Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My Summer in a Garden: Weeding 3.0

Abundant rain kept me out of my garden. After the wet spell, I strolled out to take a proud view of my neat rows. I saw a carpet of thick, tall weeds carpeting the ground. “I must have been mistaken,” I thought. “I must have imagined that I weeded and hoed this garden a week ago. It could not have been this garden that I so carefully tended. Maybe I accidentally weeded and hoed someone else’s garden.”

Garden Coming Along on June 21st

I took my trusty hoe and began. The weeds were worse than they were before. Fortunately, the rain had made the ground easy to work. It was no trouble to pull the largest weeds, root and all. There were just so many of them! Also, the hoe cut through the upper surface of the ground just enough to clip the stems from the roots of the weeds too small to pull. The summer solstice had come and gone, and the heat was much higher than it had been even a week earlier. I follow the practice of my father and the old-time farmers: I wear jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a broad-brimmed hat. I prefer not to be sunburned, and the long sleeves keep me less hot than I would be otherwise. Even with my protective clothing, I soon felt perspiration, which soaked through my shirt. Before long, even my jeans were damp!

Garden After Third Massive Weeding

I struck the hoe over and over against tough roots. I bent low over rows to pull huge pigweeds from amid the potatoes. I could not believe that, for the third time this year, I was involved in a monstrous weeding, as if the previous two weedings had been for nothing.

Next year, before I order seeds, I will read my blogs. Maybe I will become a regular customer at the farmer’s market and will skip gardening. What joy is there in repeating exactly the same hard work of a week ago?

The fact that many of my seeds had not sprouted in the first place was haunting me now. Large gaps were not shaded by the leaves of vegetables and had to be hoed smooth. Not far from where I live is a perfect garden of about the same size as mine. It stands so near the road that I am forced to look upon it. The rows are as straight as a ruler, the plants are spaced exactly alike down the rows, the stakes have the same height throughout and do not lean, and the weeds—well, there are none. What gardener has the patience and the good luck to have a garden like that? I would ask the owner if I could take a picture to post online, but I fear that the obsessive compulsive individual might rightly ask to see my garden. So everyone will have to imagine how faultless and immaculate that other garden is.

The First Flowers in My Garden

My garden is what a garden is meant to be: haphazard, uneven, inexact, and overgrown in spots. Of course, the previous sentence is only a literary stunt intended to sound true but a cheap alibi nonetheless. I wish my rows were as satisfactory as those of my neighbor, but, before I covet my neighbor’s cucumber, I will content myself by saying that, after I hoed my last weed, I harvested three fat zucchini that will send me into an ecstatic state of mind at my dinner table. As I carried them to the house, I almost forgot my aching back.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Summer in a Garden: The Chaos of Weeds and the Price of Order

I went away for a week. The weeds in the garden sensed that I was gone, and they went crazy. When I returned, I found a sea of thriving weeds where my garden had been. I had hoed them before I left. Where did they all come from in only a week? How did they get to be so tall in only eight days?

I have known many who would have given up—who would have said, “I can’t tackle a problem this big”—who would have let the weeds take the garden and who would have hoped to find a cucumber or a carrot hidden among the weeds later. Not I. With hope springing eternal, I got my hoe and began at one corner of the garden.

It was about 6:00 a.m. My plan was to finish the weeding before the deer flies were awake. Few insects in my area can make a human life a misery any more aggressively and ruthlessly than a deer fly. At about 9:00, I was still hard at work, and the first deer fly found me. It bit my neck. Then it bit the small of my back, where my shirt was clinging to the perspiration. For the next three hours, it alternated between biting my neck and biting my back. Several times, my instinct to eliminate my fierce adversary overcame my wish to protect nature, and I swatted at the fly. It was always too quick, flying off just as I swatted myself with the palm of my hand.

Painting of a Summer Farm, My Flea Market "Find"
The weeding went ever so slowly. When I reached the beets, I had to hunker down to pull by hand the weeds from the rows. I uprooted at least two beets, and I dutifully replanted them, mounding the dirt around them. In my experience, such replanting never works. Usually, the plant perishes. When it lives, it remains small and relatively unproductive. Why do I bother to replant the uprooted vegetables? Because I feel so guilty for having clumsily removed a growing plant that had sprung from an expensive seed.

When I came to the carrots, I was ready to cry out in anguish. Locating the stems of the weeds was practically impossible. Each time that I thought I had a weed stem firmly grasped between my thumb and fingers, I would softly pull back the foliage with my free hand to see if I had a weed or a carrot, and, with an astonishing frequency, I had a carrot in my grasp. The work proceeded with agonizing slowness. Even as careful as I was, I managed to tear several carrots out of the earth where they had been happily growing.

After several hours, my mind became my enemy. I kept thinking, “Surely, this is not a wise investment. The seeds, potatoes, and onions cost too much money and not enough of them grew. Here you are, losing hours that could be spent on more important tasks, and you could just as easily buy fresh vegetables at the farmers’ market. Why should you provide yourself as an entrĂ©e for a deer fly?”

