Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why I Planted Squash

In a recent year, the seeds I planted in several adjacent rows in my vegetable garden failed to germinate. Faced with a blank space, I wished to fill it. Always be careful what you wish for! I bought summer squash seeds and formed half a dozen hills of two or three seeds each. All of them grew. And grew. And grew. When I began harvesting squash, I had delusions of keeping up. I collected a few and relished their rich flavor. But soon, I had too many! I was fetching them by the bushel basket nearly every day. I could not begin to give them away! The plants commandeered half of the garden. Each morning, when I went to the garden to pick the squash, I could not find spaces for my feet. From some crazy desire not to crush the thick leaf stems of my gigantic squash plants, I proceeded slowly on tiptoe, almost losing my balance and teetering above the squash jungle. To have fallen among the foliage in such a way as to have wiped out a few of the plants and to have slowed the production of squash would have been a blessing, but I never fell.

Squash Taking Over My Garden

Finally, I was forced to admit to myself that I had too many squash, and I began chucking their swollen bodies over the ravine into my creek. Poet and novelist Marge Piercy perfectly captured the same experience in her poem entitled “Attack of the Squash People,” which I first heard her read in 1980:

Piercy’s poem is hysterical in the fullest sense of the adjective. I know. So was I.

One of Several Baskets of Squash That I Harvested Every Morning
Harvesting Squash by the Wagonload

A digression is in order. I first met Piercy when I was earning my master’s degree in poetry writing at Indiana University. She addressed the workshop of ten poets in which I was enrolled. Our professor had mailed an anonymous sampling of our poems to Piercy in advance of her visit. After she was introduced, Piercy said, “I want to discuss one of your poems. It is ‘Wrestling.’ Who wrote it?” I raised my hand. Piercy complimented my work. Several years later, after I had finished my PhD and was teaching at Northern Kentucky University, Piercy came for a reading. At a social event, I asked her if she remembered my poem. She said she did. I had the joy of meeting Piercy on at least two additional occasions. One was at the home of a creative writing professor. Music was playing. Piercy was sitting beside the professor. I had walked over to Piercy to ask a question about poetry, but she brushed off my introductory remarks, stood, and commanded, “Dance with me!” Embarrassed as all get out, I danced. In a matter of seconds, everyone was dancing. I undoubtedly got more from dancing with Piercy for a few minutes than I would have received by asking my question; after all, she gave me something fun to mention in this blog!

My favorite way to prepare summer squash is basic. I slice it, boil it briefly, and put butter and salt on it. Yum! It’s almost as good as dancing with Marge Piercy!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why I Plant Onions

The trick to growing onions is preserving them as long as possible after harvesting them. First, as the stalks of the onions begin turning yellow, you can leave the bulbs in the ground to be fattened for another week or, at most, two weeks. After that length of time, the onions may start to decay. Mine always pull out easily.

My Onions Dried and Hanging from a Nail in My Solarium

I stack them, stalks and all, on wire racks on a porch that gets plenty of sunshine in the morning and ample breezes throughout the day. I try not to let them touch each other on the racks. Depending on weather conditions, the onions need several weeks to dry. When the stalks are completely dry, I bunch the onions in clusters of five up to eight and tie clothesline cord or twine around the stalks. Next, I hang them in bunches over nails in my solarium. Whenever I want an onion for a recipe, I snip off a fresh onion from a bunch. By hanging them, I can keep the onions almost indefinitely. I have to be watchful because, occasionally, one will begin to rot—particularly if the drying period has been unusually humid.

The onions look homey hanging from nails all around my solarium. They remind me of my Quaker ancestors who, in the pioneer days long ago, put in good stores of vegetables and fruit to last throughout the long winter months. Although I am not necessarily a student of John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, I admire his poem entitled “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll”: If you have not read it, you are in for a treat! Composed and published just after the end of the American Civil War, the poem commemorated life on a New England farm prior to the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution. The poem has been described as nostalgic, and I can see why; but I think that “Snow-Bound” was written in an era when, for many readers, the experience of an uncluttered home life around a blazing hearth in winter was ongoing or, at least, still fresh. For me, the poem is more nearly a clear snapshot than a rosy memory distorted by the passing of time. Each day that I notice my clusters of golden onions, I think happy thoughts of my upbringing on a farm. The onions evoke the joys of gathering in my mother’s warm kitchen on a December morning.

