Monday, March 25, 2013

The Value of a Hoe

A funny thing happened on facebook recently. Generally, my online personality is reticent; I rarely make a peep. But I was so proud of myself for repairing my washing machine that I wanted to shout it to the world. My exact phrasing was: 

Guess what I did today? Replaced the drainage pump on my 25-year-old Maytag (all by myself, with a little phone coaching from Jeff Schultz of Schultz Electric on Rt100/29). Go Maytag!” 

Thirty-five (that’s 20%!) of my “friends” had something to say about the comment.

This blew my mind.

To what do I owe the ability and fortitude that allowed me to pull off this amazing feat? Well … (blush) at this time I’d like to thank my father, who made me stick with a task until I got it done, and my partner, who gives me unending and outrageously extravagant emotional support, and the ladies of my book club, who offer me the very best of bragging arenas. And Maytag and Jeff Schultz and my internet provider and god and my country and the angels above. And my agent … wait, I don’t have an agent.

Oh, and my garden. Most of all, my garden. Why my garden, you ask?

Grasshoppers jumped from Cowpea cover crop to tomatoes. How convenient!

If you are a gardener, you probably don’t need to ask. 

Cabbage aphids require cunning. Strategy.
It is my garden that challenges me with problem after problem, day after day. My garden has taught me that the answers are never simple, and they are never the same as they were last time. It has taught me perseverance, creativity, confidence. What do you do when grasshoppers take little bites out of all of your beautiful tomatoes? You try your hardest to think like a grasshopper, and make the situation a little less pleasant for the hopping marauding tribe. You cut down the immediate weeds where they like to perch. What about when dense colonies of cabbage aphids cover the stalks of your kale? You blast them with a sharp spray of water. You squish them with your fingers. You bring in the ladybugs. 

Ladybugs in the greenhouse. Yes!
You make a plan for next year’s garden, and site the kale in a distant plot of land. You do all of the above. 

Vermin? Follow the trails of their destruction to the holes from whence they emerge. Drop in a few mothballs. Or you get a dog. Or a very secure fence set 8 inches into the soil. Or you acquire a trap, and prop it open for a couple of days until the groundhog is deceived into comfortably waddling in and out of the metal mesh cage, and then … GOTCHA! Then you come up with a plan to transport it 10 miles in your car and release it (surreptitiously, sneakily, when no one’s watching) where you think, you hope, it won’t eat someone else’s garden. And if it does, well, it’s not your garden. You gotta be tough. 
You gotta be smart.

Groundhog trails lead to groundhog holes.
Tomatoes come with a complicated collection of conundrums. How do you keep them upright late in the season when the vines are weighed down with fruits and green? How can you spot a tomato hornworm before it strips half the plant? Is there a way to keep last year’s fungal spores from splashing up onto this year’s foliage? And what do you do about the stinkbugs that stipple your perfect fruits with sunken lesions that look bad and taste awful? Each problem calls for diagnostic skills and intricate solutions far more elaborate than those required in taking a pump out and put a new one in.

The pump. Not so hard to replace. Really.
Even so, it felt great to be discussing the ins and outs of soapy water with Jeff Schultz—talkin’ pumps and hoses and belts. I’ve never felt the power of having a gun in my hand (and never plan to) but I wonder: might my feeling of triumphant power on fixing my machine (which, by the way, is still functioning) be similar? Might the feat of a successful vegetable garden make us less likely to seek power in one of the destructive means that are all too common in our society? 

These are things I will never know. One thing I do know is this: we thrive on feelings of power. Our emotional health depends on sensing that we are in control. The garden helps us to achieve this status. In fact, there is empirical evidence that this is true. Dr. Jill Litt of the University of Colorado has determined that “community gardeners (and in some instances home gardeners) had statistically higher ratings of all psychological, social and health measures, after adjusting for age, educational attainment and neighborhood socioeconomic status.” (1)

So there you go. I have no illusions that I’ll convince others that, based on studies, and life experience, gardening is one of the pursuits that makes life worth living. 

Still, it’s true. 
I know, and my Maytag knows.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Trash Theory

“Does the world seem dirtier?” a fellow garden blogger asked. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man was referring to the plastic bottles and candy wrappers that litter the roadsides, and are especially evident when the world is colored in beiges and browns. Yes. The world seems dirtier. It may indeed be dirtier. There is implied blame. People are inconsiderate. They are so uncaring, we think, as we shake our heads reprovingly at their garbage. It is never our garbage.

