurricanes and sometimes randomly in someone’s backyard. Some of the artifacts contain black powder and need to be detonated.

Digging in the dirt at the community garden, I often wonder what else has happened in my spot. Did settlers centuries ago try to grow a garden in the same location? What conversations have taken place on the land where I now discuss where to plant my corn and beans? Did anyone ever build a house on the property? Did someone famous like President George Washington ever step through my garden? Maybe he slept there.

Every spot has a history. My dad used to talk about looking for native American arrowheads in fields near his house when he was a boy.

In our rented garden, mostly I find plastic garden tags, zip ties and pieces of string that surface from previous growing seasons. One summer I unearthed a tomato juice can, and I’ve removed buckets of pebbles and rocks. But I’ve never found anything historic such as an arrowhead and thankfully nothing remotely as dramatic as a cannon ball.

Each year, I try to keep our plot clear of debris, not only for my present-day neighbors, but also for those who might pass through my spot in the future. Inevitably I’ll probably lose a button or drop a coin in the soil without knowing. If I do, I wonder who will find them.

–cawk

A PLACE OF ORDER

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When my family returned from our spring break travels, the house became a place of catch-up and chaos. Hampers of dirty clothes lined up outside the laundry room like planes ready for take-off. The pots and pans we used to cook our Easter meal were stacked in the sink because someone needed to unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher to replace them with the dirty ones. Piles of mail needed to be opened, and every room I entered contained small bursts of clutter none of us wanted to tackle.

While the kids retreated to finish their last-minute homework, I planned to visit the one spot that always feels in order — the community garden.

After running errands the next day, I scooted over to see the empty patch of tilled dirt prepared for us garden-renters, who will be moving into our spaces soon. A local farmer recently plowed the field. He volunteers to do this for us each year, which is greatly appreciated. In addition, while my family was out of town and celebrating spring break, several fellow gardeners turned the precise rectangle of dirt into a grid of garden plots, each marked by corner stakes and numbers. The perfect lines, measured equally with walking paths in between, radiated a sense of order and a peaceful place to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers.

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I found one gardener already putting up his fence. He also gave me a tour of some of the improvements recently made near the compost bin behind the plots. The area along a tree line, which in previous years was overgrown, has been mowed and carpeted with a layer of mulch. I used to dread walking my buckets of debris to the compost bin. I worried that snakes might be hiding in the tall grass. My kids made fun of me because I chanted, “Go away snakes,” with every step.

“Mom, that’s not going to do anything,” my oldest son once said as he helped me carry the garden trash to the back of the gardens. He was right, but saying the words made me feel better.

Now that the area has been cleaned up, which is another act of kindness much appreciated, any snakes lurking nearby now must look out for me. A patch of mint has a presence along one edge of the space. In addition, herbs have been planted on each side of the pathway leading to the compost bin. Gardeners can pass by fragrant patches of rosemary, oregano and other familiar useful plants as they clean up their space. The improved site adds more order and beauty to the gardens.

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I returned down the path and back through the dirt gardens to my car knowing that slowly, the grid of earth will be outlined with more fences over the next few weeks. The Green Thumbs plan to join the mapped-out grid with our green and orange fencing on the third weekend in April. As gardeners begin to plant their crops in rows and perhaps patches, more straight lines will be added to the grid, enhancing the space with more beauty.

And hopefully, with acts of kindness from my children, I’ll get my house in relaxing order, too.

— cawk

 

RENT PAID

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Coming inside from the frigid outdoors and standing in the warm office of the town’s administrative building, my fingers felt so cold last week that they could barely grip an ink pen. The stiffness relaxed as I read the back and front of a community garden contract, paid the fee and signed my name on the dotted line to once again rent two plots with the Green Thumbs.

The agreement’s pledge was clear. We will take care of our spot and respect our fellow gardeners, their tools and crops.

The oath was simple to make on a blustery day when the snow-covered ground remained frozen and unplowed. The work of maintaining a garden was still months away as I returned home with plots 6 and 16 secured, and the bitter wind gave no indication that winter was loosening its grip. My daffodils by the front steps were short green stalks too cold to bloom and standing awkwardly stiff like my fingers.

But almost a week has passed since I paid the garden rent, and spring feels possible. The weather has done a 180-degree turn, warming the neighborhood with highs in the 70s forecasted over the next few days. Yesterday, I carried my lawn chair from its spot in the basement next to the rolled up garden fence and metal posts, and sat in it on my front porch, which overlooks the thawing daffodils. A robin hopped on my front lawn, and joggers waved to me as they passed. Feeling comfortable in my bright pink, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater, I started to read Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts, for inspiration. A tiny gnat distracted me as it crawled on our third president’s words: “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

And so are the Green Thumbs.

