Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Stroll in the Garden

The cold and bleak landscape of winter seems so far behind us now. Grey skies have given way to a pale blue speckled with white cotton clouds. The trees, which were dark skeletal figures only a few months ago, have filled out with leaves, and are tall and green. Everything is some shade of green. In the fields, the grass is more than knee high, speckled with tall yellow dandelions. When the wind blows across it, the grass rolls in waves across the field; and in the setting sunlight, the color is a brilliant chartreuse.

Walking in the yard this evening, I could not ignore the gentle scent of honeysuckle that fluttered by on the breeze like a butterfly, and the warm sun, leaning low toward the west, taking a last long look through the boughs of the trees; and the leaves, rustling above me, were like a complex symphony that played so purely in harmony, it seemed effortless.

I was watching the dogs play in the grass, chasing each other and the now-and-then scent of some unseen little creature. They always follow me when I walk, mildly distracted by their surroundings, but acutely aware of my movements. They followed me as I moved to the front yard to check on the container garden on the deck.

Many of the young plants in my spring container garden have been repotted or transplanted to the kitchen garden. I rearranged everything that was left a couple of weeks ago, moving all the herbs to a table near the small deck. This is my first herb garden, as I've only grown one or two herbs at a time in the past. This year I am growing a new rosemary, lemon thyme, oregano, sweet basil, dill, sage, coriander, curly parsley, Italian parsley, and lavender. I do not have a place in the kitchen garden for an herb garden this year, so this potted garden will have to do. Perhaps next year I will have a dedicated space to plant these and other herbs.

I moved all the brassicas to another table near the deck. They were getting large and leafy, but were not producing any broccoli or cauliflower. I contributed the problem to a quick warming spell we had that I believed stopped them from fruiting. What I did was break the first rule of gardening, which is "be patient". I assumed the plants were not going to produce anything, but their growth had only been slowed. This week, at least a half-dozen of the broccoli are showing small heads. Five tomato plants are doing well, as are three banana pepper plants; and there are many heads of lettuce to harvest before they bolt to seed.

This year I have also been growing flowers. I've never done that before. I haven't had the gift for it. But I thought I'd try. I've got zinnias, dahlias, impatience, marigolds, and others. So far they are doing well. I started all of them from transplants. I wasn't ready to start with seed.

I meandered around to the back yard. The dogs had begun barking at a neighbor who was riding up and down on his mower, but after a while, they grew bored and moved toward the garden to be with me. I stood for a while, admiring the garden, now full of young plants. It has taken so much and so long to get this far. The tomatoes are showing green fruit, the melon plants are spreading, the squash are flowering, and tiny pepper plants have huge fruit on them. I closed my eyes for a moment and offered God a simple prayer of thanks. He is the one who has provided this blessing.

Ready to get back to the house now, I walked across the grass, listening to the chickens clucking and cackling in their new kite nearby. I stopped at the patio to check the three upside down tomato plants I'm growing as an experiment. They are all growing well, large and lush. I counted 28 green tomatoes of various sizes on just one plant, eight on another, and six on the third. I'm very pleased with those numbers. As I examined the plants, I gently touched several of the small green orbs, admiring their size and development.

As I reached the back door I raised my hand to brush a bit of hair from my face and noticed the strong smell of the tomatoes on my fingers. More wonderful than the scent of the honeysuckle, I breathed this strong earthy scent deeply into my lungs and smiled broadly. I will enjoy this smell time and time again as this season progresses, but this first experience, this first rich sensual experience will remain the best. I was still smiling as I entered the house and closed the door behind me.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day, 2009

Today is Mother's Day.

Several weeks ago, at the height of my spring plant purchasing mania, I visited a nursery outlet and purchased a few veggie plants (Okay, I purchased many!). And among my purchases that day were a few flowering plants I chose to give my mother for Mother's Day. One was a Mandavilla vine, which was and still is flowering beautifully; large red trumpet flowers. Another was a Schwarzwalder Zantedeschia Calla, which is just now blooming; beautiful dark purple, almost black tubular flowers. The third is a Hymenocallis Festalis which hasn't bloomed yet, but promises unique, delicate white flowers.

My mother has the most prolific green thumb of anyone I know. She has never read any books or articles on the care of houseplants, but she is capable of growing absolutely anything, and has a house filled with plants to prove it. She's been known to pinch off tiny pieces of plants when visiting gardens and arboretums, stuff them in her purse, and pot them at home, watching them grow into healthy, vigorous plants with little more effort than a watering and a little loving encouragement. She can even stick a stick in the ground and it will grow into a tree!