There are some universal truths at work here. First there is the nostalgia filter: When-I-was-Young-the-Roadsides-were-Always-Spotless. We are absolutely sure of this, fifty years (plus or minus a handful) later. If this were a group conversation I might break in right about now with another nostalgic tidbit about how, as children, we would collect bottles from the roadsides and wash them in the gas station bathroom and then redeem them for pennies apiece—a story that would be intended to show that the roadsides were indeed litter-free (thanks to us) but in fact testifies to the opposite. Without organized soccer leagues, we had time for such entrepreneurial exploits (unlike today’s children ... or is that my nostalgia filter talking?) but the fact remains that the sheer poundage of glass that we would sneak into the restroom made it worth our while to do so. Even at pennies apiece. The roadsides were, it seems, far from litter-free.

But in defense of people, at least when it comes to in-your-face littering, I offer a universal theory of change. I call it “The Trash Theory.” It could just as easily be named “The Kleenex Theory” or the “Band-Aid Theory,” and it has, in fact, a given name: “Punctuated equilibrium” was coined by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in 1972.

It goes like this:
Suburbia carries on, predictably and neatly, day-by-day, the sweet smell of grass clippings clinging to the Saturday morning air, roadsides green with garlic mustard and goldenrod. On Thursday evenings residents place their trashcans by the curb. 

And then it happens. 

A Thursday night storm blows limbs from trees … and upends just a small percentage of the curbed cans. Maybe yours is among them. By morning, Wegmans carryout containers and empty Pure Life Purified Water bottles are caught up in the tall stems of roadside goldenrod. Not along your property, but along those Adopt-A-Highway sections where organizations take on the feel-good job of cleaning up the trash of other people—inconsiderate type people—so the world can be a neater nicer place.

The universality of this dynamic is undeniable. We putter along, happy for a time, until a ferocious wind, or rhinovirus, or hangnail, or social revolution causes a sudden upset in some previously stable system. Tectonic plates slip. Updrafts and downdrafts create a feedback loop. Before we know it the world is a different place. The Kleenex box that sat nearly untouched for months is empty.

In “The Beak of the Finch” Jonathan Weiner told the story of how a weather disaster can affect the birds’ food supply, and so the very physiology of finches can change in a single generation! His tale is a hard, compressed truth of nature that involves catastrophic loss of life in a species where a generational length is a fraction of ours. It is also a very scary universal reality.

“Does the world seem dirtier?” If this seems true, we might blame climate change and the more frequent gusts it is said to trigger. It’s much simpler, of course, to picture careless teens dropping empty cigarettes packs from car windows. We can do something about that—launch a public relations campaign, or post notices of stiff fines along the highways. We can call the public to action to fix the obvious mess. Predicting and preventing are a whole different matter.

But enough of dire predictions. 

Rhubarb tip, poised for exponential growth

Today, March 20th, is the vernal equinox! At 7:02 a.m. (here in the northeast U.S.) the sun crossed the celestial equator. We are on our way to a positive feedback loop, as plants are stimulated out of dormancy by extravagant sunlight. Before we know it the world will be a different place, lush, green, bounteous.

Hang onto your hat. The season begins.

Pay attention. Treasure the experience. Enjoy the ride.
The more we value and understand the nature of nature, the more we will be capable of comprehending the big picture. We need to understand the big picture.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spring. Boing!

You have to look closely, gently jostle aside a few leaves. It is happening.


Energy, tense and coiled.

Helleborus bud

The discarded bottles and scraps of plastic stand out discordantly in the fawny beiges of late winter. But it is happening, cell by cell, buds expanding, their waxy protective scales ready to fold back and reveal … spring. 


Mountain laurel in early March

Sedums wear intense colors. Mosses are greener, succulents getting plumper by the day. Moss phlox is becoming itself again. Beneath last year’s dried and tired hydrangea clusters, buds are evident on opposite sides of stems.

Moss phlox

Promises, promises.

Spring keeps us on edge. Waiting, watching.
It makes us all a little more alive. It makes us want to prepare to celebrate … life.

It helps us, a little, to forgive death.

Sedum 'Angelina'