The Seeds of Spring BLOG

Lessons From the Garden

If a Tree Falls on a Garden … October 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 3:01 pm

If a tree falls on a garden, does it make a sound?

I can say definitively: Yes. And that sound is: “Arrrrggggghhh!!!”

The sound came from me, of course. I wasn’t around when the massive tree came down on my garden, so I can’t answer the larger existential question.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, and really wasn’t, that this tree fell. For one, the land where I garden is on a friendly neighbor’s horse farm. There are several mammoth trees, some easily older than a century. Any tree of that age is susceptible to one or a combination of forces that can bring it down. Age, disease, insect and animal abuse, human vandalism, bad luck. Probably a lot more reasons that a tree expert could suggest.

Unwanted guest crashes party, refusing to leave for a couple of weeks.

And, frankly, not being a person who pays much attention to the health of trees—except now and again when concerned that a huge one in my own back yard might decide to come crashing down on my house—I can imagine that any tree is a candidate to fall at any time. Maybe even planning and plotting in secret to do so, just to test my mettle.

But there’s another reason that I shouldn’t have been surprised that this tree came down. In late summer, within a span of five days, this garden endured a major earthquake and the remnants of a hurricane that roared up the East Coast. Either or both could have weakened the tree. In fact, right after the earthquake and hurricane I wrote an article—yet to be published—for the fall issue of Organic Gardens Today magazine recounting these back-to-back gardening challenges.

And, as we all know, bad things come in threes.

So the tree’s demise several weeks later was the third and final corner of this triangle of misfortune. At least, I hope so. If there’s another, bigger disaster out there lurking, it might qualify as the third and final installment of this series. Or, worse, it might signal a new cycle of bad things, with two more shoes to drop, to mix some metaphors.

But this isn’t about me and my problems. It’s about a tree.

One can only imagine the passing of history over the decades that this newly fallen tree might have “witnessed,” if we can ascribe any semblance of consciousness to something as truly vegetative as a tree. Yet, from its vantage point on the edge of a hiking, biking and horse riding trail—which before that was the Washington and Old Dominion railroad, making daily milk runs from the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains almost to the Potomac River—so many slices of American life have passed by. By almost any measure, this tree had a front-row seat as a cavalcade of human life streamed by its roots, trunk, branches and leaves.

If only the tree could talk or provide some record other than a simple arithmetic of age through its rings. If only it could sing of its most glorious memories, of gorgeous fall foliage and optimistic spring awakenings. If only it could grouse about woodpeckers and the fungi that ate at its roots and the poison ivy that crept up its bark. And locusts. And lightning, lots of lightning.

Damage from the fall? Fortunately, the tree did not hurt anyone. It fell parallel to a horse corral fence, so neither fence nor horse was harmed.

The worst part of this incident was waiting more than two weeks for the tree to be sliced up and removed. Initially, I could tell that about 20 percent of my garden’s deer fence was damaged heavily. The thick metal poles that supported the vinyl mesh fence crumpled like soda cans. The mesh itself was ravaged. But there was too much tree in my garden to determine the fate of the plants that fate had placed in its path.

Now, with the only remnants of the tree being a stump, displaying a huge crack, and lots of firewood, I can see the extent the damage to the garden.

The verdict: I have been rather fortunate, actually. Some blueberry bushes were crushed. These were planted just about 18 months earlier. They had not really grown much, probably because I didn’t test the soil for proper acidity levels or make necessary adjustments before planting them. Most of the berries they had produced were enjoyed by winged raiders anyway.

A couple of rows of asparagus plants took much of the hit. But the timing was quite fortunate. By the end of the growing season, the impact on them is almost nil. Cold weather will destroy what a massive tree could not—the above-ground foliage, which is no longer needed by this time of the gardening year. The subterranean crowns should experience minimal disruption, if any, and should be as good as new next spring to send up edible spears.

The jury is out for two purple coneflower plants and a single red bee balm that I planted last spring. At the risk of sounding callous, I could replace them next year if necessary. I’m just cruel like that. I can’t act like these plants are family members, though at times I have tried.

And as for the fence, despite the fact that my left shoulder has been in therapy for about six months, I was able to bend the damaged fence posts and return them almost to their rightful positions—maybe not fully vertical, but loosely functional. And I was able to reattach the vinyl mesh loosely—enough for temporary deterrence of deer, bears, badgers, wolverines and other college football mascots. Another weekend very soon, after the first hard frost, I will do more permanent repair work on the fence. But it’s just possible that I can get by without having to spend any money on fixing it.

So, I ask myself now: What the hell had I been worried about?

To be honest, if a casual gardener or a non-gardener were to visit my plot today, he or she might not realize that a tree had fallen on it. In the grand scheme of things, very little has changed. The primary result of this event has been for me to recognize, once again, that things often are not as bad as we think they are, or as they fear they are. A little perspective helps.

So I have been inconvenienced, a little. I might need to spend some money to replace the blueberry plants. Maybe even plant something different in that corner.