Mother once had a Crown of Thorns that she had kept for 15 years. I did a lot of research on that plant, and in every book and article I read, no one could say they'd had one survive more than 5 years, or grow taller than a couple of feet. Mother's was nearly 6 feet tall when it finally died. It had begun life in her home as a 1-inch piece she stole from somewhere. Mother has always said that plants grow best when they're "pinched." And she still has a Shamrock plant I gave her one St. Patrick's day, 13 years ago. It was a little $3.99 pot from the grocery store. Mother has repotted it several times, watched it die back, return, and flower. It lives and thrives now on a table at her living room window, surrounded by other happy, thriving plants.

I have marveled at my mother's gift with plants for most of my life, unable to do more myself than pass along to her the dying houseplants I have tried to nurture. I would love to be surrounded, as my mother is, with beautiful, live, healthy green plants that stand up and dance for her in the light when she walks into the room. I would love to have the dilema of having so many plants that I don't know what to do with them all. But that blessed burden belongs solely to my wonderful mother, who, on this day, will receive three more plants to fuss over and converse with, and nurture. She will insist she hasn't the room for them, but she will not refuse them. Mother will accept them with grace, and admiration of their exotic beauty, and with a broad smile on her face as her heart leaps quietly in her chest for these new acquisitions to her collection.

It is a miracle that I have been able to keep these three flowering plants alive for the last few weeks. I haven't even repotted the two lillies, as I've been busy with my vegetable plants. The roots of both are bursting out of the tiny little containers I purchased them in, and the Mandevilla is trying to wrap itself around the rails of my front porch. You see, I grow vegetables. I work very hard at it. I read and study, and labor over my plants with only mediocre success. My mother's green thumb did not pass to me, unfortunately, and oh, how I do wish it had.

Monday, April 6, 2009

It Snowed

It Snowed.*

It rained all day Friday, a not particularly cold rain, that didn’t slack off until after dark. John and I cancelled plans for a day trip on Saturday because the rain was to continue, and possibly become snow in the north Georgia mountains, our intended destination. Saturday, however, though the day remained overcast, it never rained.

Sunday, however, we woke to rain again, and cold. I pulled on my husband’s giant insulated camouflage jacket and felt swallowed by the warmth of it as I trekked the 100 yards or so down our driveway to retrieve the Sunday paper. I kept staring at the grassy field in front of the house. It looked funny in this rain, and then I realized the field was covered in tiny ice pellets. Although it was raining now, at some point early this morning there had been hail.

Back inside the house I mentioned my discovery to John and then busied myself with morning activities. The sound of the rain on the roof moved from my conscious awareness into the background of other things stealing my attention away.

It was sometime after breakfast, as I sat reading the paper, that I noticed the silence. The rain had stopped. I looked up at the window expecting to see a slight reprieve from the rain. Imagine my surprise therefore, when I saw snow falling in huge, almost giant flakes. I haven’t seen snow in the five years that I have lived here on the farm, 40 miles east of Atlanta. I haven’t seen snow since I left my beloved North Carolina mountains 14 years ago.

I was in my late 30s when I went to Appalachian State University in Boone, NC to finish my undergraduate degree. I found a two-bedroom basement apartment on a horse farm in nearby Zionville that I just loved. It was twelve miles from the campus party noise, and big enough for my large personal library to live outside of boxes and long-term storage.

In the summertime, I found to my delight, I could pull up a lawn chair outside the garage and watch hang gliders coming off Grandfather Mountain land in a small field a mere few feet from the driveway. There was also the neighbor who drove his horse-drawn covered wagon past my apartment almost daily. I always watched for him on those mornings when I was home, and when I invited my extended family for a visit one Thanksgiving weekend, this kind neighbor very generously came by to give my family a wagon ride at no cost other than the joy of the experience, and our thanks.

In the wintertime the horse farm became a place of absolute wonder. As old as I was, I anticipated each new snowfall like a child. The snow would come as early as October, and as the season progressed, it came deeper and deeper. The silence deepened as well, as traffic on the nearby highway lessened, and disappeared almost completely from the small mountain road that meandered past the farm. I delighted in watching the horses play in the snow, and marveled at the deep, clean whiteness that filled the dark barren places in the mountains around me, glistening in the sunlight when the soft flakes slowed and stopped, and the skies cleared from gray to blue. It was then, when the weather was clear, that I could see the ski trails at Sugarloaf Mountain.

In my final year at Appalachian, late one winter night, as I left the library and began walking across campus toward my car, I realized there might not be many more nights like this one. After graduation I would be leaving, heading for the coast to join my family. I would probably never see this much snow again.

The snow was a good foot deep that night, and more snow was falling. My senses sharpened in the moment. I became acutely aware of everything, and I took it all in like an unexpected gift suddenly handed to me. I watched my breath escaping my lips in cloudy bursts, and studied their flowing movement against the dark night sky. I inhaled deeply the cold air, felt it sting in my nostrils and warm as it entered my lungs. I listened to the soft crunch of snow beneath my boots as I took each step slowly and deliberately. I glanced up at a streetlight and studied the flakes falling in a slow motion dance beneath the gentle glow of light, and closed my eyes as I felt the flakes falling on my face, collecting on my eyelashes. I stuck out my tongue and tasted a few cold flakes as they landed on my warm wet tongue and melted.

