Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Hi, my name's Jack and I'm a berry-aholic."

I just spent the weekend with my nephew, watching helplessly as he plunged into a downward spiral of addiction.

Jack is one year and nine months old. While he spent the majority of his time ransacking my parents' house in Kingston, he would periodically let out a sudden shout (as if he'd just remembered something) and make a bee-line for the front door, let himself out with a tippy-toes stretch for the knob, and pad his way over to the blueberry patch a good hundred yards away, his bare feet numb to the cold, hard ground. He went out once in only a diaper, in the drizzling rain, senseless with longing.

It was like he had no concern for his own well-being; like he couldn't see anything but those clumps of blueberries beckoning in his mind's eye; like nothing else mattered. He was truly in the grips of this thing. He would take my hand for help down the stairs, but didn't even look at me.

I was an accessory.

He would allow himself to be held, but only so he could reach the higher berries. Does this make me an enabler?

Once there, he would proceed to stuff his face with one berry after another.

Like a fiend.

He would kick his legs against my sides to signal that it was time to move on to the next bunch. He was a relentless horse-whipper. Giddy-up! Driven by a deep need.

But one doesn't have to look far to find the source of his addictive behaviors. Like father, like son:

I guess the berry truly doesn't fall far from the bush.


All of these greens came from a 3' x 3' chard patch, six kale plants, and four collards...and all the plants had been harvested once already within the last week!

I guess it's true that picking leaves encourages the plant to grow more of them, at least in the case of these greens. Last week I picked a bouquet of chard. Only five days later I picked twice the amount:

The bouquets are multiplying.

Friday, August 22, 2008


I went down this morning to take the burlap off the new bed for the day, to let the sprouts get some good light, and discovered that the burlap has served a double-purpose, not just to protect, but to reveal! Raccoon tracks, plain as day. Notice how they went AROUND the burlap but didn't bother lifting or trying to get under it. It worked! I took the burlap off for the day, but I won't be leaving it off tonight.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Elegant Dirt Piles and Other Garden Notes

I dug out our peas a couple weeks ago, turned in a bunch of compost and replaced them with a new, beautiful mounded bed. I sifted out the top layer to make an even seed bed and planted peas, spinach, and collards for a fall harvest.

I have decided that I love mounded beds. I love the action of raking them into shape; into the precise, organic shape that my hand, eye, and aesthetic tell me is right for the spot. The shape is not confined to the geometry of wood, or cinder block. The mounded bed is so simple and yet perfectly suited to its task--a combination that I think of as "elegance." I couldn't walk away from this little mini-mesa of dirt without compulsively glancing back to admire it.

I do this sometimes when I finish a project. First I stare at it for a while. Then I wander around until I forget about it for a second, then glance back suddenly and think, "Oh! What's that? It's so nice!" I try to re-perceive it over and over, as if for the first time each time. Sometimes it gets in the way of actual work (one of many habits that do so).

On several successive trips back, I discovered something was digging in the bed. I suspected a cat at first--all that newly-turned soil must seem an alluring litter box--but when I didn't come upon any buried kitty treasures, I began to suspect birds. Robins or crows. I think they're rifling through the easy-to-dig-in dirt, looking for insects and worms. It might even be raccoons, looking for...well, probably just looking.

Miraculously, the little sprouted peas survived being exposed each time, and I just re-buried them. I finally threw a piece of burlap over the bed, which was just in time to protect it from those heavy rains yesterday.

The seeds are sprouting safely underneath it.

On other notes, I love how tomatoes ripen from the stem outward, making a gradation from red to green, in this case like a rainbow:

And cabbages are beautiful after rain. The water pools on the leaves without sticking to them. Roll the droplets off and the leaves aren't even wet. You could drink out of them, or serve salads in them. Hmm....

"The World in Your Garden"

I love used book stores, and found this book in Ophelia's Books in Fremont a couple weeks ago. For someone with a somewhat manic, sudden obsession with plants, and a fascination with travel and history, the idea of finding out how all sorts of common plants came to be where they currently are sounded like an exciting read. "The Adventure of Plant Discovery" (Chapter 1) indeed.

Even better, it's this vintage 50's book, put out by the National Geographic Society in the heyday of domestic, suburban America. I love the photos, which really conjure that 50's ambience--bright red lipstick, schwinn bicycles, sparkling smiles. Both endearing and disturbing.

It also has custom watercolor illustrations throughout, which attempt to conjure a sense of the various cultures and geographies the different plants come from.

My Favorite New Thing

Chard Bouquet!

