This blog contains 1000 posts. Posting to Blogger with such a large archive has become unwieldy. Also, your blogista, who is sewing a kesa, is not writing much at present. She has ceased adding new posts. Still-active links are here.

Friday, February 22, 2002

In heaven it is always spring

Today the sun came out for the first time since I don't know when. The ground rises to the east of the house, and a morning-coffee glance through the living room window revealed a jewelled world -- heavy dew on the rumpled grass, which has grown during the last month, and on the leafless lilac bushes, and the neighbor's apple orchard. Rainbow hues glinted from the drops, and the glow suffused the house like a dream of a better world.

These lilacs, when they bloom, are of a purple-hued variety, and all the lilacs around all the houses hereabouts are of the same kind.

The originals were planted by the first family to arrive here, not long after the original pioneers in our end of the valley. They built a post-and-beam two-story house in the midst of three hundred and twenty acres of Douglas fir forest. Not old growth, interestingly enough: the Calapooya Indians, who had lived here for centuries, periodically burned over the valley floor, to keep it open for game and for defense. But these trees were certainly large, and there were a lot of them; their shade was dense, and it would be a while before this could be farm land. The men, taking stock of their situation, immediately contracted to provide firewood for all the one-room schoolhouses in the area, and fell to work with axe and crosscut. As the clearing around the house grew, the women installed plants they had brought with them: vinca, daffodils, lilacs.

The original house, and the forest that sustained it, have been gone for decades. But the plants remain; the original lilacs form a semicircle around a pile of foundation stones which were used to fill in the cellar, and the vinca and daffodils cover the area. It's part of our neighbors' pasture now.

My house was built in the year I was born, 1949, by one of the descendants of the woodcutting family, and his wife grew the lilacs that are by my front door from cuttings from the pioneer plants. All her neighbors appear to have been invited to do the same. The family across the road have a thick, healthy-looking hedge of them.

When we arrived here, the homeyard lilacs were much in need of pruning back, as the winds were scraping them against the house. I went after them with the pruners, taking out dead wood, crossed branches and the like, and noticed that suckers had formed around the root collars of the ancient bushes. These had been cut back, and had resprouted, innumerable times, and the root collars had thickened considerably, providing room for yet more suckers to form.

I was about to cut the latest ones away, when an idea came to me -- would they form roots if I hilled up earth around them? I brought a barrow-load of dirt and piled it round the bases of the lilacs, and went on to other tasks.

Weeks -- or it must have been months -- later, I remembered my experiment and went to the lilacs with a trowel to see how the suckers were coming along. Sure enough, they had formed roots. Cutting the main stems away from the parent, I was able to replant a number of them into number ten tomato cans in the potting shed/greenhouse, where they stayed until dormancy the following winter. I remembered them just in time, before bud break, and set them out at the corners of the house. They have all done well, and I am filled with admiration at the hardiness and adaptability of these pioneers of the valley. I hope our own transplanting here will be as successful.

The lilac has long been hybridized and there are now well over 500 varieties. For best results, plant them in fall, or no later than February, with some compost and bone meal in the hole, which should be spacious enough not to crowd the roots. Top dress biannually with compost, but remember to add some pine or fir needles, or other acid material, from time to time. If you feel that the acidity isn't benefiting the plant enough, you can use a trick that works well for rhododendrons and azaleas: add apple parings to the top dressing and stick a few rusty nails (not galvanized) underneath.

The iron seems to react with the apple skins in some way the shrubs find appealing. Pay attention to watering for the first year. After that, the lilac should be fairly hardy, and you should avoid letting the ground around an established lilac get too soggy. A vigorous plant can sustain plenty of blooms. If it seems poorly, pick them off so that more of the strength can go to building new roots. The bloom season is relatively short, but while it lasts, the scent carried on the breeze to you as you dig in the herb border will become one of your favorites, and provide a strong argument that in Heaven it is always early spring.

Friday, February 08, 2002

Peas in the ground

The rare sunshine at this time of year always sends Beloved tearing out to the garden to put in peas. We have two gardens, actually: mine is the big one in heavy clay down in the cold gloomy bottoms north of the kitchen window; hers is the small one in sandy loam on the high sunny south side of the house, next to the duck barn. Peas planted in her garden in February will not rot, as they will in "my" garden. (Or maybe it's just that she can grow things I can't.) She climbs into her overalls, ties a bandana over her hair, grabs a "retired" pillow from the greenhouse, plunks it on the ground in front of the row, and goes to work.

The neighbor, a tidy retired man who gardens from June to August religiously, finds this behavior distinctly odd. So he comes out to investigate. Not wanting to be obvious about this, he begins on the far side of the pasture, and inspects his fence around into the apple orchard, then, after what he deems to be a decent interval, stops right by the little garden.

"What the devil are you at in the dead of winter?" he asks politely.

"Peas! Aren't they lovely?" she extends a grubby palm, with a dozen wrinkled seeds.

"You don't expect them to come up, do you?" He peers down at the strange-looking, to him, thick straw mulch that has been pulled back to reveal the brown earth.

"No, I never expect them to come up, but I always hope they will; and I get some nice surprises. Sometimes." She grins, and picks up her trowel.

"Huh! well, good luck to you! I see Mary; I better get inside or she'll think I'm out here courting'!" He ambles off, shaking his head at the improvidence of the Bear clan.

We buy a lot of our seeds at the end of summer, from racks of remaindered packets that are made available by our local hardware stores for five to ten cents a packet. A dime is not too much to spend on enjoying a brief spell of winter sun. Some of these year-old seeds, especially of flowers, seem to lose a bit of vitality and planting them can be like doing your thinning in advance; but regardless of what she says, Beloved's peas seem to always come up.

Peas are legumes. We much prefer them to beans, as the whole family has a sweet tooth. We like the climbing varieties more than bush, and prefer sugar snap to the shell-'em-out varieties.

When the season is at its height, relatively little food preparation goes on hereabouts, as we are all to be found at all hours simply sitting by the pea vines stuffing ourselves.

Those that we pick and bring in are not as good after about two hours, though we use them in salads and stir fries, and freeze the rest. If it does threaten to rain too much on the rows or beds soon after planting, cover with a plastic tarp for two days, then pull it off for a day, etc. as needed. As soon as the plants are up, pull the mulch up around them close, and renew it throughout the life of the plants, to keep the roots cool. I stake them out by making tripods of cuttings from ash, willow, and hazel. They hate to be planted in the same spot two years in a row, so think rotation.

After the crop is gone, I feed the vines to the ducks, geese, and rabbits, who think highly of them.

I see in garden magazines much talk of varieties: endless list-making and discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of all the latest hybrids or oldest heirlooms. I know that by going to the hardware store I'm taking whatever they have to offer, and missing a shot at the "best" of this or the "best" of that; and I greatly admire the work of seed-saver exchanges and heirloom nurseries. One of the country's finest seedsmen is just down the road about twenty miles, too, and we in the valley are very proud of their product.

But Beloved and I both work full time, and we have a strict budget to meet. The garden must pay for its share; we can put a little work into it but not much money.

We plant whatever comes to hand, and some years we say, "Well, this is not as good as what we had last year," or "Whoa! Now this is better than what we had last time!"

There is an element of surprise.

And it's all relative. This is organically grown, home-grown, fresh produce; all of it is better than anything we can get in the stores. That's why, even though our lives are busier than Broadway, we make time to get out there and plant, even in February. These seeds, if no one will buy them, will be thrown away. I can relate; I'm middle-aged and trying to build a second career. I have hope that, with a little care, I'll bear fruit yet. A lot to think about while putting a few peas in the ground.

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