28 July 2011

Garden Growing Pains

It finally rained. And rained. And rained. And the garden has taken on a new wild character.  Before last weekend it was orderly and charming like an adorable prepubescent, saying “I love you, mama!” and then skipping off to the bus stop with her pigtails bouncing. I remember thinking, “We’ve got this garden thing under control”. Monday morning after all the rain, my delightfully girlish garden had turned into an unruly tattooed teenager telling me she hates me and asking for birth control.  And even worse, she brought all of her trampy friends, the weeds, home with her.  She’s throwing a kegger and despite my efforts to get her to turn the music down and put out the joint, the party is raging on.  We have no control.   It’s a jungle.   

And after her bender, the garden looked dreadful:  the peppers that had to be uprighted after the last storm were on their sides again.  My zucchini plants took a serious beating, which is very disconcerting because they are my fallback vegetable.  I’ve counted on them being there even if they aren’t one of the prized plants.  They should really know better than to cause any drama.  The corn was doing its choreographed sideways dance again as though it were auditioning for one of those performance reality TV shows, and a few stalks, which definitely did not make it to the next round, were laying on the ground.  The tobacco, that is really just there for companion planting purposes and was getting big and bearing these beautiful, pink, fluted flowers, had turned to heaps of messy leaves.  The sunflowers got blown over again too.  Our vision was to have this wall of sunflowers at the back of our garden but after some poor germination and the storms, it looks like we are going to have just a few guardian sunflowers instead of the army we imagined.  And the weeds are rampant.

On the bright side, my melons are growing (something I’ve waited since the 6th grade to exclaim).  I was sure we were going to be melonless after a rough transplant and a rough diagnosis of melon borers from Nick’s uncle, but they seem to be thriving in the heat.  Or they might have heard my rant about how we are never doing melons again and decided to get their acts together.  I wonder if I can use the same tactics to boost my A cup to a nice, bouncy C.

And now for the insect portion of the program, the segment that has become my life—keeping the insects from destroying our garden (and home), keeping them out of Viv’s and my hair, and continually being surprised by each new ferocious breed that greets me somewhere on the property each day.  For example, we have locusts.  I thought locusts and cicadas were the same thing.  They’re not.  Neither is pretty, but the locust choir that lives in our backyard and likes shedding its skins on my back steps and picnic table is particularly ugly.  Each morning when I walk down the steps I am greeted with clusters of locust exoskeletons.  It’s like I’m living in the Old Testament.

Also, there was some sort of larvae underneath the leaves of our prehistoric zucchini plants that looks like caviar.  I had this brief fantasy upon seeing the tiny, orange eggs that I had discovered some incredible delicacy for which I would be featured in Saveur or Food & Wine.  There would be pictures in the spread of people carefully harvesting all the little eggs next to another of sushi-like appetizers with shredded zucchini in the center of cornmeal rolls encrusted with the roe--like California Rolls, but they’d be named something regional like Midwestern Maki or Redneck Rolls.  I didn’t have the name quite nailed down, but I knew it had to include alliteration.  I quickly snapped myself out of the bizarre daydream when I found tiny spiderlike things hatching from them.  I’m pretty sure they were baby cucumber beetles.  I’m also pretty sure they are not the next big thing in the gourmet world.  I then spent the rest of the 100 degree afternoon removing larvae and killing clusters of baby insects.  We made a vow not to use any synthetic chemicals for pesticide upon embarking on our garden project.  Nick secretly confessed that he thought the bugs might leave us alone since we had such a noble mission.  They didn’t.  He has been using an organic substance to repel the cucumber beetles.  He puts it in a backpack sprayer that looks like something out of Ghostbusters.  I keep telling him “Don’t cross the streams!”  It’s really not funny anymore, but I say it anyway to amuse myself.

Another creature living in our zucchini jungle is this huge, grey bug.  I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s very menacing.  Nick calls them ‘football player bugs’ because they have big square shoulders and look like little insect linebackers.  They even look like they feel entitled to date whatever cute blond cheerleader bug exists in their insect world.

