The Fruits of No Labour

An entire season has passed. I’ve worked eight hours a day, seven days a week here, on the seemingly endless project to clear the litter of trees laying like vast matches absolutely everywhere I looked and to find modest space to begin a cluster of gardens.

Log litter, Poppy, red flax and cosmos

Thirty-five years to let robust nature do entirely her own thing is far too long a time. And as many of you know, I also had two robberies and their rippling consequences to grapple with, including all the ways in which it ripped the heart out of me.

Key to my heart

On June 9th, clearing foot high weeds and brush at the foot of the barn foundation for new roses, I found a large machine key, and it served as metaphor enough for my heart to begin to repair and my work here to reclaim some meaning for me.

Last of the first earlies

Last May I wrote of trying a lazy method of planting potatoes, and as I tried it, I had slim confidence that it would work. I was certain animals would pilfer the seed potatoes thrown casually atop the compacted dirt, covered by just inches of easily moved hay. And, in fact, I was so convinced the little nuggets had been eaten, that I purchased a late duplicate batch, went back to plant them fishing around into the hay to do so, only to find the original ones slowly sprouting exactly where I’d left them.

Just checking…

Two days ago, I harvested the last of the first earlies. All others are still sitting happily under the hay until my harvesting of them before first frost. My zucchini has been just as happy with the hay coverlet as are all my other vegetables. I could weep if I thought long about all those sweaty years of smashing my wrists against rocks, or clanking shovel digging, panicked marathon weeding. So the endless Bruce County rock extractions are no more. Thank you and bless you in heaven Ruth Stout.

Seven feet of brash happiness from a 1/2 inch seed.

The Blessings of Laziness

Last year in heavy soil I dug deep. For potatoes. And dug some more. Then in these trenches, over weeks dodging rain, I hilled up more heavy soil dug serially from elsewhere (so bend, dig, lift to wheel barrow, lug, shovel horizontally, bend again, toss) to repeatedly build up coverage over the potato plants as they grew, …and grew, and I dug, buried, dug, buried. This exhausting process did produce the heavenly potatoes I’ve just finished consuming last month, but nevertheless, I am always looking for easier ways to do things. And on the all-powerful internet I came across a reference to a Ruth Stout (click to watch) who became famous for discovering in her 60’s a remarkable way to plant vegetables, including potatoes. And another video channel Back to Reality (click) of a beautifully lazy young couple who with great success, tried this with potatoes. A lazier process even than the currently de rigueur “no dig” method, it’s charm is a certainty. Toss seeds (or seed potatoes) on the ground, and cover them with hay. Lots of hay. And do it every year. That’s it.

Step One – find some hay (in my barn) or even straw

Anecdotal evidence indicates harvests surpass the digging, burying and fertilizing old ways. So I’m on it, even if two months late due to excessive mud and two traumatic burglaries, but I’m on it. Done. Thirty seed potatoes planted yesterday in about a half hour start to finish. The added beauty of this method is that wet ground is suddenly of no concern.

Step Two – throw some seed potatoes on the ground. And if you’ve more than one variety, label them – that would be the hardest part.
Step Three – put down the hay – about 8″ in all. I sprinkled on some dirt as ballast until it rains today, but I also applied a light watering. Make sure you can still find your labels, and water well if there’s no rain in sight.
Then go sit down and read a book.

Beginning Again

Schön Ingeborg

Fifteen roses ordered this year, all perfumed with repeat blooms. And I have just come through three weeks paralyzed on the floor with an unrelentingly painful back. I haven’t been out of the house in that time, yet in my basement I have onions and peas ready for planting, tomatoes and peppers now graduating from flats into their own pots, and wildflower plugs fattening that I intend to place like jigsaw puzzle pieces into gaps on the front hills. If I am dreaming in technicolor … well, I’m not even exploring that possibility.

For the south facing barn wall two Souvenir de la Malmaison should over time climb nearly twenty feet each to meet in the middle.

