Passing Through

A double row of hornbeams planted twenty years ago.

Here it is the end of May and I’ve barely been here. My focus is kept packed by the door and my psyche feels like it’s still moving after an interminable car ride. I stop by just long enough to check my email and pay the bills, wash a big pile of neglect that’s accumulated. There are cobwebs all over some best-laid plans left piled on last winter’s table.

My “word” for 2017 has been “awake,” and boy, have I. To the point where I rose early enough to see the dawn in all kinds of wind and weather for seven days in a row. There are no photos because I refused to carry any form of electronic distraction. Instead, I wanted to burn the sun’s first midas touch on the tips of trees into my eyeballs, let a heavy dew sink into my bones, be swallowed whole by the rising rush of bird song. How could I have missed these treasures for all those countless years spent lolling about in bed like an apathetic teenager?

Some mornings we danced intricate steps set to modern astral music inside a labyrinth’s ancient patterns. On others we were high above ancestral land and its tree-lined ribbon of river, at a circle made with stones that whispered power and prayers. And still others were spent in the gardens, tended by human hands but retouched by faery folk in those magic hours when mortal souls still wander through the grainy dreams from other worlds.

There has been art and music, poetry and dance, and some really good gin. Despite an early rise, I’ve stayed up way too late talking about crazy-beautiful ideas and inspiration, because I didn’t want to miss a minute of this precious time or interrupt the messy, foolish freedom that doesn’t fit into a shifty shared cloud calendar or antsy time-management app.

But perhaps the most precious gift I’ve been given by staying awake long enough, is to rediscover a forgotten little keepsake tin with the rusty lid I left hiding in my memory’s bank barn. Inside, once again I heard the quail’s call in tall grass, felt hard rain rumbling across a field, finally found those missing linch pins from an old Farmall tractor hitch, inhaled the sweaty scent off a low morning meadow, and watched with great joy some gritty, grinning kids stagger home covered in the satisfying filth from a mountain of freshly dumped sand.

You see, somewhere during those adult years of dysfunction, darkness and despair, I had lost my childhood’s best mementos. I’d fallen into a slumber of numbing responsibility and restriction. I could only recall the disappointments and failures harped on by my mind’s endless critiques, where the rules are always changing and your advisors never let you leave.

Nearly halfway into the year, I’m happy to report that I’ve been awake long enough to know now, that I’m finally free to go.

The Downsizing Dozen: Tiny Tending

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As suburbanites everywhere march along to the beating blades inside their lawnmowers and collect the stray mulch that spring downpours washed out of obsessively sculpted landscapes, I fill my two little railing planters with carefully chosen herbs I will use in my cooking, at three stories up on a tiny balcony. From this great height, my old life of lawn maintenance and yard work seems very far away, indeed.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I spent my childhood in the country on several farms and remember spring as a frantically busy season at my grandparents’ family nursery, where thousands of annuals were sold in the merry month of May alone. Fields were tilled and planted, and the family garden begun but often neglected for farming’s other pressing demands.

I’ll never forget the first garden of my very own. My daughter had been born early that spring after a difficult pregnancy on bedrest. I was finally recovered, full of energy and new life, so I dug and laid out a little plot for square-foot gardening at the corner of our rental property. I bought garden tools and poured over seed catalogs, amended the soil and put up trellises for the vine crops. By June everything I planted was up and thriving.

And then my husband landed the job of his dreams halfway across the country. By July, I had to leave my little garden behind, and start over. But I never stopped gardening. Every year at the first misstep of winter, when the soil begins to wake and earthworms stir under the robins’ watchful eyes, I feel the call. It’s in my blood, a part of my genetic duty.

And this year wasn’t any different. I’ve worked all sizes of gardens, from half an acre to containers on a patio, but this has to be my smallest space, yet. Our diet these days restricts eating large amounts of nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, which is mainly what I planted in years past. Nowadays, we use plenty of fresh herbs, and instead of ornamental flowers, I’m trying out a couple of everbearing strawberry plants with pretty pink blooms as an added garnish.

I’ve no doubt that given the chance, I will tend to a larger garden in the future. The tools I bought for that first little square-foot plot are safely stored in our garage, waiting to cultivate bigger dreams. But until then, this is enough.

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, Travel Time in March, and Shifting Into Single Gear in April.

A Touch of Frost

Ol’ Jack Frost was late this year, but that didn’t make his chilling whack any less painful. The flaking stalks of once-proud tomato plants still haunt my patio, because I’ve been too busy to shuffle the funereal procession of exhausted potting soil to our compost pile or stuff the shameful bits I didn’t harvest into a gaping paper yard bag.

Instead, I’m holed up in the kitchen chopping and spinning and preserving all the goodies that kept on coming right up until the end.

For instance, a fairly substantial beefsteak tomato crop was roasted with some garlic, coarse salt, freshly ground pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil until cooked into submission. and whirled until it became a nice sauce for winter stews and pasta.