What a way to show off those gorgeous stems and lush leaves. Wash the leaves, cut off the base of each stalk with a sharp knife so it's a clean cut that will take water up easily, change the water out every couple days, and it will last a week or more.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Tomato Problem

The tomatoes have arrived! It's the thing that was never going to happen, and yet it did. Miracle. If the other four tomatoes on this plant ripen, I'll consider it a bounty.

I am tempted to curse these pathetic tomato plants, but have realized that they are already cursed. They're doing the best they can in Seattle, especially in a summer like this one. Planting them in the Northwest's maritime climate in the first place might qualify as something of a vegetable rights abuse.

It's been a tough summer to be learning how to grow tomatoes. The ones in our p-patch languored for weeks before even starting to grow, and never developed much in the way of fruit. The ones in the raised bed at work took off like Jack's bean-stock, grew huge, developed tons of baby fruits, and then stayed exactly the same--lots of green bouncy-balls--for the last month.

I've heard there's a bad tomato year for every good tomato year here, and that the good tomato years aren't really all that good. It seems that to have any success you have to expend a tremendous amount of energy. And yet we do. We are addicted to the summer-is-here look and feel of big, juicy, ripe red, gold, and yellow tomatoes.

So we go through the trouble, in myriad manifestations. People have their tricks:

- Prune the hell out of them so they concentrate their energy in fruiting (quicker and in fewer places so you get a yield before summer's end), and so light and warmth get into the middle to prevent rot. In some cases, this has taken the form of a single stalk and very little foliage, as in this example from our p-patch:

- If nothing else, snap off the suckers (the branchlets that sprout up in the "armpit" between branch and stalk).

- Use those water-filled plastic cones around the plants, to keep them warm day and night. Or put blankets around them. Or lots of heat-absorbing or heat-reflecting rocks around their base. (For more on this, go here)

- Grow them in a well-ventilated greenhouse, or up against a wall with southern exposure, so they get the reflected heat.

I tried less-extreme versions of pruning and snapping, but couldn't bring myself to use the cones. It seems so excessive. It makes me want to acknowledge that tomatoes are not a Northwest plant, and accept the aesthetic of lush chard fields and miniature kale trees as the sign of summer (and every other season) in Seattle.

I am also averse to using plastic in the garden. I don't think of myself as old-fashioned, but I really like materials that can either be re-used indefinitely or that compost completely. This may some day include many more technologically-created materials than it currently does (read this book), and I consider myself forward-thinking in that, when plastics arrive at this point, I will be the first to embrace them. Still, I acknowledge that if I want to grow tomatoes in Seattle, I may need to compromise.

But I'm holding out. Next year I'm trying this: I'm going to stack bricks on the northern side of the tomato plants, to absorb and reflect heat. I can re-use these year after year; take them down to turn the field and re-stack them. Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't, but it's better than giving up. I guess.

Things To Do Instead of Gardening

Read about subjects distantly related to gardening and call it "research."

Blog about gardening.

Take inner-city youth swimming.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Yesterday I got off work at 4:30, called a friend up and suggested we go for a hike. By 5:30 we were at the trailhead of Cougar Mountain, near Issaquah. It was pouring. Ten minutes into the hike we sheltered under a large cedar, watching the rain batter the leaves in its descent through canopy and understory; the leaves of the small maples hopped around like they were keys on a giant typewriter and somebody was typing very fast. No water came through the cedar tree.

The downpour subsided, the rest of the hike wasn't so wet. We made a 5 mile loop, dusk coming on darkly as it does in thick forest. Near the end, as we dropped down off the hill into a deep, spacious stretch of woods, the sun slipped below the clouds in the west. Its light entered the woods among the trunks of the trees. I don't know how to say this. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I didn't know quite how to see it. Too, too much. I've never wished more fervently for the brain to be quiet, though such wishing is, of course, the very noise it is wishing away. The rain had passed but the foliage dripped and a breeze kept things turning.

The light, well, I don't know what it did: flawlessly geometric in its horizontal bearing, in its perfect radiation from its source; it penetrated the woods and hung suspended in the air, without body and yet so very, very there. Through its beams drops of water fell from the high canopy. The underside of the leaves of the taller maples were pale orange, and shook slightly in the breeze. The shafts of light moved, twinking in and out of space as the trunks and foliage through which they shone moved. Everything moved and I wanted to still it, to stop it and keep it. That is the problem: the desire to possess. It is enough to be here, of it. This is something I tell myself, but the telling is noise.

