Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Dispatches from the Backyard

Gardener, 18th-cent. American
Strawberries
In the evening after work, at dusk, I squat near the fence on the south side of my yard, putting in bare root strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) around the chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa). My neighbor, mother of the bff toddler (now 3 1/2), comes out.

"Doing a little night-time gardening?" Interested, as she often is, in what my puttering might accomplish. I explain that the strawberries have arrived in a box, and when planting bare root plants, a cloudy, cool day is best; but in any event, they need promptly to get out of the container of water in which they are soaking and into the ground. The day having been sunny, and I at work, dusk seems the likeliest opportunity. Though you do end up putting tiny plants in barely discernible holes, everything turning gray in the twilight.

She tells me about Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007), which, finding I haven't read, says she'll give me forthwith. Thus does my reading list constantly expand. She goes back in. It is getting too dark to see. I fill the watering cans and spot water each plant, with a wish for each to grow well. Once years ago I read a story about Prince Charles of England doing some night-time gardening. The writer took an amused tone--our whimsical, eccentric prince; after all, gardening is for the daylight hours, and if you're a prince, for the help to do--but now I think, there you are, stuck days tending to your princely duties, or whatever. You get your gardening in when you can.

The next day I stroll by and of course the squirrels have dug up half and then, having decided strawberry roots aren't so tasty, have left them. I've noticed this about squirrels: they dig right where you've spot watered new plants. Why? Does the water make the new roots smell good? I replant, patting the soil down firmly, and pulling a little mulch closer around the crowns. Despite the rough treatment, they look a little better than they did when first unpacked.

The Backyard Lawn
It is a cloudy, cool day, with the possibility of rain. I decide to repair the small polyculture lawn in the backyard. Now that the Norway maple has been cut down (see my post "A Question of Trees"), you can see, by the areas in particularly bad repair, exactly where the tree shadow fell; in fact there's one place we had kept mulched with wood chips, since nothing would grow--it was our designated sitting area. Now, however, if we don't plant something quick, more dandelions, plantains, thistles and who knows what else will miraculously spring forth. Clover and grass will be fine until we can build the combination pergola/grape arbor we plan.

So I go out with the metal rake inherited from my mother-in-law, and rake up thatch, at intervals filling the wheelbarrow and trundling it over to dump on the compost heap. The work is pleasant, rhythmical. Raking, if the area is not too big and your livelihood doesn't depend on it, and, most important, if done mindfully, is meditative, akin to the practice of mindful sweeping some zen Buddhists make part of their daily practice. At other times, I do sweep mindfully--the two porches and the front and back paths--but today the practice is raking. I notice the air, the birds singing, the sound of the rake, the feeling of the set, pull and release rhythm, how the muscles absorb the contact with the earth that travels up the wooden handle. There's nothing I'd rather be doing at that moment.

After the thatch is cleared, I rake up the wood chips and spread them elsewhere. With the half-moon tool I make a new curved edge for the side bed. No need to plan this on paper. Simply see how things look from the porch and from the garage and adjust accordingly. Then, in the wheelbarrow I mix the peat the strawberries came packed in, some sifted compost and composted cow manure, and grass and clover seed. I sow the mix by hand throughout the area. I stop and survey the work, and contemplate the next step, covering the seed with a thin layer of top soil, some of which, luckily, we have in the adjacent bed. At that moment, my husband appears, flat-bladed shovel in hand. He tends to show up like this, just when some serious physical labor is required. Without saying much except "you don't want the birds to get the seed," he starts flinging shovelfuls of topsoil, with precise aim, exactly where needed, until the seed is mostly covered.

Later, sitting on the back porch steps with a mug of tea, I watch some birds toddling about in the dirt, inspecting and doing a little pecking, but there's plenty of seed, and most of it is covered. It occurs to me that our lot, small by some standards in this day of gas and electric gardening tools, was just the right size when the first owners moved in a hundred years ago. And it's a good size for us, too. Big enough to grow a garden, small enough to work by hand.

