alharris

Garden Report, July

Every morning, shortly after dawn, I go up to the third floor deck to tend to the garden, sniff the scents of the new morning, and take a census of my horizon of trees.

Every morning has a different scent. This morning the air had a northern, almost September smell, until the sun breached the horizon. Yesterday the air was redolent with woodsmoke, drifting upon a wind that soughed in the cedars. The day before that the air smelled of the lake. In the hour after dawn the city, or my part of it, is silent. No traffic sounds, no sirens, not even an airplane. This morning the air is perfectly still, and only the birds and I are present to sing the morning open. The air is scented with ailanthus blossoms, opening about a week later than usual but as secretive and summery as ever.

Unknown heirloom tomato cultivar with complex blossoms.

This year I am growing at least five varieties of tomatoes, including “Summerlast’ (early-fruiting patio-sized supposedly long-fruiting determinate tomato plants, of which I have six plants going), ‘Rapunzel’ (a newish hybrid tomato that reportedly grows long, gorgeous tresses of cherry tomatoes; this is by far my tallest tomato plant so far, heading for five feet already as it begins to flower), San Marzano (two very sturdy plants, both flowering now), an unknown (because I failed to save the labeled starter pot) tomato plant I bought at the Junction Farmers’ Market, and several ‘heirloom’ tomatoes.

‘Heirloom’ is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom or heritage tomatoes are typically open-pollinated, older, non-commercial cultivars. Reportedly they tend to lack the disease resistance and uniformity of commercial cultivars, but in compensation they are inherently more biodiverse and interesting to grow, and produce tomatoes of sometimes wildly varying sizes, colours and shapes. My ‘heirloom’ tomatoes came labeled as such at the Canadian Tire garden centre, with the note that each plant might grow quite differently depending on its variety.

This has definitely been my experience this year. Each of my heirloom tomato plants looks quite different. All are vertically inclined, although not rampantly so, and their leaves and blossoms are somewhat idiosyncratic. My favourite, so far, is the heirloom tomato pictured above, whose leaves emerge curled and inverted, almost as if blighted, but then unfurl, completely hale. The blossoms are also unusual, large and multi-layered. I have read that large blossoms produce large tomatoes, and am looking forward with considerable curiosity to see what this heirloom plant produces.

On the third floor deck I am also growing two containers of corn (this year’s wildcard), zucchinis (only two of which survived the early ravages of squirrels digging up the seeds; zucchini are supposedly easy to grow, but each year mine succumb to some new peril and/or fail to produce fruit), three large tubs of very large red potato plants, two eggplants, two sweet peppers, red onions, everbearing strawberries, garlic, and several varieties of herbs (lemon verbena, pineapple sage, lavender, basil, catnip).

Third floor back deck garden, late June 2019.

Most of my 22 varieties of herbs (this year’s herbs include lavender, basil, catnip, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, dill, tarragon, rue, summer savory, winter savory, marjoram, fennel, cilantro, parsley, pineapple sage, chamomile, sorrel, curry plant, borage) are growing on the second floor front balcony (shown below), alongside a few more tomatoes, bush beans, carrots, beets, more garlic and more red onions. Our radish have been pulled, and I haven’t yet decided whether to simply seed more dill or risk salad greens in the summer heat in their currently vacant container.

floor front balcony garden, 1 July 2019.

Sometimes I sorrow over not being able to grow more vegetables at ground level on our shady city property (currently our ground-level growing is limited to rhubarb, raspberries and red currants), but between patios, verandahs, balconies and decks we are able to dedicate about as much square footage to vegetables and herbs as we might manage in the soil, without the same risks of soil depletion and problems with pests.

Third floor back deck, plants aglow in the early morning light.

Still, at some point we will retire from urban life, and then I will have a half-acre vegetable garden, an arbor for fruit trees, and a kitchen garden filled with herbs.

Rhubarb Report

These fat nubs are my rhubarb, planted last summer and, after overwintering, poking through the soil in the narrow garden plot beside our garage and promising a first proper harvest to come in June!

Rhubarb reportedly prefers well-drained, fertile soil in full sun, but the garden plot where we have planted ours has thin, stony soil and only partial sunlight. It is also partly beneath the eave of our neighbours’ garage, meaning it receives only peripatetic rainfall. But last year it seemed to do quite well, and I’m hopeful that this year we’ll get a decent harvest.

A decade ago this stretch between our neighbours’ garage and our back walkway was dry and stony, and underlain by shards of glass and broken concrete. I resolved to turn it into a garden where I could grow raspberries, and here is what it looked like last June.

