I was fortunate enough this past weekend to be present when a mother goat gave birth to two babies, and even to assist her some, though truthfully I think she’d have performed just fine without me.
My friend and I had been to the farmers market earlier that day. The 40 or so hens are all laying and that makes for a lot of eggs to sell, hence the farmers market on Saturday mornings in downtown Sylva. We were returning after having unloaded a dozen or so eggs when we decided to stop at the barn to check on a very pregnant goat. We arrived to find one small hoof protruding in a very uncomfortable-looking manner from said goat’s backend.
My friend gave a tug or two but the baby wasn’t having any part of leaving that warm cocoon-like place for a brave and cold new world. I found some antiseptic lube, lathered up, and went fishing inside for the other hoof. Once I found it and had both hooves in my right hand, I grabbed hold of momma goat’s tail with my left hand. Then I gave a good strong tug while my friend hung on to the front of the now vastly unhappy goat. The poor momma was bleating in pain but she did finally manage to give a good hard push, squirting the baby out. Once the baby was on the ground we saw immediately what the problem had been with the birthing. It wasn’t complicated: This was simply a big baby goat, probably eight pounds compared to the usually six or so at birth, and the mother goat isn’t particularly large. The next baby came fairly quickly. It was, if anything, even slightly bigger than her sister.
This is the third nanny to birth here at Haven Hollow Farm this spring. And based on a swelling midsection it looks like another goat, one that we didn’t plan on having kids, is nearing a possible due date, too.
Meanwhile, the billy responsible for all this mayhem and gamboling about of baby goats is lounging his time away in the barnyard. He saunters around lackadaisically until feeding time, when he turns into demon goat and bullies the others and eats all their food. In this case it truly is good to be the king: all pleasure and absolutely no pain.
The birthing of goats are a rite of spring. It’s something I’ve grown comfortable with these last couple of years and the delight of newborn babies never wanes. What’s also fun each spring is showing off the goat babies to others.
Kelly and Anna, two young friends, came to visit a week or so ago. They were appropriately taken with the baby goats, as anyone should and would be, given that these little tykes are adorably all legs and fuzz.
We admired the babies for a while. Then I noticed the girls kept disappearing inside the main chicken pen. It turns out they were looking for eggs, which because of a wide assortment of hen types, come in a variety of colors: white, blue-green, brown and chocolate brown. Kelly and Anna’s mother later told me that the girls did like the goat babies but they most enjoyed collecting the hen eggs. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, I suppose, in that you can never be quite sure what color you are going to find next.
While waiting for Kelly and Anna that day I planted three long rows of potatoes in my garden. This past weekend, in the other sections that are potato free, I applied generous amounts of lime to the soil.
Gardening, like seeing the goat babies being born, is an important part of spring to me. I’ve mentioned previously in this space that I had every intention of not gardening this year. I thought that I wanted to devote more time to other labors. But I realized that I simply can’t imagine going through a year without tending to a garden — at the risk of sounding flaky, gardening, tending animals and other farm chores grounds me. Whatever time farming takes is generally returned to me in terms of a freer spirit and more peaceful mind.
Firmly resolute in my desire to set aside more time for my writing I decided not to have a garden this year. Typical of my fickle ways, I now have my largest garden plot ever. I’m terrible with guessing dimensions accurately, but I’d roughly estimate this new garden space is approaching a half-acre in size.
There is something intimidating about such a large blank canvas. I tremble much as Michelangelo must have when he first viewed the huge expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I am paralyzed by indecision about what to plant first. It is late in the season to be starting. Should I simply focus on traditional summer garden fare or try to sneak in some spring crops such as lettuce and peas?
This deer-in-headlights reaction to emptiness, newness and expectations freeze me as a writer and person, too. As a general rule I have a terrible time starting new work and making beginnings. I have an equally difficult time letting go and moving on. I tend to overwork things, whether it is a column, story or garden. And I never say goodbye easily.
But returning to beginnings:
If I could view a blank page or an empty garden as wonderful promises instead of dreadful challenges things might go more easily in my life. But all the little self-pep talks in the world won’t budge the reality of my reactions when faced with an empty expanse. It shuts me down until I finally make a start and get going with the task at hand.