Can I say anything worthwhile? Go to the woods sometimes; be there.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

'Cause Looks Aren't Everything

So, lush as I've bragged about our garden at work being (the cinder-block raised bed), it has some issues.

For one, my squash plants, despite their dinosaur-ian domination of a whole half of the raised bed, have been flowering like mad for a couple weeks but there's not a single baby fruit among the jungle of stems.

People have suggested that they may not be getting pollinated. I did some research about this and found out several things. Squash plants generally produce both male and female flowers, but it's not uncommon for the first flush of flowers to be all male, which means they just fall off, no fruit. I also found out that you can hand-pollinate them with "an artist's paintbrush." I like how it specifies an artist's paintbrush, as if squash flowers are picky about who they sleep with.

One of the residents at the youth housing program I work at came shuffling down from her room this morning, still slow with sleep, and got the brunt of my enthusiasm for this discovery. When I told her about it, she looked at me bleary-eyed and said: "So you're going to artificially inseminate them."

Well, yes, I suppose so.

Out I went, watercolor brush in hand, only to find that all the flowers were still male. What the hell? It's not exactly the first flush, anymore. When I went back in and complained to her (hunched over her bowl of cereal), she said, matter-of-factly: "It's a gay squash plant." She reminded me that I work at a program that focuses on queer youth. She said, "What'd you expect?"


So I went back out and ripped half the leaves out of the plant. Let some light in. Made the flowers visible.

Maybe the light will encourage the production of female flowers. Maybe the bees will see them now. It's not discrimination, I swear. I'm happy with my plants being gay; it's just (you might say) I want grandkids, too. To eat.

As I cleared out the canopy of foliage, I discovered a nice surprise--the Satsuki Madori cucumber that I'd planted and nearly forgotten about had been getting along just fine under the squash. It had not one, but TWO twirly cucumbers on it. I'd had no idea what a Satsuki Madori cuke was when I bought it; I just liked the exotic name, and figured we might get something interesting. Sure enough:

Cool, huh?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Dances with Weeds

If that last post was the Blue Angels of blog posts, this one will have to be the quiet garden corner. I want to write about something a lot less sexy, namely: what different weeds feel like when you pull them out of the ground.

But seriously, folks, this is cool stuff! I mean, what non-gardener would ever bother to think about this? What non-gardener could even IMAGINE that this would be a thing one might think about? I think the fact that I have thought about it means I am now, truly, a gardener. Not convinced yet? Well, allow me to expound...

There are those weeds you have to pinch real low, below dirt level, and pull on with as much of your thumb's surface area as possible and at least two fingers nubbed up around the base, to keep it from slipping out or burrowing even further into the earth like a clam (don't even try to tell me they don't do this). Certain kinds of dandelions fall into this category, those which even when small manage to send their one spindly spine straight down to merge with the earth, to become one with the soil, to become lost in it to live to fight another day. That little purple Oxalis (corniculata) also falls into this category. It loves to give you a whole bouquet of its flimsy stems while its mess of root fibers stays stashed safely below ground. The Oxalis can be deceptive: you haven't got the roots if you haven't pulled a bunch of dirt out with them.

Then there are the easy ones--that tall, long-leafed dandelion, for example, which I love to pull out by lightly grasping the top of the plant and giving it a little jerk straight up. It comes out like a button unbuttoning. And of course there is the stinky geranium (weird GOOD stink) that pulls up so easy it's fun--a whole shirtfront of buttons unbuttoning all the way down its row of root nodes...though it never seems to actually go away...in fact, what's up with that? It's like every time you think you've gotten it, you've really just gotten its doppelganger. The real plant--the Platonic "form" of Geranium robertianum, perhaps--never gets effectively weeded out; is always there when you return, even the next day.

Well, I suppose this is true of all weeds in Seattle. They're never really gone, resurrected always by the rain. One might call it a constant battle. Another might call it a dance.


This is an ongoing point of contention between my brother and Christiane, a woman he works with often. She says battle, he says dance. They are both professional gardeners, and it's questionable whether their ongoing back-and-forth about this is, in itself, a battle or a dance.

When it comes down to it, I think they both know it's two ways of saying the same thing.

Think of Hemingway. Remember Santiago in 'The Old Man and The Sea', so exhausted by his struggle with the fish that he does not know if he will survive it. He says (in a moment of union between hunter and hunted):

"Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who."

Such humility! Such respect. Such full presence in the company of another. Surely in a moment like this the fierceness of battle gives way to the temperance of dance, and the will to exert one's power over the world gets lost in the rush of union.