My First Edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Book Entitled
The Panorama, and Other Poems, Published by the Famous
Boston Firm of Ticknor and Fields in 1856 and a Look Inside
Onions provided a strange chapter in my life as a writer. My first published creative writing was a prose poem entitled “The Book of the Dead,” which appeared in Artful Dodge when the journal was brand-spanking new and originated from the creative mind of its founder, Daniel Bourne, in Bloomington, Indiana (before its move to Wooster, Ohio): Just before I left Indiana University with a newly minted PhD in hand, I submitted a second prose poem to Daniel. It was entitled “Onion Liturgy.” For reasons that now escape both Daniel and me, it was never published, but both of us remembered that it was. Odd! Several months ago, I asked Daniel for a copy of the issue that had carried it, and Daniel found that the poem had escaped being printed. No wonder I could not find the issue in my library! I could have sworn that it was published, but it never was! I have lost the poem, which is probably just as well because it likely suffered from being a spin-off of “The Book of the Dead,” which, for its numerous faults, had a certain idiosyncratic charm. As I recall, my concept for “Onion Liturgy” was that philosophy is like an onion that can be peeled, layer by identical layer, until there is nothing left except the memory of replication. Profound? Hardly, but I was young.

My First Published Creative Writing in Artful Dodge in 1980
That Was Supposed to Be Followed by a Sequel Entitled “Onion Liturgy”
So when I notice my onions hanging from nails, I feel—with satisfaction and relief—that I have come a long way as a writer since the days when I was first trying my tentative hand at composing poems.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why I Plant Potatoes

Potatoes can be planted in many ways. Over the years, I have followed various schools of thought; for example, I have set the potato pieces on the surface of the tilled ground in my vegetable garden and have covered them with a layer of straw about five inches deep. When the plants have grown taller, I have added another layer of straw. Such a method is supposed to keep weeds down and make harvesting easier. I found that the tough weeds in my garden enjoyed the straw as much as the potatoes did. The wind blew straw across the rest of my garden throughout the growing season, and hoeing and cultivating my rows of other vegetables became a nuisance. When I harvested the fully formed potatoes, I accidentally sliced with my shovel just as many as I ever have—possibly more than I usually have sliced—because the straw made it difficult to know where to dig. A fork would not have worked because the potatoes grew in the soil, not just on the surface, and my soil hardens over time, making a fork impractical.

In other years, I have planted the seed pieces in a shallow trench and have covered them lightly. With this method, the gardener hoes more and more dirt up around the plants while they grow. In theory, this practice makes sense, but, in reality, the hoeing of the soil adjacent to the row removed so much dirt that deep furrows formed between the rows. Rain water stood in the furrows and eventually rotted the potatoes. Maybe my area gets too much rain. In any case, while the plants grew and while the soil hardened, hoeing more and more dirt up to the base of the plants became increasingly difficult. In the process, my hoe nicked and damaged the stems.

I have discovered that, for me, the best way to plant potatoes is to stick the seed pieces in a plowed row that is deep enough (approximately three inches) to make it easy to cover them with a thin layer of soil.

An important factor in the planting of potatoes is their preparation. Carefully using a knife, I cut the potatoes so that each piece has at least two eyes, or buds, and usually three eyes. (With only one eye, the piece might rot instead of growing a plant.) I heap the cut pieces loosely in buckets in the warmest room of my house and let them cure for at least one night and sometimes two nights. By “cure,” I mean that the pieces heal over a little in a way that I have read helps prevent rotting when they are set in the soil. I have also been in a hurry and have planted the pieces immediately after cutting the potatoes, and, to tell the truth, I have observed no difference in how many of the seed pieces rot and how many survive.

I always buy my seed potatoes from a gardening store or catalog. Potatoes in a grocery store may have been sprayed with a growth retardant that would delay their sprouting, but I have heard of gardeners who have had good success with using grocery potatoes for seed. I prefer not running the risk of a failure. Also, I pride myself on a vegetable garden that is entirely free of insecticide, fungicide, and other sprays.

My Potato Harvest, One of the Rewards of Gardening

Now, if I could just work out a system for harvesting the potatoes that would not result in slicing them with my shovel! Incidentally, I use a true shovel (with a point), not a spade (with a square edge). First, I wait until the blooming is over and the plants are beginning to turn yellow and die back. When these conditions are satisfied, I am ready to begin. I guess how far from each plant my shovel needs to be, and I use my foot to push the shovel into the earth. Gradually, the soil yields its treasure of plump potatoes! After I think I have all of them from one plant, I continue to dig around the hole I have made, on the chance that some have grown farther out, and I often dig the hole a little deeper, too.

Ultimately, I haul several bushel baskets of potatoes to my house. I probably should have mentioned at the beginning that you probably want fewer potato plants than you might think—especially if you enjoy a good growing season. My vegetable garden is what I would describe as small to medium in size, and I plant no more than two rows of potatoes. If I were to plant additional rows, I would harvest more potatoes than I would know what to do with! I try to gather just enough potatoes so that I can use them all before the last ones begin to shrink and wrinkle in the open wooden box that holds them in my pantry.