I’ve set in a row of old bricks to hold soil and moisture, and every year I amend the soul liberally with compost. To me this strip–about 18 inches wide and about 12 feet long–is evidence that almost any space can be made into a garden with a little care and a willingness to experiment. It does have limitations, though: last year we planted zucchini along here, which flowered but never fruited and eventually developed powdery mildew.

This year I would like to grow a few sunflowers along here, and am tempted to colonize the garage wall with hanging planters for lettuce or other shade-tolerating edibles.

But for now, the big news is that the rhubarb is up!

Spring Bulbs

I’ve been sick all week with a cold, but went out yesterday afternoon to rake the front gardens. Dug the leaf rake out of the garage, located a few yard waste bags, brought out the pruning secateurs, and found one remaining pair of wearable gardening gloves (I buy them in bunches each spring at the dollar store, but more seem to disappear over the year than ever actually wear out).

Every fall I pile fallen leaves onto the garden for winter insulation. The challenge, in the spring, is to rake them off at just the right time. Too early and sprouting greens may end up frost-bitten; too late and the bulb tips will already have begun poking into the leaf litter and get nipped off by the rake. The prefect day to rake is a mild, sunny day followed by rain, and yesterday was mild and sunny, while today a light mist is falling.

While raking, the only signs of life I noticed were thin green strands of scilla (squill) marshaling themselves for the season. But ten minutes after I had finished raking, the tips of crocus had begun to appear all over the garden.

It is so good to have my hands in the soil again after the winter. The earth is alive and warm and rich, and there there is increasingly good research evidence that healthy soil microbiomes contribute positively to agricultural yields as well as to good human health. There is evidence, too, that healthier soils produce sweeter crops. I am not a soil scientists, but ‘know’ from long experience that in the spring the soil feels particularly alive, even sentient. And I try to treat it the way I would any other living thing. [Anyone interested in a fascinating, accessible and beautifully written book about soil would do well to read William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (1995; 2007).]

This morning it was raining lightly, and overnight the front garden had grown a green cast. Bulbs are popping up all over–crocus, scilla, tulips, narcissus, hyacinth–and so too are the green beginnings of dame’s rocket, goldenrod, echninacea, bergamot, creeping Charlie, iris, mint and serpent garlic. For several years I have planned to dig up and reset the front garden, which has grown rather wild. But getting the timing right will be just as important as it is when first raking the leaves off in the spring. Too early and there’s the risk of digging over plants worth keeping; too late and the soil will have grown hard with midsummer drought.

I’m not quite sure what I’d like for the front garden. It enjoys a west and south exposure but is lightly shaded by our large honey locust tree. Years ago we designed it around a large, elevated slab of limestone atop which sits a sundial. This edifice is surrounded by a ring of limestone meant to serve as a walkway, but the some of the limestone has gotten buried and the walkway was too narrow to be practical. I am thinking, I suppose, of renewing the garden as a quadrant, perhaps with more perennial herbs toward the front alongside perennial flowers. I do like the wild English garden effect, and so do the cats who lie hidden in it on hot days, but think it could also work better if it was just slightly more formal. Something to dream out in the coming weeks, I think.

After the Storm

Two years ago, on the day the ice went out in the lake, my beautiful mother died.

Her breath, which had raged in her throat all afternoon, grew lighter and fainter and further away, and then stopped, like the wind after a storm.

After her death I did everything that needed to be done, and bore everything that needed to be borne.

I kept all her secrets.

*

Yesterday, on the first day of spring, I took my bike out of the garage and rode down to the lake. The ice had gone out, all of it except for a few slabs heaved onto the shore by a storm. From underneath each one came a musical tinkling as hexagonal columns of ice sheared off in the sunlight.

I shared a sandwich with a pair of swans, and moiled in the gravel for beach glass. I found part of a tiny porcelain insulator, a Bakelite wheel, four fat nuggets of frosted slag glass, five pieces of blue transferware, and the cobalt rim of a very old crock or pitcher. I brought them home to value and keep, and to learn what may be learned from them.

Beach glass, Lake Ontario, 2019.

So much wreckage, softened and worn by the erosion of time. Not all of it washes ashore–the lake keeps a few secrets–but enough pieces of it make landfall for parts of the story to be pieced together. Beloved crockery, broken and discarded, returns to haunt or heal.

After a storm is the best time to find beach glass. During a storm waves scour the lakebed and churn up the shore, obliterating and then reshaping it. Afterward, the rough outline of points and bays remains the same, but on the beach itself, everything has changed.