Souvenir de la Malmaison – climbing

When my prior supplier gave me the bad news that their Souvenir de la Malmaison had not made it through the winter, I thankfully found a supplier near Niagara-on-the-Lake to add to my resources. Kiss Me Kate too I pick up tomorrow from Palatine Fruit & Roses.

Kiss Me Kate

I have fabulous memories of my tour of Highgrove. Two years prior the rose garden at Kew was like a candy shop of David Austin varieties, and for scent none there could surpass Princess Alexandra of Kent. If they survive Gray County winters, it will be a small miracle, but try I must.

Highgrove – climbing
Florentina – climbing
Bathsheba – climbing
Princess Alexandra of Kent
Ascott – climbing
Lady of Shalott – climbing
Lichfield Angel – climbing
Crown Princess Margareta – climbing

And then there are peas.

the lonely pea
Breath of Life – climbing

Lisa’s End

Day 197: Anyone who gardens and also, in those impressionable years before YouTube or Netflix, saw in theatres the movie Howard’s End, will NEVER get over the writ-large scene in that film of the tramp through the bluebell-carpeted forest. See it here to remind yourself Bluebell tramp (really?).

So today, the shivers I had running down the back of my neck as I planted my first measly 75 bulbs of English bluebells into the midst of the first of my two maple bushes, were not due to the snowfall, damp and cold. It takes several generations and possibly hundreds of  years to hope for the effect shown in Howard’s End, but nevertheless, there is a smattering more English bluebell in the woods up here today, albeit dormant until spring, than there was yesterday, and I am thrilled well beyond reason. Yesterday there were none.Bluebells

My 1500 bulbs to plant are very nearly planted. I have another 75 English bluebells, another 75 fragrant white Thalia narcissus (daffodils) to plant in the woods tomorrow,  and then my six month long mission is completed. I can’t get the car into the property anymore due to snow and mud, but I don’t give a damned. This has been the most thrilling period of my life by far.

narcissus-thalia

 

Learning How Not to Count

Day 189: I haven’t written since August, because one day has been exactly like another. Since mid-August, if not raining, I’ve stuck to a punishing routine. What can one say about monotony? I daily felled three trees, limbed those trees, stacked long logs, and hauled tree parts out of the way. I learned, sometimes the hard way, how to stay safe. I’d wait for a good day to burn the accumulated mountain of fine brush. I got used to hearing coyotes and to seeing an unpredictable mix of white tailed deer, scruffy coyotes, coy bunnies, turkeys in groups, thundering pheasants and dubious snakes. I was cutting so obsessively I thought it pertinent to cut my hair. Until a week ago, the sameness of the work was discouraging.  I hovered mid point on that neither-up-nor-down staircase, gripping the hand rail, painstakingly taking minor steps ad nausea. So much so that the bottom step I was trying to gain on seemed just a likely sign of my madness. I took the odd lovely break: I made it to see the Kathe Kollwitz and Rebecca Belmore exhibits, went to the comforting Owen Sound library, spent a day helping a friend move, had visits with my children, went to a friendly wedding reception. But that was all. I felled one tree last Monday that was resoundingly different. That tree being gone meant I’d at last cleared twenty percent of the south yard strip of forty-foot high cedars. Forever. I could see the future not just in my head, but in the yard, both north and south. One final tree gone that created a fifty foot open stretch of nothing but five waiting rose pillars, lining a crucial part of the south yard, revealing a grand possibility to plant fall bulbs. Today being three days later I have since had eighteen cubic yards of top soil delivered and have planted four hundred of my fifteen hundred fall bulbs. I am at last delivered of the self-imposed burden of my six months of hard graft, and am standing proud and almost stunned at the power of being at the very place I had last spring crazily dreamed of standing.

