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July: The food in the garden

3. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

While all the building and socializing was going on, of course, the garden was doing what gardens do: growing things. July sees the first steady harvests–early tomatoes, peppers, greens, cucumber, early beans, garlic, the first of the carrots, herbs.

Home gardens have become a leading edge of the fight to save the planet. Gardeners are rescuing habitat, propagating native plants (and therefore saving native insects and birds), and providing food not just for ourselves, but for the wildlife, even as more and more of our urbanized landscape succumbs to concrete and sprawl. I had to do some research for a client once that suggested that their network of community gardens, serving just a thousand families, reduced “food mileage” (the distance your food travels to get to you) by 30,000,000 miles. Yes, that’s thirty million. Imagine if every family with a sunny space grew just some of their own food.

I started growing vegetables and berry fruits when my kids were small, from that typical urban mom’s idea that wouldn’t it be cool for the kids to see where food comes from. Nearly three decades later I grow most of my own produce, resorting to the grocery store only rarely, and mostly for guests.

07- July (3a)All summer I “grocery garden”—that is, I eat what I grow, as it matures. Where I have too much (like 3 gallons of beans) I preserve by canning, fermenting, or freezing. The goal is to get through from harvest to harvest, a 12-month cycle, without buying anything green. It all comes from the garden. I have a chest freezer and an extra waist-high fridge to store it.

I like to think of this as a special diet, let’s call it the Food Diet. It works like this: eat food.

If it comes in a bag with a lot of writing on it, it’s probably not food. If you can’t combine it with a couple other things to make a third thing it’s probably not food (for instance flour+yeast+milk+shortening=bread. Try doing that with Flaming Hot Cheetos.). Anything in a box or a bag with a lot of writing on it that you combine with water or milk to make a third thing is probably not food (for instance, instant potatoes).

For that matter, if it says “instant” it’s not food. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what is meant by “instant oatmeal.” Not sure how much more instant you get than just regular oatmeal. What are they doing to that stuff that it needs to be labeled “instant?” I’m thinking of starting my own brand of Instant Fruit! It looks like, um, fruit. Comes in its own package! Just add chewing.

If it’s in a superfluous package, it’s not food (think McDonald’s apples). Any meal product (as opposed to snack or dessert) that lists high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient is not food. (For instant, major-label bread.)

You get the idea. You don’t need a list of “acceptable” foods. When you’re on the Food Diet, if it’s food, by the above definition, then you can eat it.

After being a food gardener for so long, I take for granted what vegetables taste like, and when I, rarely, buy non-local produce at the grocery store I’m always struck by how tasteless and mushy it is. One forgets what they pass off as food in our carbon-dependent culture.

07- July (3b)By July, I had planted all my food: 20 tomato plants, 15 peppers, 4 eggplants, two full beds of beans, plus the corn, celery, pumpkins (which succumbed to squash vine borer later in the summer), carrots, kale, chard, leeks, onions, herbs, and potatoes, as well as strawberries and raspberries. I planted a pear tree and a grape vine, but they won’t bear for another 3-4 years. (Leaving the fruit at the old place was one of the really wrenching losses, because they take so long to mature.)

A lot of home gardeners, like me, started by thinking about where our food system had gone off into the chemical wonderland, and trying to climb back out of that rabbit hole. I moved the process back into my home, making my food system not just consumptive, but also productive, because I am the producer of the raw ingredients, and the artisan behind the meal.

We’ve been encouraged by the food and advertising industries to think of ourselves as helpless and stressed—no time, no expertise, no access—especially as regards our food. They don’t even call us “people” or “citizens” anymore–we’re “consumers” or “viewers;” our lives reduced to passive acts. Consumption is what defines modern life. And it doesn’t count unless you spend money on it. We have in fact, been blamed for various moments of economic woes, because we stopped buying things we didn’t need, and moving into houses too big and expensive for our needs.

We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by forces that do not have our interests at heart, to become part of the processing of ourselves.

Consumption is a fatal disease. There are lots of foods you can easily process yourself. Illiterate peasants and pre-literate cultures have done it for tens of thousands of years.

My little farm, and the creatures who live there, are part of that.

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2. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Creatures are a garden’s fourth dimension, moving through the rooted spaces. Humans, insects, worms, microbes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and all sorts of less desirable rodents.

Early in July, with all my transplants a little too shocky for a good bloom, there weren’t many insects other than the ground-dwelling bees in the mulch, and lots of fireflies. However, the vertebrates found me.