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Tender basil, of course, was picked well before the Hunter’s full moon and the first cold, cloudless night for my favorite pesto, a simple concoction of garlic, olive oil, salt and those pricey pine nuts. The parmesan cheese is added later.

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I tried something new this year with an abundance of arugula that carried on throughout the summer, much to my delight. I clipped all the leaves and ushered them into my food processor. A couple of quick spins and the green mulch was ready for an ice cube tray. Covered with a little water, and tucked in the freezer overnight, they happily popped out the following day, ready for their next voyage in some slow cooker soup when the cold breezes carry more than a little dusting of ice crystals in the morning.

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These days you’ll likely catch me hovering near my refrigerator, repeatedly cracking the freezer door open for a look at the pretty rows of red and green jars, while bags of frozen herbs rustle down below, captured summer waiting for a thaw.

Jack would be so proud.

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A Lazy Gardener’s Success Story

{{Yawn}} Well, that nap sure took longer than I anticipated. Like old Rip, I wake up to a yard full of leaves and a patio garden that won’t stop. This year I committed to total container growing, mostly in my dirt bags, as I like to call them.

Early in the summer, these babies shone like jewels in the potential sea of green. I tried to group them attractively, hues on a palette, rather than the dreaded single line-up.

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Plant-wise, I bought a couple of tomatoes (a Brandywine slicer and Sweet 100 cherry), two broccolis, two cucumbers of the pickling persuasion, two zucchinis, one sweet banana pepper, one miniature bell pepper that I’d never seen before, and heck, I even popped in a sugar snap vine at the last minute.

In the seed department there was the usual array of lettuces like the ever-popular Black-Seeded Simpson (I like the crispness of the name), and the mandatory arugula and basil crops. And I pushed my luck with a sowing of bush beans in a large grow bag intended for garlic planting. They seemed to like it:

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Don’t know about you, but the area where I live suffered from an unusually cold and wet June and July. (When are we going to stop talking about how strange the weather is every year and just admit that unusual is the new norm?) Despite identical containers and soil, my Brandywine shot up six feet into Little Shop of Horrors proportions while the cherry tomato waned like Tiny Tim. A bit of late starter, the cherry came into its own in good time, however.

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Gardens in the ground everywhere suffered from rot and blight. But not on the patio. My biggest problems were keeping up with the thirsty tomato monster, staking leaning towers of peppers and finding the cucumbers before they became obscene, never mind that they were a mere three feet from my backdoor. I swear cucumber leaves know how to hide their goods.

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Most everything flourished except for the zucchinis. It’s downright embarrassing that I didn’t have them coming out of my ears, but the darned vine borers get them just as they set fruit, every . . . single . . . year. I relished pulling off cabbage worms that feasted on my broccoli and then — you don’t want to know. The location made it easy to keep a close eye on nibbling varmints and slugs and the occasional marauding squirrel (now where DID I hide that nut???)

After a steady harvest the last few months thanks to some nifty watering spikes and stinky organic fertilizer, the vegetation is winding down on my patio farm. The tomatoes are just about done, peppers going for broke at the finish line, cucumbers finished thankfully (whew! we managed to eat all of them).

I’ve resewed some lettuce and swiss chard, and started fresh in the forlorn zucchini pot with an interplanting of nasturtium and beet greens. But let’s face it, I can’t bear to eat the flowers.

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Would I do it again? You betcha. After all, nothing beats nursing that gin and tonic on a fine summer evening while you casually reach over and pluck something for dinner, never breaking a sweat. Or getting out of your chair.

Yard Work Is Never Done

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In the mews of May as I long
to lay in some short grass of
an idle age, iris fall to ground
while fruit rots in rain and spinach
fails to come up when my garden’s
play grows too rough to tend.

I would take a bench’s reprieve
but there is nowhere to sit.

The Dirt Bag is Back!

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And so bright you can see them from the street. That’s right, there’s a fiesta going on in my backyard this year. Poppy and periwinkle and pretty darn precocious. After my initial purchase of a lettuce grow bag two years ago, I was very pleased with the output and convenience of these funky cloth containers that fold away neatly for winter storage.

But the outrageous color is what sold me. It wasn’t long before other bright hues started popping up in a lime green planter, azure watering can and cobalt blue coil hose. Forget those dull mousy browns and clays, my roving eye rests only on containers straight off the rainbow these days.

Yep, they’ve created a color-wheel monster dancing to her own party on the patio.

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I Didn’t Find You There

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The rose bed was
the first place I
looked, clearing a
mass of dead desire
that still stabbed me
until I bled once more
with longing.

Next I thought surely
the perennial border would
surround you safely,
but there was
nothing, until I spotted
at the base of your demise
some lusty strangers
who could care less.

I should go buy
the designer annuals that
are brashly bright,
every year kidding me
that they can
replace you in
the empty spaces of
my landscape.

NaPoWriMo #6

*This is a valediction, gardener’s version, suggested by NaPoWriMo’s Day 6 writing prompt.<

I’m writing a poem a day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. We may be able to live without poetry, but who would want to?<