I suspect I’ll need to do in this garden what I’m forced to do as a writer: I simply sit at the keyboard and begin. I would guess that more than half the time I have no idea what I’m going to write before I start. It’s not “free” writing in the sense that I let my feelings flow onto the page. Somewhere in my head I suspect there are some ideas about what I want to communicate; I do usually have a rough idea of the topics I want to cover. For instance, with this column I knew I wanted to write about my new garden and that I wanted to discuss the irony of my plans not to garden at all this year. But even knowing what I wanted to discuss didn’t make starting a jot less painful or laborious.
Once I’ve finally gotten something on the page it’s generally reworked and changed multiple times. Sometimes my changes are for the better and sometimes not. Often I will expend much time tweaking and tweaking only to find myself, in the end, more or less where I began.
The garden will probably prove no different. I suspect I’ll just have to go to the garden with a hoe and a bunch of seeds and commence to planting and growing, guided by some inner part of myself that is always there and available once tapped. Otherwise winter will find me still leaning on a metaphorical and literal fence staring at this vast garden, uncertain of what to plant first, trapped again at the beginning of a beginning.
One big motivator is that I actually do have a couple of peach baskets filled with seed just begging to be planted. These are leftovers from when I farmed for a living a few years back. Seed well cared for is like money in the bank, it really doesn’t ever go bad: the best place to keep seed is in a freezer. This seed, however, is a little more hit and miss than that. It’s been in and out of various storage areas in a mirror of the vagaries of my life these past couple of years. I’ll probably have to conduct rough germination tests to see what’s viable and what’s not. Or, more likely, I’ll just seed extra thickly in the garden and figure that I’ll get good germination that way, or good enough germination that way, anyhow.
That’s similar to how I write columns, stories and poems.
Jackson Pollock dripped or poured paint onto the canvas in a style of action painting; I throw a bunch of words at the blank screen and then try to swirl them around to create a form. This is a process similar to a kid spelling words in a bowl of alphabet soup. I find the process a bit demented, and frankly would prefer a more crafted approach, but I’m beginning after so many years to despair that I’ll ever make meaningful changes to my writing, gardening and life processes.
Sometimes you have to just accept who you are; beginnings, I know very well indeed, are difficult places for me. But to get anywhere you have to make a start: somehow you do have to begin.
An artistic marriage of fine gardens and fine art is on display now at Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86, with “Gardens, Mountains and Streams: An Artist’s View of the Haywood County Garden Tour” showing through April 28.
This intertwining of what constitutes two of life’s great passions for many people is the brainchild of Susan Greb, a master gardener in Haywood County, and is the work of the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association. The two organizations spearheaded the effort to create this unique show.
“The call went out to different artists — in all different mediums — and it all came together,” said Greb, who serves as one of the event coordinators. “It’s a really fun kind of exhibit.”
The Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association selected the 12 exhibiting artists through a competitive process. Artists’ subject matter was focused on six private gardens to be featured on a June 23 garden tour in the county. The artists, working from photographs, were challenged to incorporate gardens, mountains and streams into their works.
“We were wondering how we could promote the garden tour,” said Cynthia Morris of the Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association, explaining that artists were asked “to pick some facet of the gardens they really wanted to represent.”
Last year alone, more than 500 people participated in the Haywood County garden tour.
The art and gardens partnership includes a rain barrel project with the Haywood Waterways Association. That group is supplying rain barrels and the Blue Ridge Water Media Society and local high school students are painting them. Former arts council board member and volunteer Mary Alice Lodico is spearheading the rain barrel project.
This aspect of the show emphasizes the environmental component to gardening; the painted rain barrels will be available for purchase at $150 each during the Gallery 86 show and on the day of the garden tour. Sales benefit the Haywood Waterways Association and the Arts Council. Custom orders are also available.
The multi-partnership exhibition grew organically from a simple idea to the work of many people and groups.
“We’ve always looked for opportunities to partner with other organizations,” said Kay Miller, executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council. “And I thought this was a great idea.”
Miller described the exhibit as a true showcase of artists.
“We have a wide range of skills of the folks involved in the show,” Miller said. “And everybody has done a great job.”
For the artists, the project brought some special challenges. Metalworker Teresa Sizemore created an 18-inch tall exquisitely designed and rendered butterfly resting on black-eyed susans.