I made a productive vegetable garden from weedy ground. I designed and planted a large fruit cloister. I’ve made tomato sauce from things just picked; eaten potatoes only half an hour from their life in the underground; discovered the magic of garlic scape pesto, and boiled up both rhubarb and concord grape jams. At the moment I am inventing new uses for pumpkins. During these same end-of-summer months, I hired a tree angel, a man who gracefully climbs to frightening heights to rid me of immense trees tickling the house roof or hydro wires. He was here for weeks. I had my first ever ride in a fifty foot high cherry picker platform, courtesy of the capable two men now still working to save the sides and insides of my barn. I’ve learned how to use a chain saw and sharpen chains, how to fell tall trees, how to push past the seemingly impossible. Tuesday a wood stove was sold and removed. Today the second was removed, two port hole sized openings were punched in the house walls, two safe chimneys are going up, and two amazing stoves are being installed exactly as I write this. There is one more week of barn work and bulb planting here ahead of me, then everything will be put on hold waiting for a spring that promises some show, and far more time to relax.

This has been the most physically arduous, most amazing, and the best six months of my life with the possible exception of the first awe struck moments and months of motherhood. And I suppose this is a kind of entry into a fresh late life motherhood, and the beginning of a deep love to last me until the end of my days.

 

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Half Way

Halfway Down

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
Other stair
Quite like
It.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where
I always
Stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up,
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head;
“It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!”

Although I don’t know many half completed creatures or projects that look anything but ugly, still, I am disheartened that I have worked such a long, hot, hard summer and have so little to show for it, with absolutely nothing I’ve done looking even remotely beautiful. My new chain saw caused confusion and delay; the only wheels my trailer now has, are on back order; the barn needs hired expertise, for which I wait a month and pay large sums. Large trees come down in a month, with cost. Many are up to me to cut, haul, and burn, which can’t be done without the trailer. Everything is taking painfully long to progress. And I find myself chanting the gardener’s chant: next year will be better. In the meantime, I face with a downcast mood, the dreary dishevelment of unfinished business.

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The End of the Beginning

Day 111: Yesterday I planted and watered a twenty-five foot by three foot row of forty-seven Excelsior foxgloves, just before they began to suffer horribly from being crammed in their seedling flat together for four long months. I have reached the end of the beginning up here. Everything to follow will be progress approaching a moving target, or it will be maintenance. Along with a perpendicular trench for ten delphinium and the parallel iris walk, the approach to the barn now has mild definition. The foxglove trench produced glass, rusted metals, and half a cubic yard of stone. It was given a hundred and sixty two kilograms of plastic bagged manure (where are you farmers?), as a bare minimum to keep the seedlings alive until more nourishment can be built in. Excelsior Foxglove

By the house I converted a weedy old herb section into a flower garden that contains Apricot Beauty foxgloves, two types of delphinium, deep red snapdragons and scabia, one Velvet Queen sunflower, and a border of lavender. The herbs for the time being are in box planters.

The river here needs serious attention, and August is the time to do it. Two trailer loads of river silt have already been relocated from the swimming hole to a fallow quadrant of the vegetable garden, and much more needs to be cleaned out: when added to the soil already in the garden, it makes for a velvety loam.

I am past the stage where madness and physical stamina was required to see past the vast impossibility of the vision. Foxglove glass

Doing as You Are Told

Day 101: To persist with gardening is to finally get used to doing as you are told. Don Juan climbing If you have an extreme aversion to obedience, you likely won’t stick with gardening. I did not fence in my brassicas, as I’d been warned to do, only partly because I was overwhelmed with too much to do simultaneously. Partly. The other part of me wondered “who but someone trying to be hip would honestly choose to eat kale?” …and …”really? broccoli?”…but last night at 9:30 p.m. precisely, I met the likely foe (note this shot is of another of my visitors) Turkeythat had two weeks ago “disappeared” my entire brassica section, the first night doing the vanishing act with all the cauliflower and broccoli, the second night, the relatively repulsive kale. Last night, what I surmise is a hare (too large for a rabbit, but the ears were too short for a hare), decided to first stare me down, then quite clearly befriend me. We spent about half an hour together, about four yards apart, the hare doing a little nibbling tour of the perimeter of my garden, me inching so close I couldn’t believe the hare’s decision to just keep a watchful eye on me and keep munching. Perhaps it was a form of thanks for all those yummy muffins I’d provided earlier. It was such a privileged experience to have, but today I will spend the time necessary to fence in the little kale stubs that remain. Bitten kale

