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Friday, March 08, 2002

Elephant garlic

The long rains are back, with the occasional snowflake.

In March we do most of our gardening sitting around the table playing with pretty packets as if there were a game called Seed Poker. To Beloved a pair of Sugar Snap Peas and and pair of Broccoli is a really good hand; but I prefer a full house of two Blue Lake Pole Beans and three Candy Corns.

One wants something to do, even if it calls for a full suit of rain gear and gum boots. So at about this time of year I usually do the garlic roundup.

The previous occupant of our place enjoyed garlic, which I never liked, but luckily his choice was elephant garlic, which has made me a convert. This stuff grows six feet tall, produces interesting flowers that are fun to have around and also great scissored off for salads, and develops a bulb the size of a softball, with great, soft cloves that are a cook's delight. These can be diced and tossed into the pan with whatever's doing, from stir-fried vegetables to roast lamb, adding a much subtler and pleasanter aroma and flavor than the smaller, more common varieties.

When you lift the plants, though, there are a myriad of filbert-shaped bulblets, like small potatoes, that get left behind in the soil, sometimes eight or ten inches deep. These become first-year plants of what appears to be a biennial. Because of the depth from which they often grow, the bulblet plants make a fair substitute for leeks, which I'd love to try but don't feel I'd have the time to devote to them. Or if you leave them alone, they come back the second year as the highly productive six-foot beasties.

The garlic bed that was in place upon our arrival was an unfortunate business constructed of old boards full of termites, and overrun with blackberries. We decided the location was better for an orchard, and harvested all the garlic, keeping a few of the large cloves for use in the Summer Garden the next year.

But in March I discovered about a hundred small plants where some fifteen had been before, on the old bed site, coming up through the new grass. Well, I can't stand to see anything wasted, so out came the fork and a bucket with about five inches of water in it, and I gingerly lifted out the long white stems, with their narrow bulbs and strands of succulent white rootlets, till the bucket was quite full. I then took an ash pole, sharpened at the end, which had been part of a bean trellis, and dibbled the little darlings into the new garden.

None of them died.

Nor did they amount to much that first year, and I almost forgot they were there, in amongst the tomatoes and pumpkins.

But the second year they were a forest of long, lithe stems and purple blossoms, as apt to draw the eye from a distance as any sunflower.

We soon were giving away cloves at a great rate. We bagged them up and handed them out almost as a kind of volunteer cottage industry, working feverishly through our birthday and holiday lists. The supply was inexhaustible. Heaps of them lay about in bowls on the kitchen counter.

Meanwhile March came around again, and I went out to the new orchard (dwarf: two Santa Rosa plums, two prune plums, two Asian pears, two Fuji apples, a Bing and a Royal Anne, cherries) and -- gasp! -- one hundred more baby garlics, crying out to be lifted. I suppose I could go into garlic farming, but one thing tells me this would be a futile endeavor: along the road, all the way into town, there are signs: Elephant Garlic For Sale. From this I suspect we have here the rain country's equivalent of -- yep, you guessed it -- zucchini!

Monday, March 04, 2002

The tomato lecture

I didn't care for gardening when I was growing up. I much preferred to spend my Saturdays lounging around the house with a book, or exploring the small wilderness across the creek that bounded the suburban lot we called home. From a hill across a meadow in the wild area, I could look back over the creek valley and see the backs of the row of new houses, set down in pastureland during the explosive growth after World War II, and in the large back yards the men could be seen, each in his own realm, restoring order to the landscape the bulldozers had crushed and tumbled.

Some planted a few pines, all planted grass.

My father, almost alone among them, planted fruit trees, grapes, figs, and row upon row of vegetables. He owned a walking tractor, the remote ancestor of today's tillers, and I could hear it singing to him, dinka-dinka-dink, as he plowed.

He made the earth yield tenfold, twentyfold, an hundredfold, all of which he brought to my despairing mother in brimming bushel baskets. She had neither the time nor the inclination for canning, drying, and freezing, and would surreptitiously slip the produce, as much as she could reasonably expect would go unnoticed, into the trash.