The gardening books will spell out for you when to transplant—before the bloom, after the bloom, when your plant is this size or that size, when the root ball is new, or when it is formed. They’ll tell you how much soil you need, and what amendments to put in and and and

And I’m here to tell you it’s mostly bullshit. Transplant when you need to transplant. Except for avoiding long dry spells, you can really transplant any plant at any stage in its life cycle. The first year, you’re going to lose the bloom, and some growth, no matter how carefully you follow the instructions. Transplants get sullen and shocky. Very much, come to think of it, like transplanting humans. I should know.

There are some things you need to do: If you’re digging it up, rather than planting something already potted, bring as much soil with it as possible—use a large spade to dig out a very large area, and try to keep that chunk of soil together, so you retain the whole root system. Make a hole twice as wide but exactly as deep as the dirt or root ball of the plant you’re moving. You want the hole twice as wide so that new roots are encountering loose soil rather than hard walls.

Flood the hole you’ve dug with water, wait for it to drain, then flood it about a quarter full again and put the plant into the standing water. Back fill with a little compost and the soil you removed. Create a small berm around it to hold the water in for the next few weeks, and water it every day (except if it rains) while it reestablishes its roots.

I’d say it’s another metaphor, but I mostly water myself with beer, so I don’t want to push it.

The rabbits remained unaware of the Farm and the Breezeway, but they loved the shady Botanic, where unfortunately, they chowed down on some of the smaller and more tender transplants, costing me all of my annuals and a lot of the diaspora and scavenged plants. Once the Botanic fills in, they and the grackles are going to really love the privacy the plants will create, but hopefully will stop eating the plants before they have a chance to grow. I have chipmunks as well, a creature that was absent in the city, even though I was just a mile away, and unfortunately rats, living under the sidewalk in the farm. I haven’t seen the larger wildlife–raccoons and possums–likely because of the protected railroad right of way just a block away. Why hang out in peoples’ yards when you can hang out in the forest?

In addition to the animals, birds, and insects, my July garden hosted other sorts of helpers. Hobbled by the wrist injury, I enlisted my young friends Mealah and Ben as well as my daughter and her boyfriend to do some heavy lifting, and to rebuild (for the last time, we hope) the Breezeway patio.

Of course, along with the god and the helpers comes trickster Loki, in the form of the squirrels. The squirrels love the breezeway wall, winding in and out of the blocks, and climbing on and sitting in the baskets. As at the old place, they use the top of the fence as an express monorail. They proceeded to help themselves to my corn starts, destroying not the ears (which hadn’t form yet) but the stalks themselves. I ended up doing four separate plantings of either seeds or starts trying to get enough corn going, and ended up with 15 good stalks. But it was touch and go.

With the fence up, I put out my inanimate garden friends, too- the Breezeway wall now hides a Chinese soldier and a little beehive, a shell, an iron gazelle, and a cast iron squirrel. In the Farm I made a little shelf for another Chinese soldier, and hid verdigris frogs and turtles.

The clay goddess now protects the garden from outside the front gate, and the tiny concrete god guards the back.

July: The god in the garden

1. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here 

07- July (1b)The Breezeway garden is in the territory of a mated cardinal pair.

They visit several times a day, landing in the tiny native patch, or on the wall, or on the tree stump, bringing a bright flash of color before they fly off again.

At the Touhy garden, it was robins. They would always be the first birds to visit me in the spring, often sitting fearlessly close while I worked in the soil. I used to call one bold male “the god in the garden” because he seemed the manifestation of the god returning to earth for the Equinox. In their hope for worms from the disturbed soil, the robins would tolerate the human and her tools.

The cardinals are more skittish. Even small movements from inside the Breezeway itself cause them to startle and fly off. It seems somehow fitting for the rarer cardinal to take the god’s role now, and ironic to have a mated pair adopt me in my singlehood.

I didn’t see too many robins in the new year in the new space—mostly starlings, juncos, jays, and woodpeckers. The grackles that were a mainstay at the old house are also absent, probably because there isn’t enough ground cover yet with all the plants so new. Grackles like to be under things.

In July my fence got built—a 6-foot privacy fence with key-locked gates that encloses the Farm and the gangway, making the back of the house more private and secure.

07- July (1a)I contracted for the fence back in April, but bad weather kept pushing me down their schedule. Finally, just two workers showed up and built it in two marathon 16-hour days. There was only supposed to be one lockable gate with a metal frame, but they accidentally put in two, so I got the second one for the cost of a standard gate. Nice.

The gate encloses the “backyard” of this property which doesn’t really have a backyard—it’s got two side yards, a narrow gangway off the kitchen and breezeway, and a very narrow front yard that is mostly the city’s easement. Because of this, I had been meeting everyone walking by, no matter which part of the garden I was in; they were intrigued and fascinated in particular by the Farm. Gardens by their nature are social places, attracting not just insects and mammals and birds (and even reptiles) but people too. Even gardens as solitary as mine are social places. With the fence up, I miss the casual conversation of people passers-by.

