Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ah, June

I once wrote a column about June, voting it not only the perfect month for a wedding, but one that provides a much needed rest for the gardener.  June gives  us a little window of time to enjoy the results of all the hard work we’ve been doing -  cleaning up the debris of winter, planting seeds and seedling, staking various perennials, edging borders, spreading compost.  It’s a time to savor the tidy yard, the little green hands of lupine leaves each cupping a drop of dew at dawn, the colorful fleur-de-lis of blooming iris, the heady perfume of peonies, and the joy of the first fresh radishes and lettuce.

By mid-July our little window of rest  vanishes  as the yard loses its tidiness and hot weather inspires the weeds to shoot up by the dozen.  Fruits and vegetables will suddenly become so abundant we must begin the chores of harvest, get out the freezer bags and the canner kettle and face hot days in the kitchen.  My elderberry bushes are in full bloom, but before you know it they’ll be dripping clusters of purple berries ready to make a huge pot of elderberry jelly.

This year June was anything but the little window of rest I’ve enjoyed in past years.  Rearranging the  border to supposedly make it less work has been a monumental job as I dug up heavy  clumps of phlox, heliopsis and other badly behaved plants, mixing more than a dozen buckets of compost into the soil and then planting a half dozen flowering shrubs and a few hostas, all recommended as trouble free, to the empty spaces.  

I was so totally consumed by the border that I think the vegetable garden would win a prize as the biggest failure a gardener could face.  Too busy to even get to the local nursery, I used last year’s seeds (or possibly even older ones) and paid the consequences.  The bush bean row managed to sprout four seedlings and another six when I planted more of the ancient seeds.  The broccoli – I have no idea why, but it produced those pretty yellow flowers before I even thought about harvesting. 

The squash produced a single seedling in its hill. Brussels sprout and cucumber seeds never came up at all.  The tomato plants were keeling over by the time I got around to staking them.  I haven’t found time to thin the carrot row or separate the foot-long clump of lettuce seeds I planted. The only success so far has been the healthy looking row of onions. The garden is really too big for just me, so I left half of it unplanted, and as a result it has become a carpet of weeds. 

Hot weather has brought a thousand biting bugs, so weeding, which I usually find a restful job, is no fun at all.  And the ticks are equally bad.  This year’s ticks are microscopic. I’ve already had three, and finding them is a challenge when you live alone. 

I hope your June was not as exhausting as mine, but I can at least end on a cheerful note.  The 40 acres of hay fields that has hemmed me in all month, were finally cut, tedded, raked, baled and taken away last week.  My view of the valley is back and I intend to enjoy it from the front terrace for the last little bit of June.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Animal Tales

When Hank and I were first married we lived in a little cottage on his family’s farm in Fairfield. The woodland on the property was rich in wildflowers, and thanks to Hank’s mom,  I became a wildflower enthusiast and eventually gave garden club programs on the subject.  Since in those days no one disapproved of digging up wildflowers, and I had the perfect spot to put in a wild garden, I began to transplant many of these treasures.

Hank also enjoyed wildflowers, but after a few years he got a little fed up with being a beast of burden, lugging home clumps of columbine and hepaticas and sometimes even mossy logs or large rocks covered in lichen. On our third wedding anniversary he arrived home leading a burro, and announced that as we had one jackass in the family already, we might as well have two.

I naturally assumed he was referring to himself, only to discover he’d brought home a Jenny, a female burro, not a Jack.  Pippy, or Pipsissewa, as she was appropriately named, became a permanent member of the family and carried home wildflowers, ferns, rocks, and sometimes all three children. When she died, however, we had no luck finding a replacement until I wrote a column about the problem and promptly heard from a reader happy to sell me her burro.

I don’t need a new burro, but I’m hoping that this solution will prove to work for sheep. I’ve just had to put down two of my very elderly ewes, both too old and crippled and toothless to survive.  My two remaining old ladies just can’t keep up with Locust Hill’s large sheep pastures, which I can picture quickly going to brush.  With no desire to get a new ram or a young ewe and start raising lambs again, I’m hoping one of my readers knows of someone who’d like to board a sheep or two in my pastures for free, or sell me a nice old ewe for cheap.