We rented our first plot in 2013, and immediately faced the problem of deer among our unprotected rows. The animals left behind brazen footprints and ate our broccoli, which probably wouldn’t have survived anyway because we planted it too late in the season. Nonetheless, the invasion was a setback until we added a flimsy fence around our square and forged ahead.

At the beginning of the next gardening season in 2014, we admired with pride our three rows of abundant strawberries planted securely inside our fence. Never had such a beautiful patch of fruit been grown. We dreamed of all the short cakes and pies we would eat. But a week before harvest an unexpected hail storm damaged and broke the healthy plants and their berries. We nurtured the crop as best we could, but the strawberries hardly recovered. I didn’t even freeze one pint for the winter. We were left to wait another year for a satisfying berry harvest.

Last year in 2015, the deer stayed away. The berries bore fruit. And the Green Thumbs planted popcorn, something my youngest son had wanted to do since we started gardening. I was thrilled watching the popcorn grow, until he reminded me that he had gotten braces on his teeth and was not supposed to eat popcorn. We harvested the cobs of corn early because the summer was so dry and decided to cut the cooked popcorn into small pieces so my son could have a taste. We placed the corn, cob and all, in a brown paper bag inside the microwave oven. We could hear the kernels popping and had salt nearby and a stick of butter ready to melt and pour on the white puffs of corn. But the microwave cooked the snack too long. The cob of corn became burnt, black and inedible. And the kitchen smelled terrible.

Despite our minor setbacks in the garden over the years, the Green Thumbs also have had annual successes. We have grown enough lettuce and radishes, tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and onions, beans and carrots, watermelons and cantaloupes, potatoes and squash, and pint after pint of cherry tomatoes to feed our families and share with others.

Each year our planting knowledge and experience grows. We have aged many years at the community garden, but if Jefferson is right, the mysteries of farming will keep us young forever.

–cawk

SAYING ‘I LOVE YOU’ WITH POPCORN

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Sitting in no man’s land waiting for spring, I like to browse catalogs and go to the nearby farm supply to gawk at their seed inventories.

I look for classics, such as “Better Boy” tomatoes and “Black Beauty” eggplant. But I’m also tempted by lesser-known names such as “Mortgage Lifter” and “Italian Ice” tomatoes or “Crescent Moon” and “Shooting Stars” eggplant.

I’m amazed that round, black seeds turn into okra, whereas flat, brown seeds turn into carrots. But green pea seeds look like shriveled up green peas, and popcorn seeds look like dried up kernels of corn.

This year, the community garden is having a seed exchange. I don’t have any seeds saved from last year, but I’m looking for something fun to divvy.

And I’m having a small seed-sharing of my own on Valentine’s Day.

Instead of expensive cards, I’m sending kind messages with “Sweet Pea” flowers, “Buttercup” squash and “Bouquet” dill to my valentines.

My son who dreams of seeing the Pacific Ocean is getting a packet of “California Wonder” sweet peppers, and his younger brother with a sweet tooth is receiving seeds for “Cotton Candy” white pumpkins to plant.

The boxes of chocolate-covered cherries I usually buy are being replaced with seeds for “Sweet Chocolate Belle” peppers.

And although I can’t afford diamond or ruby gems to say “I love you,” popcorn seeds are in my budget, and their diamond-like shapes come in White and Strawberry Red.

I can’t wait for these seeds to grow!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

PLANNING A HAPPY NEW YEAR OF GARDENING

Some people spend months before Christmas mapping out where to put their garlands, trees, poinsettias and stockings.

Others bring a bunch of boxes up out of the basement and put stuff wherever it will go.

That’s me decorating, and that’s me in the garden.

Every spring I browse the local stores and greenhouses at the last minute for seeds and plants that interest me and then show up at the garden with the hodgepodge I found without doing any research about how to plant them, how much room they need to grow, or how to care for them.

Lack of planning works fine for the holidays. A Santa collection that begins to crowd the mantle can easily be moved two weeks later to the bookshelves.

But moving a row of tomato bushes that have been growing in the garden for more than a month to provide more room for sprawling eggplant isn’t so easy.

So as snow is falling outside and I’m storing that last box of ornaments next to the rolled up garden fence in the basement, I resolve to do better in 2015.

I’m going to browse the seed catalog that our community garden angel shared on New Year’s Day, get in touch with the other Green Thumbs and start working with them on mapping out a sample garden plot for spring.