The Japanese Beetles are the worst.  They have sick little bug orgies on the leaves of my precious plants.  If the grey bugs on the zucchini plants are the athletes, the Japanese Beetles are the rock stars.  I interrupted a serious party at Tommy Lee’s leaf pad the other day.  Also, they fly at me and get caught in my hair which makes me throw tantrums out in the garden that I’m sure make my in-laws reconsider allowing an Italian to move in next door.  I flail my arms and yell at them and then Nick will yell, “What?!”,  thinking I’m yelling at him and then I have to explain that I’m yelling at the bugs.  Vivienne has picked up my bug behavior and points them out and yells at them.  She swung a dishtowel at all the walls one afternoon mimicking a battle I had with the flies in the kitchen.  She kept saying, “A bug! A bug! No! No!”  I know I’m a little crazy when I’m doing these things, but when I watch her reenact my charades I realize that I probably appear mentally ill. 

Apparently the insects were not enough because now we have a new addition to the critter family on the Bonneur Manor—a woodchuck. It is living in a hole behind one of our compost piles.  I’ve heard they are not as cute as personified in cartoons.  Hopefully Tilly, my in-laws dog with which Viv is enamored, will come to the rescue and kill the little A-hole.

We have finally tasted our first tomatoes and cucumbers.  There has not yet been the cascade of produce we’re projecting, but the early bloomers have been harvested and ingested.  Vivienne ate the first Italian Heirloom and Roma Cherries on her own.  I didn’t even get a taste because she practically loses her mind when she sees red food.  I cringe when I see a tomato, strawberry, or cherry in plain sight because I know she’s going to go absolutely mental unless she eats all of it, immediately.  I can barely cut it up without feeling like I’m the worst mother ever and starving the child as she acts like she hasn’t eaten in days. Green food, on the other hand, she will not have (unless it’s ground zucchini hidden in the pesto. I’ve gotten sneaky).  So the cucumbers are all mine, which makes me very happy because a sliced cucumber with sea salt is just about my favorite snack.  We chose one cultivar, the Long Anglais, that is very prickly.  Typically I eat the skin, but unpeeled these would give me road rash in my mouth.  I can’t even pick them without gloves.  They surprise me every time I enter the cucumber patch because they are both prickly and yellow—very heirloomy looking.

Prior to the storm, our zucchini, despite the caviar deposits, was absolutely prolific.  We were getting a few small, tender pickings every other day or so.  Then we went out of town for not even 24 hours.  When we left there were a few small ones; when we came back there were fourteen enormous ones.  There was one I must have missed on a few rounds because when I stumbled upon it, I was sure there was a boa constrictor living in the zucchini patch.  Do they eat woodchucks?  I’ve heard the stories of people unloading ridiculous zucchini on friends, but we are really trying to do this whole self-sustainable thing (I know, I know). So I spent several hours putting all fourteen through my food mill and freezing them for winter soups and breads and whatever else I think of along the way.  The ground zucchini will be much more appreciated in muffins and breads in February when it’s freezing and we can’t even remember this tropical heat, which I secretly love.  I know it’s sick, but I love being seriously hot.  Nick, on the other hand, can barely survive weather over 75 degrees.  He’s had a perma-scowl on his face since July 15th that I suspect has taken residence until about September 15th.  Luckily he’s had a basement project and has been residing in his underground lair all week.  He’s been making a room in our basement into a root cellar.  The garlic was done curing in the haymow and the potatoes are just about mature so we are going to need keeping space for them.  All of this requires that he wears work pants and work boots and carries around tools, so not only do I get a place to store all our wonderful keeper vegetables for the winter, but I get a hot, rugged-looking husband too.  Between the tan and the tools, Viv just might get a little sister.

As summer continues, the garden continues to be a source of intrigue, joy, and even frustration, but it has been worth every moment of work.  It is so satisfying to harvest the vegetables and herbs of our labor and have them all right outside our door.  And aesthetically speaking, it is such a pleasure.  The garden is full of birds and butterflies.  We love our dusk walks to see how everything is doing at day’s end.  And every morning when I wake up, I love the vista through my kitchen window as I prepare breakfast.  Our garden is an island in the center of an ocean of soybeans.  I can see the surviving sunflowers beginning to peek over the back edge, the center aisle of tomatoes, which I proudly named the ‘promenade du tomate’ (it’s ok to roll your eyes—everyone else does), the onion perimeters, the few rows of broccoli that haven’t given up yet, and the numerous other plants.  The storm and heat did turn our gem of a garden into a bit of a maniac.  And although she’s going through a rebellious phase, like all phases, it will come to an end and with a little love and patience, she’ll get back on track and probably still get into a good college.

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