Sizemore is mainly self-taught but has taken a number of courses at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown.
The photograph she worked from did not include the blue butterfly — that she envisioned herself and added to complete the metal sculpture “and make more of a scene,” she said.
Sizemore hand-painted the butterfly’s body; the metal is recycled from a scrap metal shop in Asheville.
“I try to use as much recycled material as I can,” Sizemore said.
She first sketched out a blueprint of sorts and then used either metal shears or a plasma cutter to complete her work.
Sizemore described metal as “forgiving.”
“I really like working in metal because you can do anything you want,” she said, adding that you can cut out, grind out or add to metal as needed.
Susan Livengood, who studied art in college but took a bit of a detour for a time raising a family, worked in acrylics. She’s more used to working in oils, but time constraints solidified her decision to work in a slightly different medium. The artists picked their photographs in December. That didn’t leave a lot of time for the artists to actually compose and paint or work in whatever medium they are accustomed to working in.
“There just really wasn’t time for oils,” said Livengood, who has studio and gallery space in the old Fines Creek School.
Livengood, who has painted many flowers and botanical works, was lucky enough to have first choice of the photographs because she happened to be in town visiting on the day they were made available. One of her pieces is a close up of red flowers, the other is a more abstract composition of a stream with a Hindu-like statue at the top.
“I was more trying to catch the peacefulness of the water,” Livengood said. “It was kind of a Zen spot.”
Livengood’s pieces underscore her devotion to working in color: both pieces are vibrant expressions of garden scenes and are distinctly personal.
Nancy Blevins, silk dye painting, watercolor, mixed media; Scott Bradley, painting; Barbara Brook, painting; Rebecca Hellman, fused glass; Ansie Holman, clay; Suzanne Leclaire, painting; Susan Livengood, painting; Cheryl Megivern, painting; Lycia Murray, painting; Teresa Sizemore, metalwork; Mary Elizabeth Stith, painting; Kaaren Stoner, clay.
Who: Haywood County Arts Council
What: Gallery 86 exhibit entitled “Gardens, Mountains & Streams: An Artist’s View of the Haywood County Garden Tour.”
When: Wednesday, April 4 through Saturday, April 28. An artist’s reception will be held Friday, April 13 from 6-8 p.m.
Where: Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 at 86 North Main Street in Waynesville.
For more information about the garden tour call the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service center at 828.456.3575. Garden tour tickets are available at the Arts Council’s Gallery 86 and other outlets.
Borrow seeds in the spring, grow your garden in summer, give them back in the fall. That’s the premise of the Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library, the first seed-lending project in the region.
The concept of the seed-lending library is simple, but the possible ramifications of the project profound: Local growers will be able to check out open-pollinated or heirloom seeds in the spring and return some seed they’ve saved that next fall, in essence replacing the seed they used. Over time, project founder Jenny McPherson hopes a truly local bank of vegetable seed will be built, sustaining the community and protecting local plant diversity.
“Somebody told me that seed libraries do exist, and I got really excited about it,” said McPherson, who heads the Jackson County Farmers Market.
McPherson, who is getting her masters in library science at Western Carolina University, knew how to conduct the research necessary. She quickly discovered Richmond Grows, based in Richmond, Calif., and learned how this iconoclastic group established its seed-lending program. Richmond Grows is a nonprofit seed-lending library physically located in the public library in that city.
Jackson County ended up going another, slightly different route: Sylva Sprouts Seed is being physically located in a cabinet at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, a home that seems to marry like interests and mutual focuses of the project and state agency.
“I really like the idea,” said Mary Ferrick, a faithful buyer at the Jackson County Farmers Market both during the winter indoors and, when the weather moderates, outdoors in downtown Sylva. “Because our seeds need to be preserved. We don’t want to be dependent on agribusiness.”
Jackie Hooper, who operates the diversified seven-acre Shared Blessings Farm in the Tuckasegee community and was selling meats, eggs, vegetables and more last Saturday morning, agreed. But Hooper also is excited about the project because she fears history could repeat itself: too few varieties of seed could spell trouble.
“I think my biggest interest is my concern that we are going to be tied in to just a few varieties of seed,” said Hooper, who recently retired from Jackson County Schools and is now devoting her attention to farming on a fulltime basis.