I make it a point to sit at the open Breezeway patio in the morning and the late afternoon.

June: Mindful

2. June 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Mindfulness is a state of being aware- of your body, your surroundings, your mind. Like many gardeners, I find gardening tasks themselves to be prayerful and contemplative. A lot of people confuse mindfulness with the feeling of being so deeply engaged in an activity that they separate from the world. Athletes and gardeners know this condition: you’re so focused on the task that the world retreats.

The Quiet Garden Movement (quietgarden.org), founded by the Reverend Philip Roderick, “nurtures access to outdoor space for prayer and reflection in a variety of settings, such as private homes, churches, retreats, schools and hospitals.” While any garden can be a Quiet Garden, the movement specifies that it be a space, or part of a space, specifically carved out for prayer, mindfulness, and contemplation.

Mindfulness, though, is not a retreat, but a quiet oneness with the world around you. You can’t really be mindful when engaged in a consuming task.

So I built mindful spaces into my garden. The Breezeway with its paired patio chairs, the outdoor desk in the Botanic. There’s a table in the Farm, as well as a bench against the warm brick wall and a chair in the corner, placed there for the specific purpose of meditating.

Spaces develop personalities. The Breezeway is friendly and public, a place to sit in the mornings when the children walk by on their way to the preschool next door. Some of the kids, getting to know me, would run up to the window if I was sitting inside the Breezeway room, much to the consternation of their parents.

The Botanic seems like the more public space, but the seating area is farther from the street, so it’s easy to sit there and not be noticed. It’s a shade garden, my first, as the old garden was relentlessly sunny. It’s a place to meditate, or to watch the world at a remove. Eventually, the bushes and trees will fill in, creating a private space, filtered by green.

The Farm is a working garden, but also a true room, as it’s completely cut off from the street by a six-foot fence. It has more seating areas than the other spaces, too—a table and chairs, a corner patio chair with a table, a bench. On cool days, you can sit on the bench with the warm brick garage wall at your back.

I find it difficult to be mindful in a garden, to let the moment take me. I focus too much on seeing the plants and not enough on being in the green space. The multiple seating areas give me a place to focus in, to be quiet, mindful, to just sit and let the space, and the gardener, be.

Leave me alone, said the garden
And I said, but gardening means gardening!
Doing things!
Digging and clipping and planting!

No, said the garden
I’m fine!
Just sit a while.

1. June 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

At the old place, I had a patio garden, a perennial garden, and a vegetable garden each blending into the next. I built comparable spaces at the new place, too, but here these spaces are much more distinct because of how the house is situated on the property. The garden spaces mark the compass points: on the east, the patio (Breezeway and Front), to the north the perennial garden (the sideyard or “Botanic”); the south has the Farm, and to the west is the Gangway and Savory.

The garden spaces at the new place require different kinds of care—the Farm and the Gangway need harvesting, a little bit of weeding, and lots of watering. The Breezeway has a lot of potted plants, which need watering daily. The Botanic is constantly changing, as I add plants to what will eventually be another recreational, patio, and ornamental garden.

The type of garden also informs the use. A patio garden is for sitting, by design. A vegetable garden is a working garden. A front yard (or as here, side yard) garden is for passersby to enjoy.

I call my vegetable garden The Farm. I grow more than $1,000 worth of vegetables a year, which to the USDA makes it a farm, although they actually say “produced and sold;” since I don’t sell any of the produce, I’m more farm-adjacent. A lot of farmers, of course, will quibble with even that; to most farmers it’s not a farm without a tractor and some animals, and certainly not if it’s less than an acre. So I guess technically I don’t fit the definition after all. There goes my government subsidy.

This vegetable garden, however, with about 200 square feet of planted beds, is essentially my subsistence garden. I grow what I eat, and I eat pretty much only what I grow other than grains and the small amount of meat I consume. My housemates admonished me one winter day for never eating what they called “unprocessed food.” But in fact, my food in winter is all processed because I’m eating the canned, pickled, and frozen stock from my summer harvests. In other words, yes it’s “processed” but I’m not sure one can count home-grown, home-preserved food as “processed” as that word is currently understood.

Having a mobility-restricting injury made my relationship with the space frustrating. It turned all the gardens into “looking gardens.” An arm in a sling, fortunately, is not nearly as debilitating as a foot in a cast had been. At the very least, I could get into the garden, although all the planting and building I had planned got put off for several weeks. On the other hand (haha), my various “sons and daughters” (both my actual son and daughter and various of their friends who seem to have reverse-adopted me) helped with jobs like adding mulch, laying pavers, and building tiny walls. (I have this thing for tiny walls.)

Gardeners develop strategies for forcing themselves to relax in their gardens—seating areas that face away from known problems, arming themselves with friends or family members, outdoor lighting so they can at least sit there after dark.

