This year I swore I would have the yard ready in time to plant tomatoes in September, rather than wait until early spring when it’s already too late. For three reasons, today was the day I found myself getting Officially Ready. My friend John in Massachusetts is a serious green gardener, and his eMails read like missives from the extension program over at the university. They are inspiring and informative and they goad me, year after year, into at least trying to duplicate his Herculean efforts and abundant results. The second reason came about as I was reading Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which my very culinarily accomplished friend Linda gave me. I love Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, and the one with the green cover, but this current book I’m reading is a departure into a non-fiction world of eating locally-grown and produced fruits, vegetables, and livestock. It’s a challenge, and we all need to do our share rather than make the corn-syrup fueled agro-monolith families any richer; besides, it’s more fun to go to local farmer’s markets on a weekend rather than fretting about the waxed fauna at the supermarket. The third reason is that Kirk moved the lawns in this heat, and I felt guilty.
Those are very good reasons for anyone to go out into his own yard and start turning the earth with a spade, which conjures up visions of healthy human beings marching out into the fields and singing as they how rows, row hoes, and try to avoid the anthills which appear like mushrooms after soft summer rains. Did I mention the heat? It’s six thousand degrees out there, but dig I must. Also, my middle has stubbornly been holding onto a chinchilla-sized ring of flab which must, MUST be made to fall away. So, dig I must.
What happens when you dig and weed earth that has not been touched since April? I and my cousin Nicola, who is about as close to the land as Lady Gaga is to joining the Republican party, was with me last sometime in April soon after he arrived from Italy. Conveniently forgetting that he is an indoor boy, I had us both hieing our way to Lukas Nursery in Oviedo for bags of mulch so that I could, hopefully, keep the weeds down that sprout like… weeds during the soft summer rains. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to spread twenty bags of mulch in a yard, but Nicola didn’t; he must have been a peasant in a former life because he soon went into the house (after helping me unload the bags) to relax in front of a comprehensive German grammar. And I think that was the last time I was in the yard, other than to gather tomatoes and clip herbs for sauce. We had some wonderful yields, I must say; there’s nothing quite like tomato sauce that you’ve grown yourself. It tastes earthy and green and actually healthy, with none of the sweetness that you find in jarred varieties. I mean, it’s nice of Paul Newman‘s company to donate all his profits from his sauce to charity, but mine tastes better.
Today I reacquainted myself with the yard, and it was like meeting a friend who has been away for months, only to return with the most unflattering beard and bushy eyebrows you ever saw. The areas of the yard that were never mulched were knee-deep in weeds, helped along by the strange, fleshy plants that apparently grew from the cow manure I’d used to plant the tomatoes in. After they were done, I distributed the cow manure throughout the year, and was astounded to see, after just a few days of rain, weeds like you never saw in your life: big fleshy things that resembled miniature jade plants, with yellow flowers… weeds that looked like rosemary, but smaller and unfragrant… and mushrooms the size of golf balls. Fore! Away they all went, into large black bags.
A pile of leaves and weeds that I actually created in March, but forgot since it was hiding behind a giant desert rose, turned out to have created a rich, loamy pile of compost. This I blended into the area where the tomatoes were, adding a bag of leftover tomato manure which I had neglected to distribute earlier in the season. (It was very hot that day; silence hung in the air like private lamentations during a virgin’s funeral. The sun stood in the sky like a yellow ball of recrimination, baking– or burning– the sins of a generation. A mockingbird trilled its song in a dusty Dutch elm which should have statistically been dead, and willows soughed their sighs on the breeze. Somewhere, a dog barked.)
Shoveling up the compost pile revealed a host of tiny black bugs that looked like snakes, and which attracted lizards from all over. It’s funny about lizards: normally they’ll skitter away from you, but if a sudden bonanza of treats is revealed, they’ll run right over your shoes to get at them. I wish they’d helped me move the giant chicken wire enclosure back into place, as it had become rather unwieldy after serving its purpose. (I had made it to keep the squirrels away from the tomatoes.) It was like wrestling an accordion while blindfolded, made especially more difficult because I was wearing flip flops AND white socks, like the old Vietnamese ladies at Mass, but I eventually got it in place, sort of. This year I plan on having it settle over stakes in the four corners, and then I’ll cut “doors” into the mesh so I can reach in and pluck tomatoes. Last season Kirk and I, like madmen, would take turns tipping the cage over while grabbing at tomatoes; you should have heard the cries: “My forearms are getting pierced by the ends of the wire! It feels like thousands of hypodermics!” “Oh, shut up.”
I’m very proud of getting a leg up on the situation this year, which is a good metaphor but not to be put into practice literally while gardening. If you MUST raise a leg while in the yard, for any reason, make sure you are wearing shorts under your shorts, because some bugs have wings, and they bite. I’m just saying.