Take the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, also known as The Great Hunger. Potato blight struck, and because the Irish had only a limited variety of different potatoes, this staple crop was essentially wiped out.
In the 1970s, when the Southern corn leaf blight hit, it was this country’s turn to learn that lesson. Though three decades later many local growers fear it’s one we’ve forgotten. Fields that once produced many varieties of corn were planted with a single species because this hybrid variety had desirable, marketable qualities. The corn blight cut production by 15 percent and cost U.S. farmers and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Genetic diversity, you see, is food insurance for us all.
McPherson knows and believes this to be true, providing added impetus to get Jackson County’s project up and running as quickly as possible. It will take time to build a proper seed bank for the lending library, plus there’s a strong education component involved. Classes on seed saving will be offered, too, so that community members can participate fully in the library.
Saving some seed is easy enough. You simply let the plant do what it does naturally in the course of a season. You plant it, the plant grows, the plant goes to seed, you let the seed ripen, collect the seed, harvest the seed and store it safely. But some plants are more complicated to collect seed from, and you can quickly find yourself lost at sea when considering proper isolation distances to avoid genetic mingling and various seed-saving techniques.
That, McPherson said, is where the classes will come in. Those wheels were invented long ago, about as long as man has been saving and planting seed, in fact, and likely before the wheel itself was invented.
McPherson said six or so growers already have offered varieties of locally grown seed. The idea is that gardeners can “borrow” four or five seeds per plant that they want to grow, “and then they should bring back — and keep — some of the seeds” at the end of the season, she said.
Start with these ‘easy’ seeds. These seeds are great for beginners to save because they produce plants just like the ones originally planted:
basil • beans • beets • carrots • chard • eggplant • leeks • lettuce • onions • parsley • peas • peppers • spinach • sunflowers • tomatoes
Humans have been saving seeds for over 12,000 years. However, in our culture much of that knowledge has been lost over the last hundred years, along with significant biodiversity. When you grow and save your own seeds, you:
• Develop seed stock that is well suited to our climate.
• Save money.
• Mitigate our dependence on agri-business.
When you participate … you create a culture of sharing and abundance.
• Visit www.RichmondGrows.org.
• Take seed-saving classes.
• Join the seedsavers.org forum.
• Read about seed saving at your local library.
• Talk to experienced seed-saving gardeners.
• Keep good garden records.
Source: Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library
January is a time for new beginnings; nowhere is that more true than in the garden.
A difficult task for newcomers to Western North Carolina who want to garden, or for first-timers to gardening, is an absence of good information on what vegetables to begin planting when.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has when-to-begin lists on its website and at local offices. Frankly, though useful as a baseline, the state’s lists aren’t in my experience particularly helpful. That’s because the agency isn’t daring in its recommended growing practices, doesn’t factor in the use of protective covering and compiled the lists with traditional growers in mind.
Nothing wrong with any of those things, but traditional WNC growers were and are more interested in summer produce: corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. There’s much more out there than that. And much more fun to be had during our lengthy growing season than in just planting traditional garden mainstays.
If you have a greenhouse, an indoor growlight setup or a sunny place near the window, you can get started with this year’s garden now. During my stint farming in Bryson City I compiled a seed-starting list. I thought I’d share the first few months of the year in this space, and perhaps the remainder of the list in upcoming columns. I do need to take the time to tweak the list based on later farming journals I kept. Some of the Asian vegetables I became interested in aren’t well represented.
A few caveats are in order. Bear in mind that I was growing for farmers markets, and that I was farming for a financial living. This meant I was aggressive with my start dates. I wanted to be the first into market, if possible, with various vegetables. Factor in that I was farming at about 2,000 feet in elevation on a southerly slope. The average last frost date in that location is May 10. If you live in higher elevations, adjust my starting dates by roughly two (or more) weeks.
• First round cabbage, broccoli to plant later under row cover.
Last week January
• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through February as needed).
• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).
• Artichokes (you can “trick” artichokes into growing in WNC by introducing the plants to various temperatures in their first weeks of life. Perhaps I’ll write on that topic more fully at a later date).
First week February
• Head lettuces.
• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).