I am still working flat out every day, beginning my work at anywhere from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., quitting sometime between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. I have mastered the art of working through often intense heat, but am pretty surprised at how little one person can accomplish within a month and a half of full time landscaping and gardening. I estimate another five days of full time work before I’ll feel I can relax this schedule to let in some other parts of my life again, while still keeping things slowly progressing here. lettuce patchBut in this month and a half, I have entirely altered my relationships with plants with the growing practice of obedience. Squashes & carrots

Princess Auto

Day 78: What an exciting place! I’d never been inside one before Monday. I’d ordered a 10″ bladed pole saw, which is a chain saw on a long stick. It had come in. I used to buy shoes, now it’s matching battery tools. I got a jack knife to pare down my cedar garden trellis materials to a point fine enough to dig into the soil. I got ordinary staples, sand paper, and more attention than I most often get at Canadian Tire. It was a wondrous experience to wander their aisles and for an hour and a half, I was in love. But I got out while I still had my wits and wallet about me.

I have stories to tell of snapping turtles, of a terrified hummingbird trapped in my shed, of tree-climbing men quoting me two hundred dollars an hour to fell trees, my newfound love of cotter pins, and replacing a wheel on a trailer, and much more.

But the real story here is that at 8:35 a.m. on Saturday June 9th, I planted the last grape vine, and my 33 fruits garden was planted, watered, mulched, and the pine and cedars that had stood in the way were down. I could hardly believe I’d actually made my deadline, and the project of fleshing out the hardscaping and boundaries could take their sweet time to develop. I had done what I foolishly set out to do.

I have planted my roses (still in deep shade, so cutting cedars is my next urgency); I have now terraced five sections of a vegetable garden; built a bean trellis; have potatoes that are putting on about six inches a day and need hilling up; tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, curcurbits of all kinds, brassicas, and I am ready to call all that too a victory against ridiculously pressing time. I am exhausted, and I have lost five pounds eating chocolate cake and oreo cookies to inject instantaneous fuel into my crazy pace.

There is an enormous amount of refinement to be continued, but I can be human again. Yesterday I stood still in the vast barn to soak in the sunlit feeling of being. It’s now that life at Styx Crossing really begins, and for my gardening progress to slow. It’s time to begin this wordy interplay between myself, this place, my life, and the reverberations I hold of my garden-writing father. Fred in veg gdn Amarylis

Faith

Day 61: Make no mistake, I had begun to lose faith by late last week, feeling the amount I’d committed to do was more than I had time or strength to manage. 1527541738379551404721 But at some point I readied myself for likely plant loss, so that I could inch forward with continuing focus.  The riding mower has packed it in, which means I will likely lose the use of its workhorse trailer as it sits in a repair shop for two weeks. This means I needed to plan for car access so the new trees can be watered with siphon from twenty litre blue “kersene” jugs just acquired at Canadian Tire. I spent hours on the phone and driving silly distances just to track down enough all-purpose (sharp) sand to be able to transplant my carrots: you would think it was rare gems I’d been seeking. I drove fourteen bags of the stuff (surplus) up here with my car shocks groaning. I’ve had to cut both a foot path and separate car trail through woods, and haul the resulting debris to a wood pile, just to be able to access the planned garden location. 20180528_130648.jpgThe plans have needed adjustment several times as I realize flaws in the aesthetics or math. The measuring of the field seemed endless, making parallel lines with no visual references seemed unobtainable, and the heat limits how much sun I can work under. 20180528_131409.jpgThis morning at 9:10am I reached a pivotal moment. The area was staked, double checked, and swiftly then three cherry tree holes were dug waiting for early morning planting tomorrow. The apple tree hole I dug is now a design change, so another will be dug tomorrow. After the snail’s pace things are moving inexorably toward proving what has just been a very brazen dream and theory until now. Two cedars this afternoon were “given room” as rose supports, so four beautiful David Austin roses can go in the ground anytime it’s cool enough to plant again. I may be sitting in a sea of unmown dandelions, but it really feels now as though the bottle has been smashed, this ocean liner has been christened, and it is now set free to the waves.