Here’s to a Happy New Year of Gardening!

–cawk

A COMMUNITY GARDEN-STYLE HOLIDAY

As my children and I prepare for Thanksgiving, I’m wondering what we would do if we were joining the pilgrims and their native American friends on Thursday for a feast that depended only on what we saved from this year’s garden.

My family has quarts of tomato sauce and green beans in the freezer. We also have some sweet potatoes wrapped in newspaper and stored that a fellow gardener shared. We do have frozen blueberries, strawberries, asparagus and a few apples we gathered and saved from local pick-your-own and farm stands. But we were slack this year. We didn’t make zucchini bread or pies to put in the freezer, and we failed to put up corn and peaches as we traditionally do.

So if we were pilgrims coming to the first feast of Thanksgiving, we would share a fancy bowl of string beans in a spicy tomato sauce and be extremely grateful that our neighbors froze their squash and zucchini, onions and peppers, eggplant and snow peas instead of eating them like we did.

We would be in awe of the garden abundance that people brought to the table and truly bow our heads in thanksgiving because a feast of turkey, stuffing, cranberries and mashed potatoes would taste mighty good to a family who is destined to eat sauce and beans all winter.

Recently, members of the community garden gathered to talk about how the 2014 summer went and what we can do to improve the gardens for 2015.

One of our greatest achievements this year was sharing our excess harvests with the local food bank, friends and neighbors.

One gardener at the meeting told a story of how she took extra tomatoes from her garden to the nearby food bank, which is located in the back of a thrift store. A woman who was shopping paused when she saw the beautiful red fruit that the community gardener was donating and then timidly asked if she could have one of the fresh tomatoes.

The gardener happily held out the tomatoes and as the woman selected the one she liked, the gardener added, “Please, don’t take just one. Take two.”

The woman showed her gratitude.

“I’m going to have the best tomato sandwich for supper,” she said.

It’s possible that a fresh tomato sandwich, which most of us take for granted, was a feast for the woman who was so thankful for the simple offering.

A local group of Girl Scouts rented one of the plots and donated all of their harvest to those in need. The girls are probably too young to realize what their vegetables and melons truly meant for many families in this community. But thankfully the girls are old enough to understand the importance of sharing.

One summer evening, I was alone in our fenced-in plot and an elderly woman walked up and asked me about the community gardens and what we had planted. I gave her information about renting a garden and then led a quick tour through our rows.

She praised The Green Thumbs’ cherry tomatoes and eggplant. She told me about how she had grown up in the South and ate plenty of home-grown okra. I found an empty cardboard container in the back of my car and filled it with tomatoes and okra. I threw in an eggplant, too. I apologized because the container was small, and I wanted to give more. But she assured me that what I shared was plenty, and she talked about how much a pint of cherry tomatoes costs at the grocery store.

I am hoping to see her next year as a fellow gardener because looking back at our encounter, I’m wondering now if she really wanted to plant a garden or if she instead was hungry.

As far as I know, all of us in the community garden plant as a hobby, not out of necessity. Our farming would take on a whole new meaning if it were our only food source.

The pilgrims must have taken much pride in bringing part of their crop successes to the table.

If the first Thanksgiving originated in our community garden, we, too, would be sharing a meal of epic proportions because the members of our community garden know how to farm. They know how to cook. And most importantly, they know how to share.

And for that, many people can give thanks.

–cawk

 

WEEDING UNCOVERS A FATHER’S LOVE

My father passed away in March, so I wasn’t sure what to do on Father’s Day weekend.

I wrote a check in his memory to a favorite charity and then headed to the community garden that my two sons and I are growing with three other families. We call ourselves The Green Thumbs.

The garden had developed a slight 5 o’clock shadow after a week of periodic rain and thunder.

I grabbed a cardboard box and started filling it up with grass that I wished was growing in my yard instead of in the vegetable patch. I worked my way around the tomatoes and squash. Someone else had taken care of the watermelon and cantaloupe mounds. My arms were working at great speed until I got to the carrots. The job to eradicate the unwanted sprouts around these demanded more than a few bend overs and squats. I opted to grab a cloth grocery bag from the back of the car, plopped it down in the dirt, sat myself cross-legged by the patch thick with overgrowth and started the gentle process of distinguishing the difference between delicate carrot tops and thick blades of grass.

As I tackled the job, my mind started to think about my father.

Although he wasn’t a gardener, he enjoyed hunting, fishing and observing wildlife. His main hobby was yard work.  My parents’ lawn was the envy of the neighborhood. He mowed, edged, trimmed and plucked weeds almost to an obsession. And when he finished with his yard, he headed to my grandmother’s house, then to my home, and on to his yard at the beach.