Second or third week February
In garden toward end of February, first week of March weather permitting, (be prepared to cover transplants when temperatures threaten to drop lower than 20 degrees):
• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.
• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets (keep succession growing through late winter into spring).
First week March
• Start tomatoes in greenhouse (Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).
• Start eggplant.
Second week March
• Plant potatoes in garden.
• Direct seed kohlrabi in the garden.
• In greenhouse, marigolds, zinnias, ageratum, if you enjoy cutting flowers.
Continue transplanting in greenhouse. Direct seed in garden:
• Beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes.
• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans, and sweet corn when the soil warm (old-timers here in the mountains planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).
Early to mid May
• Plant leek transplants into garden.
• Direct seed okra into garden.
• Direct seed basil, can plant later, too, to have with ripe tomatoes.
Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radishes.
• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.
• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.
• Direct seed red noodle bean (an Asia bean I’m particularly fond of).
Mid to late May
• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut squashes.
• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.
• Plant sweet potato slips.
• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.
Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.
That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.
When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.
This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.
The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.
The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.
A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.
Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.
The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.
I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.
There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.
Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.
The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.
If you haven’t covered your greens yet — and I’m among those who have not — it’s time. We’ve been favored by a long, relatively warm fall, but these 20 degrees nights cause wear and tear on our mustard, collards, turnips and whatever else currently survives outside. A telephone call this past weekend from a friend in search of row cover (I had some extra to spare) served as a reminder. Cover those greens, and you’ll get a lot more out of them than you would otherwise. A few nights below 20 degrees without protection, and they’ll disappear on us.
The last time I wrote about using row cover I received an email from a nice fellow, I think from up in the Cashiers area, who thanked me for my suggestion to use it liberally and often in the winter garden. “But what, exactly, is row cover?” he asked ever so politely after delivering several effusive compliments about my writing style intended as balm to remove any possible sting from the question. I felt more than a little embarrassed by my failure to actually define what I was writing about. As my new friend Harold is prone to ask, don’t they teach that in Journalism 101?
Harold, I’m discovering, likes to read my articles and columns and, in a jolly way, note any little journalistic errors I’ve committed that week. Everybody needs a Harold in their life; I’m glad I found mine. Harold keeps me humble and amused. But anyway, back to row cover.
So this is for the email writer and Harold: Row cover, my friends, is a type of material placed over crops to provide protection from either insects or, in the winter, cold. Or, to be more precise, to protect plants from the damaging and drying of winds — the chill and thaw and chill and thaw cycles destroy garden greens and other vegetables much more quickly than low temperatures ever will. I use a product called Agribon 19, which in theory provides a mere 4 degrees of frost protection. But in reality, that thin barrier also breaks the wind — and that’s where the vegetables get the truly needed protection. Agribon is readily available through almost any garden supply company.
I also haven’t planted either my garlic or flower bulbs. It isn’t too late, so if your neglected bulbs are in the corner of the garage as mine still are, pick a day soon and go ahead and plant them. I’ve heard of people actually not getting their garlic in until January. Now that is pushing the garlic growing season a bit far, but those farmers say the crop is usually productive even with the planting so amazingly delayed. But if the ground freezes and stays frozen, which can happen anytime now, we’ll all be out of luck, period. So get those garlic and bulbs in — I plan to.
I’ve planted carrots the week before Christmas in previous years with success. Those sown then will germinate one warm day and simply sit there, seemingly without much growth, until daylight hours lengthen. Then the carrots rapidly grow, giving the early bird gardener an early bed of carrots, indeed. The trick is to double cover the carrots after planting the seed. You can plant this bed anytime from now through whenever — to me, this early carrot planting marks the beginning of the new garden season.
And speaking of new garden seasons, this is a fine time to get your garden soil tested through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The lab folks can get to it much faster right now than will be the case in the spring, giving you the jump on amending it as necessary. I have not actually ever followed this advice and tested my soil early, but it’s good advice nonetheless, and I’ve enjoyed intoning it for others’ benefit in an ever-so-wise gardener’s voice.
As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.
But order is boring, chaos exciting.
In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.
I have similar tidy habits in the house.
You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.
In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.
The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.
But I mustn’t wander.
In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.
There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.
After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.
Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.
I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.
After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.
Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.