A beachcomber will, with diligence, uncover the familiar landmarks and, by observing the pattern of the waves and the spill of sediments along the shoreline, identify where artifacts are most likely to wash up.

And this is what I did yesterday; what I’ve been doing for two years. I waited out the storm and watched the shore and gathered what could be retrieved.

The Queen of Sheba

Today is International Women’s Day, and this morning I woke up thinking of my grandmother, Helena Inazella Damery (nee Black), seen here circa 1933, who knew how and when to wield an axe. She was widowed early, and supported herself for decades on a rural farm in the Canaan Valley, New Brunswick, planting her own fields, hunting, building whatever she needed (including an indoor bathroom, in aid of which she inveigled a highway works crew to dig a septic system in exchange for gossip and a drink!), cutting lumber for her woodstove, traveling to Moncton and Fredericton to work, and writing sardonic letters that make me wish I had known her as an adult. On the back of this photograph she has written, “The ‘Queen of Sheba’ Ha ha!”

‘Lena, as she was known, was born at Cherryvale NB in 1914. She was the eldest of seven children born to William Harold Black and Edith Helena Black (nee Corey). In 1937 she married my grandfather, Thomas Murray Damery, and together they lived near Hunter’s Home, a few miles downstream until his death in 1965 and the illness that resulted in her death in 1988. They had two children: Cecil William Damery, who died in 2003, and my mother, Bernita Helena Harris (nee Damery), born in 1944.

After my mother died in 2017, I came across several boxes of documents in the attic of her house, including about 100 letters from her mother. A few days ago I began sorting and cataloguing them, appropriate timing, I think, in advance of International Women’s Day. My mother and grandmother were not always close–my parents moved to Ontario in 1971 and returned ‘down Home’ infrequently, and my grandmother felt somewhat abandoned–but ‘Lena’s letters are always loving and rich in detail. They are also somewhat sardonic, reflecting her judgments of relations, coworkers and acquaintances to whom she was required by convention or relationship to remain civil in person. In addition, they reveal a private bitterness about some of the challenges she confronted in the years after my grandfather’s premature death–running a rural household without help, driving long distances to a series of poorly-paid housekeeping jobs–but also a triumphant pride in her ingenuity and persistence despite these difficulties.

Here are a few representative excerpts from her letters:

[25 July 1972]: “I shot a porcupine the other night, 2 shots with the 22. he had kept me awake the night before chewing on the back of the wood-house. I gave him a decent burial the next day. I tried to shoot a ground-hog but took buck fever, the old gun just shook, then when I got over that, I didn’t want to shoot him in the back, so I missed, but the mud flew in his face. I’ll try again the next time I’m home.”

[26 April 1973]: “This man came knocking on my door, he was returning to Fredericton […] from a convention, in Moncton, when his back, white topped car developed trouble, oil, and power steering lost, etc. I took him up to phone the tow truck, he helped me wash my car. I gave him coffee, cookies, and good conversation, thought I might have to sleep him too, but the town truck arrived after several hours wait. […] He told me he wasn’t married. [….] Yesterday in the mail came a box of Smiles and Chuckles Turtles, and a “gratefully yours” note, a very small token of his appreciation for my kindness and helpfulness during his stop in my neighbourhood. Frankly, I never expected to hear from him again, even though he asked me to call in to see him if I was in town. Now I have to write and thank him for the candy, and I’m in a quandry because I would like to leave the door open a few inches, and I don’t want to appear to do so. ha ha ha!”

[9 October, probably 1973]: “[B]elieve it on Sunday morning, I had a good s _ _ _ in my own john and flushed it all away. There is still quite a lot of work to do, but give me a little more time. I didn’t know how I was going to get a cess pool and septic trench dug. I couldn’t afford to get a man with a machine to come from Sussex or Jemseg, and they charge from the time they leave home, around $200 to $250.00 even though the job only takes a short time. So I made a deal with the boss of the [highway] construction crew in exchange for “bull pens” on my property, they dug my cess pool and ditch. He gave me a bottle of lemon gin, and we had a little drink (gin and 7Up) and I got them a bottle of Bacardi’s Rum. I had gone to Sussex one afternoon and when I came home the big machine was at work. They had the cess pool all dug, and ready to start the ditch, so I just stood around and yakked with the men. “

I don’t know whether my grandmother would have described herself as a feminist. She would, I think, have been far more likely to make a joke about burning bras in the fire barrel behind the barn, “ha ha ha!” But she was a survivor, and a person who made purpose out of persistence, and on this day it is a special privilege to read her loving, sarcastic, personality-revealing letters.