People tell me I should “just enjoy” my garden, but they are imposing their idea of what enjoying a garden means. To me, it means working.

I like to have dirt under my nails.

After all, it’s a farm.

May: End days

4. May 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

With the plants taken care of, I laid paver paths in the Botanic. From earlier in the season I’d hauled 10 CY of mulch, 6 CY of soil, and 80 granite pavers, twice. Now I added to that 30 concrete pavers and about 10 bags of compost to amend the soil, as well as planting out 50 plants. Oh, and switching out my screens and storms.

05- (4) MayThen there was the marble.

One of the delightful side effects of not having a fence is that all the gardeners in the neighborhood stop by to talk about the garden. One of them was K, who works near a marble yard, and has access to scraps. So he brought me about 10 large (very heavy) pieces; enough to make a small patio for the Botanic. Foolishly, I decided one day that I just couldn’t wait for someone to help me with them, and even though I knew my wrist was sore, I decided to carry them “using mostly my uninjured arm.” Right.

I woke up the next morning in screaming pain from spraining the cartilage complex that connects the ulna to the carpals; this injury happens from lifting things that are too heavy, and I’d lifted an awful lot of heavy things.

As the population ages and as people with mobility disabilities demand full participation in society, a gardening industry has grown around accommodating gardeners who use wheelchairs, who are elderly or infirm, and with vision impairments, among other things. There are ergonomically designed garden tools and catalogs full of kneelers, bent-handled trowels, and raised beds with space under them so you can pull a wheelchair right up to the edge.

In addition to trying to discourage rabbits (which by the way, didn’t work), I put in raised beds anticipating growing old with this garden (full disclosure—I started this garden already old), and a time when kneeling and reaching at ground level was not going to be possible.

The therapeutic aspects of gardening have also been discovered, and even have become something of a medical specialty. Numerous hospitals now have healing gardens, which may be simple meditative oases, or may actually include medicinal plantings, or at least sensory plantings, both for the vision impaired, and for the known benefits of aroma, color, and other garden aspects as a therapeutic tool.

05- (4a) MayTen years ago, I managed to break my ankle right at the start of arguably the best gardening summer Chicago had seen in years— just the right mix of hot, warm and cool, pretty much perfect rain, with any severe weather doing only minimal damage, if any, to the flower beds.

I was in a cast for almost nine weeks. Forget gardening- it was difficult just to get down the three levels from the kitchen to the porch to the deck to the garden. Crutches are terrifying on stairs. I would scoot myself down on my rear.

This year my badly sprained wrist put me in a soft cast for 6 weeks.

I spend a lot of time in my garden, although it’s not so much just spending time in it. I work in my garden. Except when some limb is in a cast.

May: Planting Day

3. May 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

05- (3a) MayOne of the things I miss the most about the old garden was the beautiful 3-season perennial border, which was particularly spectacular at its July peak, with a drift of yellow coneflowers, pink phlox, blue balloon flowers, and orange turks’ cap lilies. I brought samples of all of these plants with me. In one of the brief warm spells I planted them out in the Botanic, thinking to recreate the spectacle.

That planting was followed by actual unseasonal warmth, and not enough rain. My transplanted perennials and the annuals starts died. The rabbits ate everything else.

It was the death knell for the cool weather crops, too—the seeds never sprouted, the brassicas had not grown a single inch, and the chard, I’m absolutely convinced, had actually shrunk. The lettuce seeds, planted liberally in my pots, had sprouted quickly as lettuce seeds do, and then never developed a second set of leaves. They didn’t die. They just sat there.

I dug out the brassicas and the chard, and repotted them in a good potting mix, putting them back inside with the warming mats and a grow light. While the weather was certainly a factor, I believe poor soil was the main culprit; the soil company however was not interested in talking to me and ignored my complaints completely.

The rule of thumb on watering is that plants need about an inch a week. When I started gardening three decades ago, that is how it rained: on average an inch a week. In August there might be the occasional heavy downpour of 2 inches in an hour, but for the most part you could count on one to two inches of rain in a single rain event about once every seven to ten days. I seldom watered, because you could count on this.

Now, it seems like it rains nonstop from April through June, but with big rain events of 4 or more inches in a single days-long storm, and then nothing for weeks later in the summer.

But you have to plant, especially when you’re relying on your garden for food. So even though the weather was see-sawing from too hot and dry to too cold and wet, at the end of May I threw caution to the winds and planted out the solanums—peppers, tomatoes, eggplants—as well as putting the repotted, and now thriving, brassicas and chard back in the heavily amended soil. I finished planting all the ornamental starts, plus another set of scavenged plants: astilbe, hosta, junca, day lilies.

And crossed my fingers.

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