A box of bulbs arrived Saturday, containing within the cardboard confines all the promises of fall work, winter waiting and spring wonder.
The decision was made last March or April to order then rather than waiting to select and purchase the following season’s bulbs during these autumn days. That way, the reasoning went, the choices would be thoughtful, with awareness of precisely where new daffodils, fritillaria, tulips and crocuses should best go.
Needs were plain to see, as absences that begged filling. I also developed an itch that required scratching: a heated passion for tulips. With this newly awakened appreciation I marvel at how I could have wasted more than four decades failing to enjoy the beauty of these flowers. Hoity-toity me, I sniffed and condemned tulips as too artificial for the likes of my cultured self.
My ignorance, now that I’ve discovered the vast array and endless beauty of the tulip, staggers me; my condescension toward those who enjoy them shames me. Before this past spring, I suspected tulip aficionados to be of a type who most likely enjoyed ‘tulip tires,’ too, and who whitewashed tree trunks. And who were capable of positioning an abandoned metal bed frame beside the road, planted with flowers, bearing a helpful hand-painted sign for passer-byes cleverly noting that here is a “flowerbed.”
Gentled this past year, tulip tires, white-washed trees and metal flowerbeds seem poignant — a Southern phenomenon like our Easter-egg trees, when mountain families festoon winter-bare trees with colorful plastic eggs, a cultural practice I can’t, frankly, quite fathom. But we’ll be poorer for it when that day comes in the South when no one in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina decorate their yards for motorists’ enjoyment, and if trees in Western North Carolina each April don’t inexplicably spawn plastic Easter eggs.
To return to bulbs: I’m very happy, now that bulb-planting time is here, with the decision to order early. It was so unlike me to do something in anticipation, rather than in mere Pavlovian-conditioned response. To actually plan nearly 12 months in advance for future pleasures — how thrilling now that the box has arrived in the mail, how satisfying the expectations of spring beauty to come.
The word “spring” is used in the loosest sense. For the flower gardener, at least this particular flower gardener, the beginning of spring is the onset of bloom following snows. That can be early February some years in Western North Carolina, though sometimes we must wait almost for March to arrive.
After months of hot weather and crazed growth, I can no longer easily picture what the landscape looks like during the comparative bareness of spring. Not with the flower garden bursting with fall bloom. I can’t see beyond the now of lilac-colored asters, gold- and maroon- and salmon-colored chrysanthemums, bright zinnias and light, delicate pink cosmos flanked by the husky, darker pinks of autumn sedum. A huge patch of grasses, as tall as I am, has declined to remain within its allotted space but towers resplendent in the gold and fading greens of fall, dominating the front bed. Sea oats bounce in response to the slightest breath of air, a quivering living edge for the back bed nearest the dining-room windows.
My breakfast, as usual a bowl of cereal drowning in goat’s milk, was spent this morning watching birds visit the feeders and surveying the flowerbeds. This breakfast inspection wasn’t encouraging.
The flowerbeds do not seem to allow for adding even a single blade of grass. Much less the 100 or so bulbs ordered, with more to come in another shipment.
Though I congratulate myself on the ordering early aspect, my failure to map where I intended to actually plant these new bulbs haunts me now. Were the crocuses destined for the empty space I seem to remember near the front of the hellebores, or were they to go along the side of the house entrance? The poppy collection — where in the world did I think they could be planted? Ten minnow daffodil, five tulip, 10 Grecian windflowers, 12 hyacinths; what was I thinking? I’m surprised that in my spring enthusiasm I didn’t order a partridge in a pear tree, because if there’s room for all of these bulbs, there’s certainly room to squeeze that in, too.
If I follow my usual planting patterns, I’ll remain in frozen indecision until the last possible moment. One bleak, cold December day with snow threatening will find me hunched in the flower beds, digging holes with a trowel, dropping bulbs hither and thither in a willy-nilly frenzy, telling myself that come spring the flowers will look good wherever they grow.
And, that’s actually true. Our finest Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, once noted that of the myriad flowers found in our seasonal gardens, none are so important as those first few we discover blooming. I find this particularly insightful following a long, drab winter, when the barnyard is a disagreeable mucky mess and the landscape a dull, lifeless brown for months on end. Those first blooms bring such joy and excitement. Totally out of proportion, perhaps, with the actual discreetness of the white, yellow or purple flowers. As one often discovers in a general way about almost anything in life, context is everything.
