Archives for posts with tag: change

Warning:  Insect photo below.

This morning, we found the culprit who has been munching its way through the basil and leaving a nasty mess behind:  a large, hairy caterpillar.  I’m not sure what it will eventually morph into (a moth, probably) but it looks more like something I would see if I put a drop of swamp water on a glass slide and looked at it under a microscope (i.e., more Parameciidae than Lepidoptera).  We clipped off the leaf it was clinging to, along with the other soiled leaves, and tossed them into the woods.

We also replanted—again—the arugula seedlings that a friend gave to us.  They had not been doing well in their pot (too small) and we are hoping that by moving them to the east raised bed (where the other lettuces have been happily growing) they will have a better shot at survival.

At the other end of the garden, the Kabocha squash plant looks to be a climber. It has been steadily creeping outward from its mound of soil, searching for something to wrap its tendrils around.  To accommodate it, we built a tripod of six-foot-high stakes (the green plastic type, tied together at the top with twine) and trained the vine up one of the legs.  Its leaves are now facing the wrong way (north) but they should soon readjust.

From the top of the tripod, we hung a temple bell that a friend gave me for my birthday (the same generous friend who gifted me the blue ceramic pot; see June 29, 2013).  Gleaming with reflected sunlight, the bell now anchors the west end of the garden and provides a meditative—and melodic—focal point for anyone passing by.

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I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.

Early morning is the best time to garden, while it is light but the plants are still shaded by the eastern trees.  And when the weather is hot, as it has been lately, early morning is the coolest time of day.  Once the sun clears the trees and starts shining on us directly, everything heats up.

Having eaten the last of the Sugar Snap peas last night (we chose to make them the last; the plants probably would have continued to produce), I carefully removed the vines today.  They had formed an interwoven fabric of stems, branches and tendrils that was firmly anchored to the trellis.  Pulling the vines free of the trellis without damaging it required some effort and concentration.

In the process, I found one pea that Rachel missed, despite her careful inspection of the plants, stem by stem.  I know from my own experience that the pea pods, even when they are large and plump, can hide in plain sight, blending in as they do with the surrounding leaves and branches.

And, in fact, I also found several peas that we had missed weeks ago.  Yesterday’s escapee was plump and sweet (I later gave it to Rachel to snack on); the older evasive peas, ensconced in tangles of leaves and tendrils, were shriveled and black (and completely unappetizing).

When I was finished with the demolition, Rachel joined me.  After clearing away the mulch, we sowed seeds for two types of string beans:  Amethyst Purple Filet Beans (to the west) and Roma II Bush Beans (to the east).  Working quickly (the sun was starting to rise above the treetops), we spaced holes at about two inches on center, using our fingers as dibbles.  Bean seeds are easy to plant (they are simply dried peas) and we were done in a matter of minutes.

String beans are slowpokes (55 to 70 days to maturity) and we will have a bit of a wait before we can eat them.  We should have the bush beans by late August.  The filet beans—a bright purple variety I remember my mother growing when I was in high school—take even longer to mature.  We will not be eating them until after Labor Day.

The second best time to garden is dusk.  As the sun drops to the horizon, there is an almost audible sigh of relief from the earth as the seemingly relentless barrage of light and heat diminishes and cooling begins.  Starting at about 6:30, there are one to two hours of twilight during which a lot of work can be done before it gets too dark.

On Sunday—a day of blistering sun—I spent those precious evening hours pruning the tomato plants and tying them to their cages.  I also retied the bell peppers and eggplants (moving their Velcro straps upwards) which have grown much taller in the summer warmth.

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.

I’ve found that the best way to assess the impact of the removal of trees is not to do it at all, at least not consciously.

If, after a tree has been trimmed or felled, I do not notice anything different, then usually I conclude that removing it was the right thing to do.  This has happened in the past when a tree was removed while we were away.  When we returned, we did not immediately realize that the work had been done.

Alternatively, if I do become aware of the change, it becomes a question of how I become aware of it.  For example, if I get the feeling that something is missing, that there is an unnatural gap in the treescape, it can mean that the removal was too extreme or not well chosen.  Luckily, this has not happened to us very often and fortunately, when it has happened, the surrounding trees eventually grew in to fill the void.

If, however, I get a feeling of openness—sunlight or airiness where there was none before—or notice a new and exciting view, previously obscured, then we probably made the right choice.  This was the case today.

With the two trees gone, the garden remains in the sun until after 6 o’clock, an extension of the growing day of at least three hours.  As an added bonus, we can now see a vignette of the surrounding mountains, framed by the remaining trees.

