It is about 8 a.m. on July 2 and I am wearing a long underwear shirt and winter slippers as I sit here. I’ll go out for my walk in awhile and will pick up my pace through the shade to get out of the chill and the consistent swarm of gnats that seem to congregate there. After that I’ll wander out to the vegetable garden and start weeding. If you wonder what I’m up to this summer, just think weeding.
When I got back from Abbey Country mid May, I could see instantly the price I paid to see my mother and all my friends down there (most specifically The Huachucas–very close friends of mine.) It had been unusually warm here on the Sierra’s West Slope, and instead of the closed, grey winter garden patch I left, I found the half acre swathed in viney weeds and dandelion. “One year’s seed, ten years weeds” the saying goes, and I immediately realized my mistake in prematurely abandoning my garden last fall to turn my attention to work and school and motherhood. Now I have a ten year sentence, and I’m beginning to serve it. At least the conditions are nice. The amaranth has joined the weedy vine now, and the word I am officially farming this summer is pernicious. It keeps bubbling up through my consciousness and coming out my throat like a mantra when I weed: pernicious! pernicious! pernicious! But I am slowly winning. Four five gallon buckets of weeds, twice a day. That’s all my garden asks.
For the entire month of June, I don’t believe it broke 80 degrees here. It is still not warm enough at night for me to germinate basil without heating the trays. The peppers and tomatoes are politely absorbing nutrients and water, but they need the heat’s enthusiasm to kick into gear. The strawberries finally became mystified and began putting out shooters anyway. A Western tanager daddy has been sneaking into one patch, disappearing, and coming out a moment later with a whole strawberry in his mouth, bound for the nest. We made a mental note to always leave some strawberries unnetted. We really like Western tanagers.
Of course this reveals that we are not farmers by nature. Not by a long shot. We are adventurers, travelers, whimsical folks that are still surprised, when we look in the mirror, that we aren’t twenty three or so. It was the nature of the world–not our nature –that drove us into the land rather than over it. Disciples of Edward Abbey, we can only imagine his disdain at our decision. But then again, alcohol not vegetables, made up his favorite food group.
The cooler weather, while retarding our garden, has given us a window to do heavy work. This property has been gradually reclaimed by several owners, and is now, for the first time in about a hundred years, officially clean. A couple years ago I was talking to a farmer friend of mine, and she said that some years the garden is not her focus, but the land is. Her words puzzled me at the time, but now I understand. A family farm is a complete, breathing being, and every inch of it must be evaluated, nourished, optimally preserved. This season, so far, has allowed me time to reflect on that, and the land shows it.
We only have a tiny cabin here, so in the good weather we set up palapas and other seasonal structures, and practically live outside–our tiny space becoming palatial for a few months. Now we are out in the evening in layers of clothing we usually wear in April or November. While the rest of the country is sweltering, we are birdwatching from the palapa in polar fleece vests, staring at the brave melons and beans and cucumbers as they wait patiently for heat, listening to the chamber concert of bird calls from the ring of trees surrounding the garden and the hum of bees, like a baseline, resonating from the forage near the warm dirt.
The bees have returned, undaunted. They’ve made good work of the chives and are now absorbed in the even purpler blossoms of the cooking sage. The butterflies engage in high drama over the Sweet William flowers, and the Anna’s and Calliopes flutter around them and drink from the small circle of water from the sprinklers. The morning glories, like the beans, have yet to put out shooters and reach for the fence. Once they blossom the hummers will have more secure forage.
I experimented more with direct seeding this year, mostly due to my limitations keeping seed trays warm. I’m planting tiny plots and experimenting with crop rotation on a micro-scale. I’m having some luck with cabbage, brussel sprouts, greens, squash of course. My celery and dill remain dormant. The black-eyed Susans, daisies, and cosmos are trying to bloom. The coreopsis and echinacea have, thank goodness, and the bees and butterflies are grateful.
Last year my garden happened at the last second, really (See My Ad Hoc Garden). This year I had more time to plan and, as it turns out, much more time to plant, yet at the moment less to show for it. I am confident it will get hot, probably with a vengeance. My polar fleece vest will find its way to my bottom drawer, and I will finally kick the two wool blankets off my bed. My garden will explode in growth and catch up with my expectations. I will have to get up early to work in the garden while it’s cool, instead of waiting for it to warm up.
I grew up not more than an hour from here, and have lived near here most of my life. Summers weren’t like this in the late 20th century. The Wilderness Wino thinks this patch of earth we occupy is becoming a temperate rain forest. This summer, it sure seems like he’s right. Whatever is happening, it’s clear we need to accept it, adapt to it, and learn as with all things to be flexible and patient. Often I wonder why we decided to engage in exhausting activity outside our comfort zone–especially as we fully embrace middle age. The answer might be, in part, that I wanted to work in an environment where things didn’t happen so fast, where I could watch the cucumber start push its way to the sun in a lazy day’s span. Where, unlike radio, six minutes wasn’t a long period of time, and where relative silence can blanket the landscape for a stretch of hours. I’m so far not a big fan of the 21st century, and this quiet, cool patch of land is my oasis. I’ll take what comes, and I’ll work with it.