Small potatoes when compared with the long “life” of a noble, dependable, living, breathing, shading, reliable life force that was the tree. Of course, if one of the equally old and potentially weak trees still standing near its stump decides to come crashing down anytime soon, I might change my tune.

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Four Cloves of Garlic October 5, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 11:57 pm

Planting garlic is about as simple as a garden task I can imagine. Assuming that you are in possession of the type of cloves that are suitable for cultivation, and assuming that they are neither just harvested or so dessicated that they cannot sprout, and assuming that you have a reasonably sunny and well-drained location for them, here’s what you do:

Stick them in the ground, “butt” (flat end) down. Mark their location so you don’t disturb them during the fall or winter. And wait.

The waiting is the hardest part. But it’s also the best part, for me.

By mid-spring, garlic plants have pushed foliage up almost a foot.

I don’t plant many things in the fall in my little corner of Northern Virginia. Some lettuce and spinach. More often than not, the site I select for these is too hot and sunny in late summer, when the seeds get sown, and two cold and shady in fall, when I would like to harvest. Late-season crops are dicey. But in the category of “fall planting for next year’s harvest,” garlic is almost a no-brainer.

I like garlic, a lot. One of the few dishes I actually cook is baked ziti, or some variation involving pasta, four or five cheeses, tomato sauce and herbs. (Don’t ask for my recipes. I am somewhere around number 14 on the list of worst cooks in the world. I cook when I’ve got a day or two off and my wife Jean is working and I am feeling guilty sitting around playing solitaire when I was planning to write and clean the house.) I mince up a single clove, add it to the sauce so it simmers and the flavor melds with that of the other herbs, and then I bake the whole mess. If by chance I bite into a little piece of garlic after all this cooking, it shouldn’t set off a strong reaction. Like little kids and big dogs, garlic is best when barely noticed.

But you know what? I’d probably grow garlic even if I didn’t eat it. Because it’s a down payment on next year’s garden.

Garlic will sprout and show green tips above the soil line before the ground freezes in my area if you plant it early enough in the fall. But even if it doesn’t, it will show in late winter or early spring if no calamity has befallen the cloves over the winter. Those unremarkable looking little cloves are down there, growing when conditions permit, waiting patiently when conditions do not.

I have plenty of perennial plants in my garden plot, which is about 30 feet by 70 feet and situated on a horse farm about a mile from my home. Almost a dozen blueberry bushes. Ten raspberry bushes. Four blackberry bushes, just added this year. Four rows of asparagus. Two dwarf peach trees. A couple of perennial asters, a pair of purple coneflowers, and a single butterfly bush. (Sounds something like the Ten Days of Christmas, I know. But it is what it is.)

I know these delightful plants are there, waiting, promising, each and every winter. I spend many a winter’s moment of meditation anticipating the first green buds, spears, canes and other indications of the coming gardening season. The fact that they are there, slumbering, pacing (figuratively) or just plain chocked full of potential is a great comfort during the long, cold, dark days of winter.

After drying, garlic bulbs are ready for cooking, or planting for next year's crop.

There’s something special about planting garlic. It’s typically the last act of my gardening year. After the heavy frosts have turned most annuals, and the top growth of some perennials (such as asparagus ferns), to mush, and after I have cut down and composed or burned or hauled off the remnants of a glorious summer, and after I have checked the deer fence for holes and examined the poles for stability, and after I have pulled all the weeds that can be pulled in preparation for the off season: After all this hard, semi-depressing work is done and thoughts turn more and more to the holidays and football games and indoor plants and the writing projects I’ve got lined up, the very last act of the gardening year is one that is very simple yet very satisfying: Planting four cloves of garlic.

It’s a tiny act, but one that makes a huge statement of eternal optimism. It’s not cutting or trashing or bagging or burning. It’s not backward looking, with sadness related to the loss of the growing season and its many fabulous rewards. It’s putting something in the ground that very likely will survive the worst that winter throws at—and the worst that winter throws at me—and jump back up, smiling. It’s one tiny step for a garden; one giant leap for garden kind.

So, I will endeavor to stick to my plan and plant only four cloves of garlic. Last year, I planted about a dozen, and I was fortunate to find a co-worker who was willing to create a giant mess of pesto with my massive surplus. I will remember that mistake, and I will resist the temptation to take an entire bulb of cloves and shove them all into the ground. Even though they take up so little space, with their extremely vertical top growth and modest branching habit as the individual cloves spread their toes in the rich earth and divide into additional new cloves. Even though it’s difficult to stop after just four little cloves. They’re so small, and so cute, and so harmless, and so….

Okay, stop it. Just plant and run away. Don’t get too focused on this last outdoor gardening event. It’s not like a funeral. Well, actually, it is, for me. More like a memorial service. By planting garlic on a day with winter staring me in the face, I am acknowledging all the good of the past gardening season and I am accepting the fallow season to come and I am believing in and looking forward to the time when days will be warm and green and long and luxurious in their plenty.

I hope you have some fall garden activity or event that helps you get through the winter. I’d like to hear what works for you.