It's hard for me to imagine a professional gardener feeling this way about the weeds he is pitted against on a daily basis, but perhaps the key is in how you choose to see it: not as being pitted at all, one being against another, but rather as two beings revolving around a common center.

"Never have I seen a greater, or more persistent, or a cleverer or more hardy thing than you, brother," he might say, "Come on and smother my garden. I do not care who kills who."


With a powerful three-fingered extraction for this one, and a light tug for that one, I will know my enemy.

Or, fine: I will know my partner in the dance.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Chicken Runs and Fighter Jets

Some men do their work on the ground, others in the sky.

I labor in the sun over my chicken run. I cut gussets for the corners to keep it square; stake out the perimeter so I can run a string between the stakes to make it level.

Above me, a little bit closer to the sun but hardly so, other men cut mind-boggling turns, dense and muscled, leaving eddies of torqued thunder in their wake. They skate around the corners of the sky. They string together clouds as points on a course; they howl, shriek, climb, dive.

The Blue Angels are in town and have been in town for most of a week. Does anybody not know this? I've been busy, so today is the first day I've had the luxury of watching them, the privilege of hearing them. One jet in particular is deafening. This must be the one that sends my brother's cat burrowing under the bed.

Their (omni-)presence has come up in conversation with friends, housemates, people at work, but today is the first day I've really watched. Everybody has an opinion, but I've been struggling to come up with my own.

A formation of four comes arcing directly overhead, so low I can see the helmets of the pilots, so coordinated they're like fingers on a hand.

What I think is not so simple. I realize I think one thing, and FEEL another. I think: waste of fuel; I think: emblem of empire. I think: someone has a genitalia complex.

But what I feel, that's a whole 'nother story. The sound arouses something primal in me. It terrifies me. I feel small. I also feel astonished, humbled, saturated with a sense of awe. The presence of the jets elicits the same expansiveness of being I experience when confronted with a natural wonder that defies categorization, defies one's attempt to put it in context, diminish it to a containable thing, or give it a relative scale; like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, or the trees of the Hoh Rainforest. When one cannot contain something witnessed, one is forced to expand to take it in; or submit to being absorbed in it, and thus become part of something bigger.

I might even call it a spiritual experience.

The funny thing is that my cousin and his friends are just inside, playing jazz piano, spicing it up with some djembe and even a bit of didgeridoo. This is a remarkable concurrence of events. Overhead the not-gods hurl their might across the sky with god-like confidence and might, their war cries god-fierce. A tightly-knit cascade of notes alights from the piano and comes skipping through the air. The djembe speaks in low grunts, like an old, wise savage. All is wrapped in the continuum of the didg, which seems to suggest that none of these things are alien to this world, not even the fighter jets. Who are we to decide what is natural?

But do I agree, folks? I don't know, I just don't know. Am I amazed? Yes, and I think it's good to be amazed. But is it possible to be amazed without all the force and fuss? All the howling and shrieking and climbing and diving? Yes. And I wish more people were receptive to it.

It's why I garden. I suppose it's an exercise in listening. It makes me sensitive to subtelty, and as I grow more sensitive, I notice more marvels. I am more easily amazed.

Though the Blue Angels leave me reeling with awe, I should hope that I don't always need such gross stimulation to encounter such awe. I will continue to work in the quiet corners of my life, and meet the world there, too.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Gray is the New Green

The gardens I work in are several:

Garden #1: My co-op's p-patch. A 10' x 20' plot in the local community garden that we grow vegetables in.

Garden #2: Our yard. Not suitable for growing vegetables because of harmful chemicals in the soil (arsenic and lead). I am using this as my training grounds for ornamentals.

Garden #3: The youth gardening program that I volunteer with, which produces like a small farm and sells at the local farmer's market.

Garden #4: The raised veggie bed we created at work, for the pleasure and education of the youth I work with as well as for myself.

Of all of the gardens, it's this last one that I am most fascinated with at the moment. It is, far and beyond, the most thriving patch of vegetables I have noticed anywhere in Seattle, and its success is entirely accidental (except for that fact that it is located in a prime, sunny spot). It is a 4' x 8' bed, two feet high, made of cinder blocks. I designed it this way for the following reasons (you will notice that none of them have to to do with growing abundant vegetables):

1) The soil at work is--like the soil in my yard--contaminated, so I decided to make a raised bed that is tall enough to keep the plant roots from digging down to the contaminated soil. Two feet is a safe bet.