Lambs are adorable, but rams are ornery.  Over the years we had a total of six.  Although their primary function was to make sure all their wives got pregnant, they were also expected to keep the grass on the pond’s dam trimmed, and all were referred to as the dam ram.  If you think lawn mowers are temperamental, you should try a dam ram.  Our first ram was loaned to us by a neighboring sheep farmer.  We named him Rammit, as he would charge anything that moved, from dogs and children to chickens and bumblebees.

It took Rammit only a few days to mow a section of the dam, but moving his stake to a new spot was a challenge.  Putting a bucket of grain at the outmost reach of both the old and new tether areas, I could, if I was quick,  pound his stake in its new spot before he finished his treat and knocked over his bucket and me!

After several years of coping with Rammit, we decided to buy our own ram,  and were delighted when we found a really docile one named Beaver.  We planned to change his moniker, but the first day this new dam ram fell into the pond and nearly drowned.  The kids spotted him floundering in the shallow water, his wet wool weighing him down, and when we pulled him out we all agreed to keep his original name.

Beaver was a well-endowed ram, so spectacularly equipped that if he wasn’t careful he’d step on his own equipment.  Consequently he stood around looking sheepish and never charged or butted anyone.  His progeny were a sickly lot, however.

That summer when the mother of a male lamb sired by Rammit the previous year up and died,  our eight-year-old, Bridget, volunteered to be the orphan’s mother.  She named him Zinnia, bottled and babied him and begged us to never turn him into lamb chops, so we only docked his tail, and let him replace Beaver when he was old enough. 

The only trouble was that Zinnia thought he was a people, not a sheep. Instead of charging lustily after his new wives when it came time for his marital duties to begin,  he stood at the pasture gate all day blatting for Bridget.

We never did spot any sexual activity, but unless you believe in Immaculate Conception, Zinnia must have done his job, as there was the proper complement of lambs each spring.  I have lots more sheep stories, but I think I’ll save them for another column.  In the meantime, hopefully I’ll hear from someone who’d take up my offer of free pasture. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Strawberry Patch

I like strawberry jam the way rabbits like lettuce, but I never thought of growing my own berries any more than a bunny contemplates putting in a vegetable garden.  For many years I got my strawberries from the local produce auction. Once the auctioneer had sold all the fat fancy berries with fat fancy prices and would get down to the ones he called “small and mean” I would start bidding.  To me they were “sweet and cheap” and made by far the best jam.

Garden books claim strawberry plants are short-lived, lasting only three or four years, and that the first year you should pick all the blossoms before they produce fruit, and cut off all the runners so that the second year there will be a good crop.  That sounds like a lot of work for very little return, doesn’t it?

The year of our oldest daughter’s garden wedding, however,  I decided to plant strawberries at the top of the retaining wall in the newly landscaped backyard as a decoration. They were in full bloom on the wedding day, and because I hadn’t picked off the blossoms a few weeks later I was rewarded with a nice crop of berries.

 I still believed all those tales about the difficulties of producing a good crop, but the job of cutting off runners was done by the lawnmower as most of them crept out to the grass just beyond the bed.  I also discovered that picking the ripe berries was a joy for someone with a bad back as the bed atop the retaining wall was just four feet high. 

That bed was still producing berries ten years later as I replaced tired plants with those produced by runners I steered into the bed.  Each fall I covered the bed with pine needles, a mulch that supposedly enhances the flavor of the berries. I always got enough to enhance my morning cereal, and 5 or 6 jars of jam, but  by then I had a flourishing raspberries bed which makes jam almost as good. 

But the real reason I gave up raising strawberries was that after a few years the chipmunks were enjoying more berries than I was. These adorable critters are not very cute when they take a large bite out of any berry that blushes.  I had such a chomping of chipmunks that almost every morning during the strawberry season my Hav-a-Heart trap held a chattering chipmunk.  I always released them up at the Norfolk cemetery, far from Locust Hill.  But eventually I lost heart and gave up the strawberry bed.

I was inspired to try again after I acquired Gottoo, a Basenji, very fleet of foot, who chases my cat at any opportunity. I thought she might keep the chipmunks at bay, but it didn’t work.  Eventually I put netting over the bed, a very tedious job and not pretty looking either.  This year I’m planning to let the chipmunks enjoy those blushing berries, and just make jam from raspberries and jelly from the elderberries blooming in the sheep pasture.

Don’t let this tale discourage you from trying to raise these delicious fruits. Despite all the warnings in the garden books, they are easy to grow, provided you don’t have a family of chipmunks in your back yard.