My idea of yard work is to mow as quickly as possible and move on to other activities. So I couldn’t understand why he spent so much time squatted in the discomfort of blue jeans next to a bucket in the Southern humidity to look for stray dandelions and invading clover to pull out of the earth with his strong carpenter hands.

Sometimes on my way to do a chore, I would find him taking a break in the shade of my side porch. He would be covered in sweat and wiping his brow with a white cotton handkerchief or sipping water or Pepsi from a pint cup he carried from his house. His un-air-conditioned pick-up truck with the windows rolled down was parked in the street so as not to block my access to the driveway.

“Where are you going?” he would ask.

Usually, I was headed to meet friends or somewhere routine such as work, shopping or the grocery store.

“Aren’t you almost done?” I would ask, thinking the grass was mowed so his job must be complete.

“I’ve got a little more,” he would answer, which meant a few additional hours.

I would come home from my errands to find him plucking more weeds near the white azaleas in the backyard flower bed. If he saw me, I’d wave before going inside the house. He silently disappeared sometime between suppertime and sunset leaving behind an immaculate lawn that professionals couldn’t duplicate.

In the community garden, I sat filling up my cardboard box and trying to figure out why he embraced this chore.

A bluebird flew by in the distance. My dad liked watching birds. But people can watch birds without picking weeds.

I enjoyed the solitude and thinking time that came with the outdoor task. But I could sit on my deck and read a book if I wanted to be alone.

Eventually, another Green Thumb joined me in the garden and we finished pulling grass in our target area until all that was left were carrot tops. We roped them off so no one would accidentally step on them, and I headed home.

Pulling into the driveway, I glanced at my yard. Although my son had done a great job of mowing, our grass was growing in two shades of green – a clue that we must have accidentally put down different types of seed. Bees were hovering over clumps of clover. Dandelions were scattered. Vegetation was growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. Mulch was needed in the flowerbeds. This was a yard that clearly needed my daddy’s attention. But our home would have to settle for mine.

I shut off the car in the driveway and headed for the garage to find an empty bucket and a tool that pulls dandelions at their roots. I started in the front yard using my tool, then bending down to pull clumps of various unidentified but unsightly weeds. I removed stray branches from bushes and trees. I spread mulch in the flower beds and clipped the rose bushes.

My oldest son, who was studying for final exams, emerged at some point to see what I was doing. He offered to get me a cup of water. His younger brother was at the movies with friends. I worked on until I was satisfied, although the job was not even close to being finished. I put away my tools, set the yard trash by the curb and took my water cup to the kitchen sink where I washed my hands and started putting a skink full of dirty plates, cups and forks into the dishwasher.

The view from my kitchen window overlooks my neighbor’s lawn. I admired its consistent fresh color and uniform height.

When the last bowl went into the dishwasher, I realized that I don’t enjoy doing the dishes much. But like the weeds on our front lawn, stray cups and spoons continually pop up on the countertop. It’s my job to make them disappear. I could add the chore to my sons’ to-do lists, but at their ages they need that extra time to study and forge friendships. They tackle many other tasks around the house. So I do the dishes, every day without a second thought. It’s an act of love – a lesson from my father.

I’m such a slow learner.

–cawk

THE PROMISE OF A RAINBOW

The garden looked beautiful on Thursday. The Green Thumbs celebrated our first harvest of strawberries and spinach. Tiny green tomatoes and peppers were emerging on healthy plants. The beans were leafy and green. The blueberry bush was abundant and full with bundles of green fruit. The lettuce was standing up proudly. The squash and cucumbers were holding their own.

 

When I left Plot No. 6 in the community garden, I thought all was right with the world. Growing a garden is a cinch with no problems, I said to myself. Why did people ever stop feeding themselves and depend on the grocery store shelves to stock “fresh” food from faraway places?

 

But by evening, dark clouds rolled into the area. My two sons and I stood at the sliding glass door in our kitchen watching marble-sized hail start tapping our deck. The ice pellets increased. The noise was incredible. We were mesmerized watching the stones bounce in the grass and accumulate until the yard and deck looked splotchy as if a winter snow had fallen. The rumble passed, and then more ice fell. When the sun finally emerged, some people saw double rainbows in the sky.

 

My petunias were cut to pieces. Yard debris was everywhere. The pear tree in the front of the house lost a carpet of leaves. The red petals in my rose garden were kicked to the ground. Bright Gerber daisies were knocked over. The yard was a mess.