I stood still and listened to the silence that snow always brings. I listened to the earth tucking quietly in beneath a new layer of snow to sleep until morning, and perhaps, if it could, dream of a warm spring. I listened to the snow as it fell gently to the ground, and imagined each flake to have been a dream, a hope, a prayer that had lifted to heaven, and having been received, was now released to return, transformed, falling to earth, I imagined, as a quiet, faithful promise.

I didn’t expect the snow on Sunday to continue very long. I certainly didn’t expect it to accumulate to anything more than a dusting. As I glanced out the window throughout the day, I continued to be amazed – at the size of the downy flakes, at their tenacity as they kept falling, and at their beauty as they accumulated en mass over the roads, the grass, the trees, and the cars.
The snow on Sunday was another unexpected gift, handed to me without warning or ceremony, but more valuable than it seemed. I made a memory of the day, and the snow, and I will cherish it always.

(This blog was intended to be posted March 6. Computer problems, et al delayed that.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The More I See of Politicians, the More I Admire My Dogs

It's almost time to vote again, and to quote Forest Gump, "that's all I'm going to say about that!"

This post is for Kathy and Kalail, who just rescued ChooChoo;
and for Beva, who wants a dog of her own.

Growing up in a rural area, I saw a lot of dogs abandoned along the dirt road that ran by our house. It was heartbreaking to see these lost and frightened, often abused animals that had once given someone their undivided love and loyalty, now struggling to survive, chased away from place to place, sometimes shot at, hiding among the trees and brush, conditioned by their fear and anxiety to mistrust the approach of any human.

Domesticated animals are helpless in the wild. It became my family’s practice to leave food in areas that we knew a stray was frequenting, especially if we knew it was a female, usually emaciated, ribs protruding, teats dangling, that was nursing pups hidden somewhere nearby. It often took a long time to convince these strays to trust us, but eventually we would win some of them over. We took them in and fed them, nursed them back to health, and did what we could to find loving homes for them and their pups when we could. We always told the people adopting a dog to bring it back to us if things didn’t work out. I don’t recall us ever taking any of these strays to the pound.

We didn’t have the money to take these dogs to veterinarians for shots and treatments unless it was an emergency; and what constituted an emergency was occasionally debated in our home – passionately, loudly, and sometimes tearfully. So it was my mother who nursed these ailing creatures back to life and health while I stood at the ready to assist her. Most of the time mother used what knowledge she had gleaned in her lifetime from her mother, who had been a nurse in WWI. The rest of the time it was my mother’s gentle voice, reassuring touch, and, I know with conviction, her fervent prayers that brought these forlorn unwanted creatures back from the brink of death.

My father’s participation in all of this was frequently under duress. His family didn’t have pets when he was growing up. My grandfather’s philosophy had been that an animal was worth only what it could contribute. The family mule, which pulled the plow my father and his brothers worked daily, had great value, sometimes more than the boys. Consequently, my father’s attitude toward pets was less than desirable to the rest of us. At best, my father tolerated the strays. But his outlook changed during the years of my childhood. It had to. To paraphrase Shakespeare: some are born with compassion, some achieve compassion, and some have compassion thrust upon them. My father falls into the latter category. He was swept along by the wave of compassion that swelled and moved through a wife and two daughters. He was compelled by the chorus of tearful pleadings to venture out on cold winter nights, flashlight in hand, to search out the plaintive cries of an abandoned litter. And it was he who built shelters and filled them with warm hay, and was occasionally seen patting the head and stroking the fur of a four-legged, tail-wagging canine that shadowed his every step, and looked up at him with trust and gratitude, and love.

It wasn’t surprising that my first marriage was to a man whose compassion for animals exceeded my own. Barry had collected several strays before we met, and together we collected several more. Ours were the unadoptable, those dogs the shelters would be forced to put down when they ran out of space, but each was wonderfully lovable and full of personality. We were blessed to be able to afford all eight of our dogs and the cost of their medical care.

Barry passed away in January, 2004. By then, six of oureight dogs remained, and I was managing them alone. In 2005, when I married John and moved to the farm, my six dogs (Sam, Charlie, Goldie, Crossword, Barney, and Taco) joined his three dogs (Charlie, Toby and Mitzi) and one pot bellied pig (Lulu), to live where they could run and play and bark as much as they wanted to. Two years ago we adopted a puppy (Patty), and this summer we adopted two more dogs (Lucy and Maggie) whose owner could no longer care for them.