Mouse and Cat
One sunny morning, I'm sitting on the back porch steps eating breakfast before preparing for work and I notice a neighborhood cat near the back of the north-side fence to my right, hopping and leaping after something invisible.

Mouse, I think, which apparently has sought shelter in a peony bush (strongly grown, but not yet blooming). The big orange cat continues circling with waving tail, sniffing, nosing and hopping, but to no avail. She doesn't want to go in between the stalks. Suddenly the invisible creature moves--the cat races down the fence line towards the house and then resumes the hunt. I eat a few bites of cereal, take a sip of coffee. Glancing to the left, towards the south, I'm startled to see the little brown mouse scuttling through the grass, around the raised vegetable bed to disappear between two bricks. Meanwhile, outwitted, the cat is still crouching to the right among the bushes by the fence. After long moments, she gives up the search and goes off on other important business. Soon the mouse is scuttling diagonally across the yard back towards the peony bushes, where her nest must be.

Related Posts:
Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions
Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature
A Question of Trees
The Firefly Reports

12 comments:

Carole Sevilla Brown said...

Don't you hate when you work so hard and then the squirrels come and rearrange everything? They make me crazy :)

I can just picture you out in the moonlight, planting your new treasures. I just two boxes of bare-root trees today, so that may be me tomorrow night.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Happy digging and planting to you, Carole.

Don Plummer said...

I think my comment got lost when Blogspot crashed. And I can't remember quite what I said. I think I talked about the raspberry cuttings that I planted last month and that are budding out. And I said something about pruning the grapevine I planted last year to one stem for a trunk. Later this year, I'll put up a trellis.

I finally got the potatoes in today! With all the rain we've been having, I haven't been able to work in the garden. Squash, beans, and corn next!

Adrian you will absolutely adore Barbara Kingsolver's book when you get the chance to read it. It's informative, entertaining, humorous, and educational, all rolled into one.

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, I hope your strawberries settle in and grow fat and happy. Fragaria virginiana grows wild on my property, and I love the flavor of those little berries. I'm always fascinated by the fact that I seem to have a number of different varieties that differ subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) in color and shape. They all have that amazing intense flavor, though. :-) -Jean

Jeff Z said...

Gorgeous post! I experienced something similar, though it was planting bare-root strawberries in a light snow on May Day. They're coming around now, but the neighbors, and even my wife, were questioning my sanity.

Jeff

http://eighthacrefarm.blogger.com

garden girl said...

What a beautiful post Adrian ~ so evocative of the joy and pleasure found in working one's own little plot of land.

How fortunate you are having a kindred-spirit neighbor, and a bff toddler next door.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Don, I do look forward to reading the book, after grades are turned in!

From the sound of your crops, I think I have acreage envy. It's been rainy and cold here, too.


Jean, lucky you to have wild strawberries--which reminds me of that Bergman film--and it is interesting that they'd have different tastes. When mine bear, I'll let you know how they are.

Jeff, thanks for stopping by and for the good words. Maybe there should be "xtreme backyard gardening" events.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Garden Girl, yes, my neighbors are a delight. They are having to move soon, but have invited me to bicycle over to visit their new backyard--I might post about that. Thanks for the good words.

Thomas Rainer said...

A beautiful post! I, too, was gardening 'after hours' and actually had a police car pull up and ask me what I was doing. He looked rather confused when I tried to explain that the bacteria and fungus in the compost tea I had brewed can be killed by sunlight, so are best applied at night. I think it was crazy enough to be plausible.

Happy gardening!

Thomas

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Thomas,

That's really funny. I've never used compost tea. Does it really work?

Janet said...

Our neighbours think we're a bit mad going out b torchlight to garden, coollect some of the slus etc. And life in the garden looks so different atnight.
Lovely site Tomas. It's so understated(ie not full of photos like mine!) and it's beautifully written.I shall enjoy exploring and learning.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Janet,
Thanks for visiting. Your blog looks good. I'll enjoy visiting it, since Scottish gardening is new to me.