 

First thing the next morning, I joined others at the community garden to assess the damage.

 

The Green Thumbs lost some of our blueberries. The strawberry bushes were beat up silly. We had to bury some of the fruit that got knocked off the stems. The lettuce was flattened. Many of the other plants had cut leaves.

 

 

Like The Green Thumb families, many of our neighbors at the community garden were combing their plots, gently raking and inspecting what might be lost. No one spoke.

 

As the rakes moved, I admired the resilience of the growers. They were like plant paramedics who arrived to give medical attention to the wounded crops. They worked with confidence knowing that with extra care and attention, most of the hurt plants will recover from the harsh injuries that Mother Nature thrust upon them.

 

We are relieved that most of the plants will survive. But the storm reminded all of us how the weather can be our friend or our foe. I like to think the peace offering of the double rainbow is a sign that the summer will be kind to our garden Plot No. 6, and Plot No. 16 where we plan to expand.

 

I’ll be looking for a rainbow of colors in the garden: red tomatoes, yellow squash, fleshy pink watermelons, green cucumbers, purple onions, orange pumpkins and dark blue blueberries.

 

But no more hail, please.

 

–cawk

BUGS IN THE GARDEN

A dreaded email arrived with the news.

Unwanted beetles are feasting on the eggplant and tomato plants in The Green Thumb community garden plot No. 6.

The striped bugs were discovered earlier this week by the Garden Angel who oversees the land where we rent one of the spots with three other families.

I put my sons on alert.

“The man has got to kill the bugs. That’s the rule,” I announced as they scooped spoonsful of cereal into their mouths at the breakfast table before school.

“If we find beetles in the garden, efforts to graduate from sixth and ninth grade temporarily will be put on hold,” I added. My sons will have to postpone studying about electromagnetic waves and writing papers about imperialism after school. Their No. 1 job will be to get rid of the bugs.

“Fine,” said my sixth grader, who left the table to stuff heavy school books into his backpack. His brother was way ahead of him.

“Well, maybe,” my sixth grader said, as he walked toward the front door. He paused with his hand on the door knob.

“I mean, probably,” he answered, stepping into the world and heading to the bus stop. I wondered how many undetected beetles he would pass on his walk to the corner. I figured, probably not many because no one on our block has a garden.

My little boys who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” were being asked to get rid of innocent, hungry adorable beetles.

But the damage the bugs could do to our garden isn’t so cute. These insects are known to eat roots and leaves, often destroying the plants.

Later in the day, I took a trip out to the garden to look for the bugs, even though I did not have a good plan if I found one. Another Green Thumb also came to comb the rows for beetles. Unsure of what a striped beetle looks like, we gently searched under the leaves of our eggplant and tomatoes. To our relief, the inspection turned up nothing but one tiny caterpillar and random debris we couldn’t identify. Unsure if the worm was good, or bad, we moved him out of the garden and took some of our natural trash to the nearby compost pile.

On the walk back, we admired the other gardens at the site and stopped to talk to a neighbor. Peering over his fence, we saw a beetle crawling near one of his tomatoes. He squished it, and found another moving on a leaf, which he also squished.

The bugs are in the vicinity. They are a nuisance we must confront.

I’m not really going to stop my sons’ academic studies because of a few beetles. But they will have to step up their garden visits if the insects decide to stay.

“The man has got to kill the bugs.” That’s our family rule, and I’m sticking to it.

–cawk

WINDS STRONG, PLANTS STRONGER

   Visiting the Green Thumb community garden last week, I was totally blown away.

   It wasn’t the growth of the plants that blew me over – none of the seeds have produced any sprouts. It wasn’t the beauty of our spot – the plot is pretty much a boring rectangle of brown dirt at the moment.

    It was the steady 30 mile-per-hour winds that nearly knocked me over as I stood gazing by the fence.

    The pipes of the wind chimes in the nearby tree were flipping noisily and clanging into each other. The swirling dust stung my throat and eyes. And the pie pans we had hung over the line of last year’s strawberries had broken loose. All but two of the silver dishes were scattered and tossed throughout the flat rows of the garden.

   I’ve always considered strawberry plants fragile. But the ones in our garden were already flowering. The dainty white petals that will turn into seeded red berries flopped and fluttered with the wind gusts but didn’t fall apart. The green spinach leaves that are easily snapped off for salad bounced and waved but didn’t cave to the elements. The stick branches of our lone blueberry bush remained sturdy and didn’t curl or break.

   As I stood getting slapped with the cold air, I realized how strong plants have to be to survive the weather and what an amazing job roots do anchoring the growth in the soil.

–cawk