Since moving to the farm, Sam, my Charlie, and Taco have all passed away in their old age with various problems. I nursed each through his last days as though he were my baby, and held each in my arms in the final moments of his life, whispering my love in his ear as I wept for the loss of my beloved companion.

We picked out a special spot on the property to bury Sam when he died. Taco, and then Charlie joined him there, and some day, when they have chased their last ball, bird, or rabbit, the rest of our dogs will too. Whenever I pass by that special spot, I greet each by name and tearfully recount how much I miss them.

I like to think that Sam, and Taco, and Charlie have gone to Heaven, and that they've found Barry, and that the lot of them are having a grand good time. Perhaps that's silly, but it offers me a touch of peace; and it comforts me to know that these animals that Barry and John and I have loved and cared for have not known hunger or cruelty or fear while they've been with us.

Now, if we could just figure out what we're going to do with the pig when she dies! And I don't want to hear anything about barbecue!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Is Gagardensylph?

Ga - Georgia
Garden - vegetables for now
Sylph - imaginary female being inhabiting the four elements (air, earth, fire, water); light, dainty, airy being
When I was between the ages of 13 and 21 my family moved a couple of times, but we always managed to have a few acres and make a stab at farm living. We raised a few vegetables, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, and cows. We even had a pair of peacocks once. When we lived on the southern coast of NC, after my father's retirement from the Army (I was 13), we also fished commercially.

I loved the fishing part, but I didn't participate as fully as I should have in raising the cows, pigs, chickens, and the garden. My parents didn't make it a requirement. They were in their late 40s then, and it was a project they shared with great affection, argument, and exhaustion.
These days my parents, who are by the very grace of God still with me and in amazingly good health, are in their early 80s. I am in my early 50's, and with a second husband and a small farmstead of our own now, I pick Mom's and Dad's brains constantly for the knowledge and how-to's of all they were doing in the 70's. Of course, I should have been paying more attention back then. But at least I'm paying attention now.

I was single until I was 45. My income level and OT workloads didn't afford me the chance to live the "back to the earth" lifestyle I longed for. So I took the academic approach for many years, burying myself in the writings of Helen and Scott Nearing and others who promoted simple living and homesteading until it was part of my own nature and philosophy. I didn't yet have the opportunity to live externally what I was learning, but the seeds of what could be had been planted in my imagination, and I spent many hours dreaming, planning, and hoping.
I married John Alderman in 2005, after the death of my first husband in 2004. Our mutual ambition to live a self-sustaining lifestyle, and other common goals and interests, gave us fertile ground on which to build a life together.

John and I live on 5 acres east of Atlanta, Georgia. The farm used to belong to John's father, and we are blessed to be reaping the benefits of his father's labor. There are half a dozen apple trees, and as many peach trees; one lone pear tree that bears so heavily, the branches sag almost to the ground; and there are nearly 100 feet of heavily overgrown grape vines. We pruned the vines last winter, and had no crop this year, but last fall, as in autumns past, we had a good harvest of grapes.

There's also a greenhouse. John helped his father build it many years ago, and although it is in usable shape, it, like much of the farm, needs a lot of improvement. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, we also have fig trees! I feel almost Italian (or at least, Californian) picking this decadent fruit each July.

Every year we try to expand our garden area. It's just the two of us here. We have no help, and can't afford to hire anyone. Although we have not been able to do as much as we would like to now that we have the opportunity, we are, at least, making steady progress. John works tirelessly, and endlessly, it seems. He calls me his "strong Russian woman" (I'm actually Irish/Cherokee) as I work beside him hauling, lifting, bending, climbing, pulling, picking, and sweating. Dear God, it wears on these old bones! But the rewards are abundantly worth it!

Last year a late frost killed any chance of harvesting apples, peaches or pears, but we had a modest grape harvest, and I finally fulfilled my desire to learn canning. I put up a half-dozen little jars of grape jam, and several quarts of pickled green tomatoes from our garden.This year I put up dozens of jars of apples and pears in various forms, and 9 quarts of pickled squash. We feasted on a variety of tomatoes all summer long, as well as a few oddly shaped cucumbers, some yellow squash, acorn squash, and a few tiny watermelons.

This Fall, we gave away bushels of apples - to a small church, and to a local charity that provides assistance for needy families. Our families shared in the bounty too, but we still had many left, and so we gave some away in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart.

Now that the cooler weather is here, John and I are focused on some clean-up around the farm, and preparing for the cold season. We have planted a Fall garden, and while we are still harvesting a few tomatoes, we are anticipating rich green heads of Boston Bibb lettuce, and peppery red radishes in the coming weeks. Throughout the winter we will harvest fresh collards, sweetened by the frost, and many heads of cabbage that I will make into slaw and soups, and for the first time, sauerkraut.

I am not Helen Nearing, but like her I am living the life I desire, a life that truly is "The Good Life."