The only leftovers from the holidays are some unfinished thoughts that are still sitting in a container in the icebox of my mind.  I could try to make them last until the next appropriate holiday but they might spoil by then.  Putting them into the freezer might also work, but I’d probably forget about them.

Traditions are important to me.  Whereas Michael Chabon would say that to follow them too closely or rigidly is to deny that things change (see “Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is” in the November, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit), I would counter that traditions provide grounding, a fixed point of reference.  I agree that change occurs frequently—if not continuously—but having a tradition to come back to can be very reassuring, especially when a change is sudden and unexpected.

In the fall of 2001, things were definitely changing.  We had all just been through the attacks of 9/11 and everything seemed unsettled.  That Thanksgiving was not the time for anything new and I fully embraced the traditional meal and its preparation.  Rachel’s parents were here with us and we spent the first half of the day in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, sautéing and mixing.  By early afternoon, the turkey was roasting aromatically in the oven and all of the side dishes had been prepped.  This is probably the calmest time of the entire Thanksgiving weekend and that year, it was particularly restorative.

But then our oven decided to mix things up.  With at least an hour left before the turkey was done, the oven beeped, displayed an error code, and shut itself off.  We all converged in front of it and, in shock and disbelief, attempted to get it cooking again.  Turning it off and then back on did not work nor did resetting its circuit breaker.  Tenaciously, the oven clung to its error code and would not let it go.

We next tried calling repair services in the hopes that someone could provide emergency troubleshooting.  One repairman actually answered his phone—we were simultaneously impressed by his commitment and sorry to have disturbed his holiday—but he could not help us.  Our other calls were similarly in vain.  If we had needed advice on how to dress the turkey or wanted to know to what internal temperature to cook it, we would have been all set.  But instructions on how to revive our oven?  That would have to wait until the next day at the earliest.

Our turkey, on the other hand, could not wait.  Even if we had decided to postpone our meal, there would be no way to get a half-baked bird back into the refrigerator.  So, we decided to pack everything into the car and drive two hours south to Rachel’s parents’ house.  Almost all of the dishes were already containerized—waiting for their turn in the now non-working oven—and the turkey, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil, retained much of its heat.  Traffic on the roads was light (who would be crazy enough to be traveling at dinnertime on Thanksgiving?) and we made the trip in good time.  Our meal was back on track by late afternoon.

We had more than our fair share of change that year but in the end, we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was as successful—and otherwise traditional—as any other.  In spite of the turmoil, both locally and globally, it felt good to have something that seemed permanent and enduring to fall back on.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.

I have extolled the virtues of getting up early (see September 20, 2012, for instance) but at this time of year, as the day shortens and the sun rises later and later, I have to admit that it has been getting increasingly difficult to haul myself out of bed in the morning.  The setting on the alarm clock has crept forward to 6:30 and often it is not until closer to 7:00 that I actually throw back the sheets and launch myself into the day.

It is only temporary.  At some point shortly after the time change (which offers a brief reprieve), I will face up to the fact that for the next six months, I will be getting up in the dark.   By the time that happens, my metabolism will have kicked into winter mode (dropping temperatures will help with that) and I will have accepted that sleeping in will not be an option (unless I give up on getting anything done in the morning).

Until then, I will enjoy the extra time under the covers.

I have often noted that daily changes in the garden are not always readily noticeable but that after our prolonged absence, the accumulated changes are immediately apparent.  I still believe this but after spending the last few days in Boston and seeing very little change on our return, I would add that it is mainly true during the more active portion of the growing season.

It’s the end of the season and many of the plants are already gone (most notably the cucumbers and zucchini) or winding down.  The latter is particularly true of the tomatoes which have not made any significant progress for a couple of weeks now.  All of the tomatoes that were green mid-week, before we left town, are still green today and showing no signs of turning color.  Even the few tomatoes that had already reddened are no redder now.  There just isn’t enough direct sun during the day.

On the other hand, there are signs of life in the garden.  The string beans are getting larger and the stalks are still producing blossoms.  The radish seedlings, just two weeks old, continue to develop (although it is extremely unlikely that they will reach maturity by next week, as promised by the seed packets).  And the lettuce patch continues to surprise us with its sustained growth (even if the older leaves have become slightly bitter).

Over in the ornamental garden, the divided and replanted Siberian irises are sending up new growth, the sight of which was very reassuring after their complete upheaval.  I don’t know whether this is normal (I don’t remember seeing it before) or a response to the late warm weather or to being separated.  But I am happy (and relieved) to see that we did not kill them off.