Frankly, I shared her point of view.

I didn't like squash or spinach fresh, let alone reconstituted in the dead of winter, so why bother?

He failed to make a convert of her, and had worse luck with me. I was enlisted to barrow ripe manure from place to place, to hold trees upright while he mixed compost, water and earth gently round the roots, to unroll bare-root tomato plants from their damp newspaper wrapping in my own shade, safe from the sun, while he dug, and poured, and tamped, talking and explaining the whole while.

But my mind stayed resolutely elsewhere; perhaps with Herodotus, or Jane Austen. My father sensed the futility of his efforts, and with a sigh released me to my own world, taking up the tomatoes from his shade with one hand and pouring water into the holes with the other, alone.

Years later, needing to earn a living on my arrival in Oregon at the height of an unemployment crisis, I signed on to a tree planting crew.

The foreman showed the new hands the basics in setting out a two-year-old Douglas fir seedling:

"Y'open the hole with the hoedad at the bottom by pulling up on the handle, see? Then the top by pulling down. Now yuh've got a hole twelve inches deep and four across all the way down. Right? Now take yer tree and dangle the roots down; give 'em a shake so they'll hang loose and won't get caught upside down, see? 'Cuz roots upside down don't work -- they'll die on yuh; if all the roots are upside down the whole tree'll die. They only work one way. Keep it out of the sun, too, and don't hold it out in the wind too long. All that sun and air'll kill yer tree. Now yuh pack the dirt around the tree with yer hoedad blade, once, twice, like this, so there's no air pocket in the ground -- that air will kill a tree in the ground just like it will in yer hand. Now press down with yer foot, but not too close to the stem and not too hard. There's hair roots, yuh can't see 'em, on every root yuh can see, and if yuh get rough you'll strip those off at the base, and they'll die, and there goes yer tree. O.K.? now on to the next spot."

About halfway through the lecture I realized I already knew all this; it was the tomato lecture!

Shade, air, and hair roots. This foreman might not know Homer (and certainly not Jane Austen), but his rough sophistication in physical geography and botany struck me as something admirable, and at that moment with a flash of insight I understood my father's enthusiasm for gardening not as a weird masochistic hobby but as a vital branch of knowledge.

I suddenly took an interest in tree planting, which in a way was unfortunate for me, as I lasted ten years at an occupation which no one has any business doing for more than three.

Hand planting of tree seedlings is carried on in the winter hereabouts, beginning when the rains have penetrated about ten inches into the soil. Our crews worked in the Coast Range until March, then fanned out across the Cascades and the Rockies, finishing up usually about the end of May in Montana or Colorado.

Summer was the off season.

Having nothing else to do that first summer, I took up gardening. After tilling a suitable patch of ground, I went out with a round-pointed shovel, a bucket of compost, a bucket of water, and a flat of tomatoes in two-inch pots (I have never seen those bare-root "field-growed" plants since my childhood).

With the shovel, I dug a hole about the depth of the blade, threw in some nice wormy compost, turned up a tomato plant and gently lifted off the pot, set the root ball quickly into the earth (working in my own shade), slopped in some water, and backfilled soil up to just above the root collar, tamped gently with the heel of my palm, and measured to the next spot by simply laying down the shovel and noting the place where the end of its handle reached to.

I didn't think about it at the time, but later realized, while admiring the nicely laid out grid of fresh greenery, that I had absorbed, albeit unknown to me at the time, every move of my father's method. The conversion was complete.

When my parents eventually made their way west to visit, they caught us at the end of a pretty good harvest. My father looked over the rows of corn, the squash patch, the bean trellises, and the fall bed with its broccoli, lettuce, chard, and kale seedlings, and shook his head.

"Where'd you learn how to do all this? " But he knew the answer as well as I did, and I could tell the old man was deeply pleased.


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