2) I used cinder blocks because they will last considerably longer in the ground than anything made of lumber, even treated lumber, though of course you're not supposed to use treated lumber for a veggie bed. People don't think of concrete as a "green" material, but if you ask me, gray is the new green.

3) A cinder block bed is actually cheaper than a comparable one made of wood. And, since I had a big work truck I could use to transport them, I didn't have to pay for delivery (which would otherwise be an added cost that might not factor into a wooden bed).

I imported a yard and a half of topsoil (enviro-mix from Pacific Topsoils) and roughly 3/4 yard of compost. We planted squash, beets, an artichoke, a cucumber, dill, cilantro, basil, tomatoes, lettuce, and beans. We also planted the border--the voids in the cinder blocks--with radishes, carrots, beets, nasturtium and marigolds.

Everything has grown abundantly, but it's our tomatoes that stand--quite literally--head and shoulders above all others I've seen. I stood up on the edge of the bed a couple days ago and they were up to my chin. I am not a short person. They are laden with yellow flowers and green fruits. The beans have twined up into them and have bound numerous stems to the bean poles, making additional stakes for the tomatoes unnecessary.

Our basil was also--for some time--quite a bit more impressive than any other I saw around, especially during the initial, cool part of the summer. Others have since caught up, but ours is still going strong.

I think all the plants are happy in the rich, new soil, but the particular success of the heat-loving plants, I think, is due to the bed design. With two feet of concrete exposed to the sun--getting it on three sides over the course of the day--the cinder blocks get very warm, and that heat is transferred into the soil. Come night-time, the cinder blocks retain that heat for a while (stone and concrete have high "thermal mass", which means they retain their temperature, whether it be heat or cold...this may not be so great come winter time). The centers of the blocks are packed with soil, which adds insulation inside the concrete.

The one thing I would do differently in making a bed like this again is mortar the blocks together. Right now the blocks are dry-stacked. Though they'e heavy enough that they do not move easily, over time they will probably get a bit dishevelled, especially if whoever cultivates the bed is not careful to avoid knocking the blocks when turning the soil. But other than that, I think I stumbled upon a really good idea for how to grow heat-loving summer veggies in Seattle.

Midnight is Wrong

It's midnight and I'm starting a sixteen-hour shift. Is that wrong? Yes, it is. Plain wrong. I am not a nocturnal person. But, you know, by getting one of my work days out of the way at night, I get extra daylight hours in my week--which means more gardening!

Well, ideally it means more gardening. What it actually means--more often than not--is more bike-riding, laying around by my windows and reading, and socializing. A lot of socializing. Notice how in the summer all those plants that you planted far apart suddenly get all up in each others' spaces? Stems of one plant growing up through another's foliage, flower stalks falling over from the weight of their blooms (especially after yesterday's rains!), crashing into their neighbors' laps and crushing them in all directions. Morning Glory ("bindweed," I heard someone call it) twining everything together in its effort to get to the top. The hustle for sunshine! Everything that looked so sparsely-planted and lonely in the Spring suddenly turns out to be awefully close together.

As stated: Summer is the social season. It is also the gardening season. It's nice when both can be accomplished at once.

I spent the morning today working in a Seattle farm garden with youth, as a volunteer. We talk while we work, especially when it's rote work. I understand now why, back in the day, a lot of songs were written while working, sometimes about working, sometimes just about life, love, hard life, lost love. There seem to be times in gardening that there is a lot of unspent mental energy available, which can be spent socializing, or in thought, or meditation. Sometimes one person is spending it socializing, while the person they're socializing with is trying to spend it in meditation. Alas! Like the plants, we spread into one another's spaces.

Today we weeded, mostly overgrown grasses out of a long-neglected part of the garden. I have horrible allergies to grass (every part, I think: blade, stem, pollen), but after the rains all the allergens were magically neutralized, so I got down in the grass with pick and hoe and created a lot of weed piles.

When I know I'm going to be working in the garden for only a couple hours, I work very athletically. Aerobically. I don't swing the pick right; I explode with an excess of effort. I'm like Charlie Chaplin doing a John Henry impression. I don't bother doing all the things one does for the purpose of sustaining one's energy for the long haul. I work fast and hard and inefficiently. It's fun! It's also a little manic. My brother, I think, finds it disconcerting. Then again, he's a professional gardener, and half plant, and kind of a bear. His whole being is about conservation of energy, pacing, consistency. We are, in some ways, a pair of opposites. If he's the nucleus, I'm the electron; if he's bear, I'm coyote. If I sometimes run circles around him, he's the first to remind me that they are, well, circles.

Good night!