I cut my first fall salad this weekend: baby kale, tatsoi, mizuna, baby mustards and more. Following a summer of garden failure, this fall garden has restored my good humor and gardening confidence.
As weedy as my summer garden proved, this one is clean and weed-free. The beds are brimming with luscious greens planted over the last couple of months. The cabbage is heading, and perhaps the broccoli will soon, too. Carrot tops stand about seven-inches tall, giving hints of the bounty growing beneath the ground; winter radishes — daikons and the appealingly named beauty hearts — are doing the same. Who could resist growing a radish called a beauty heart? Certainly not I; only, perhaps, a gardener without poetry in their soul could turn away from such a promising name, if indeed such a contrary being exists.
There are two large turnip beds. The turnips, too, look promising, though insects have been chomping the leaves of some. I soon must intervene or risk losing this staple winter root vegetable. To spray or not to spray? One can be friendlier to the earth by handpicking the creatures off, but that takes more time and considerably more effort than splashes of organic, but still deadly, sprays.
There were fall gardening failures, as there always must be. And, perhaps, even should be: Success tempered with small disasters keeps gardeners humble and properly thankful for what does grow and prosper.
My beets and chard never germinated. Or, rather, one beet plant can be seen where a row was intended; four or five chard plants where 20 to 25 plants were planned. The spinach didn’t germinate, nor did the rape.
But taken overall, and standing back to admire the big picture instead of focusing narrowly on those few sparsely germinated beds, this fall garden looks to produce wonderfully. I can anticipate harvesting now until at least late December. And longer, on into spring, if I’m willing to work as necessary — gardening needn’t cease after the killing frosts arrive unless gardeners choose cold-weather respites.
I’ll leave the beds uncovered until frost. Then I’ll haul out metal hoops and yards of row cover from the shed and cover the beds.
Wind is more difficult for plants than cold — in fact, any of the plants I’ve mentioned easily endure temperatures around and below freezing, and can withstand even several degrees below that once acclimated. Somewhere below about 23 degrees, though, and you start losing the battle with the less hardy greens if you don’t intervene.
The odds for plant survival increase mightily with row cover. I generally use a product that provides 4 degrees or so of frost protection. But, as mentioned, the greater benefit of row cover is the protection from moisture-sucking winds.
Until the last couple of winters, I usually added a plastic barrier overtop the row cover when really cold weather set in. I’ve stopped doing that, however, for the most part. In my experience, the bigger issue for winter gardeners in Western North Carolina is dealing with the extreme variation in temperatures. Extreme cold followed by a week or two of balmy weather wreaks havoc in the winter garden. The plants adjust to the warmth, and then a sudden descent back into single digits is more than they can withstand, particularly within a double-protected bed of row cover and plastic.
I’ve found the plants actually withstand temperature fluctuations better when simply given protection of row cover, without the plastic. I could speculate on why, but I’ll spare you my intuition-based musings. The truth is I have no real idea how this single barrier does the trick, but it often does.
I double or triple, the row cover protection on some beds, and turnips and carrots covered in this manner can be harvested all winter.
My best-producing winter gardens have come in years when we’ve had unremitting cold and the insulation of heavy snow. My worst when we get mild weather followed by cold; and repeats of mild weather followed by cold.
This leaves me torn between desiring warm winters so that it will be easier to get outside and work; or cold, hard winters, which virtually ensure good garden production, but means that on some days you can’t harvest because the row cover is actually frozen to the ground.
And that reminds me of the wonderful “Gardener’s Prayer” by Czech writer Karel Capek, who clearly understood the vacillation that afflicts all gardeners:
O Lord, grant that in some way
it may rain every day,
Say from about midnight until three o’clock
in the morning,
But, You see, it must be gentle and warm
so that it can soak in;
Grant that at the same time it would not
rain on campion, alyssum, helianthus, lavendar,
and others which
You in Your infinite wisdom know
are drought-loving plants-
I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like-
And grant that the sun may shine
the whole day long,
But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the
gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron)
and not too much;
That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,
enough worms, no lice and snails, or mildew,
and that once a week thin liquid manure
may fall from heaven.