By the time that I was ready to agree that I was a fool, I had reached the squash and cucumbers and was beginning to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The sun was beating down, and the perspiration was flowing freely. My shirt clung to me, and the band of my broad-brimmed straw hat was clammy. Even so, I was not going to give up now.

With a fury formed from the desire for victory, I slashed at the weeds. I did so in brief spurts of energy. My muscles were so tired that I could not sustain a long attack. In between bouts, I stood supported by my hoe for several seconds while summoning enough energy to flail at the bindweed, lamb’s quarter, and redroot pigweed. With a final effort, not Herculean but quite puny in fact, I scraped the last weed away.

I wish I could say I felt sorry for the carnage; after all, weeds are simply plants I consider to be in the wrong place. They were strewn about the garden, their wilting leaves half buried under dirt, half trampled by my feet. At the time, I was hardly contrite. I looked across a garden with well-defined rows of lettuce, onions, beans, and even flowers! Such lovely order had arisen from chaos!

Suddenly, I heard my first wren. I should say, “For the first time, I paid attention to the song of the wren.” Undoubtedly, the wren had been singing all along. I had been too focused on weeding to notice. As the bird warbled its notes, I relaxed and realized, “This is why I have a garden. It is my song expressed in vegetables that I can serve for lunch and dinner—vegetables with no herbicides, insecticides, or other ‘cides’ to make me ill—vegetables utterly organic and radically flavorful.” I could not put a price tag on something so pleasant. Smiling, I nodded that the garden was worth the work.   

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My Summer in a Garden: Wonder and Reality

I am astonished that I am weeding and watering my garden. From the time I was little until the time I went away to college, my mother insisted that I work in the garden, and I did not look forward to the tedious labor: especially the task of pulling tiny weeds from rows of tiny carrots! Only in my adulthood—after many years of university education and university teaching—have I returned to growing vegetables, and I can hardly get enough of the good feeling that working in the earth invokes for me.

On May 24th, Plants Defining Rows in My Garden

So I stride forth of an early morning, hoe in hand, sprinkling buckets nearby, and survey the dominion of beets and squash. I will become them; they, me. After all, we are what we eat. When I look closely at the beans forming like slow-motion balloons, I am seeing the future cells of my body. Oh, and did I mention I use no insecticide, herbicide, or fungicide on my vegetables? I am afraid that they must face life without such protections. When their matter mixes with mine and becomes me after lunch or dinner, they bring with them no harmful chemicals to inflict illness or disease on me.

On June 5th, Weeds Overtaking My Garden

In “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” Walt Whitman wrote that “the substantial words are in the ground and sea, / They are in the air, they are in you.” He suggested that the words I am using now are feeble and pale in comparison to the strong and vibrant “words” on which they are modeled. Whitman continued, “Human bodies are words,” more substantial than the words I am forming here. Whitman said, “Air, soil, water, fire—those are words, / I myself am a word with them—my qualities interpenetrate with theirs” even as I was just saying about becoming what I have for dinner. Leave it to Whitman to use the metaphor of words, themselves metaphors, to signify the most profound meanings and the most fundamental communication!

On June 5th, My Garden After Meticulous Hoeing

For gardening is meaningful communication with the earth. Each glistening pebble I find in the rows attests to vast geological processes that have brought us together in this instant. Every dancing butterfly I glimpse above the flowers speaks about miraculous biological changes that have transformed caterpillars into fluttering splashes of vivid color. All the stems and leaves around me give voice to rock, water, sun, and wind.

And the baby rabbit I discover watching me is a triumph of living art! My artistic ability is not equal to the challenge of making a twitching rabbit. Yet the universe knows how to create such intricate lives!

When I walk into my garden each day, I am prepared for amazement. Wonders surround me, and I stand sampling the fresh air in their midst. Even as I reflect on the spiritual tonic that gardening has become for me, I must confront realities. My cucumbers are not doing well. They appear to be wilting, even with abundant rainfall. As I have seen no cucumber beetles, I am unable to diagnose the cause of the problem. Animals continue to sample the plants, even eating the tops off one or two sunflowers; the critters have been most devastating to the beans, it seems.

Garden After Rain on June 12: A Few Wonderful Plants

Even though I have gardened for enough years to recognize that all my gardens are similar, I also acknowledge that different years bring different gardens. This year, I will focus my appreciation on a few plants and not spread my gratitude over multitudes crowded into sprawling rows. Why not? Because many seeds did not sprout. Gaps are everywhere and probably will not fill in even when the plants are mature.

Despite my poor yields, I have already been enjoying mustard greens in fresh salads. The mesclun seeds that I planted included five varieties: Beet Bull’s Blood, Spinach Bloomsdale Long Standing, Lettuce Black Seeded Simpson, Lettuce Red Salad Bowl, and Mustard Tendergreen. The mustard predominated, with a few of the green lettuce leaves in between. I find no trace of the beets, the spinach, or the red lettuce. The mustard leaves have what I would describe as a spicy note. Adding the mustard to mixed salad that I have bought at the grocery store has brightened lots of lunches. Recently, I noticed that the mustard leaves are beginning to toughen and become bitter, but I can see that other vegetables will soon be ready to harvest.

So, this year, Whitman might say that my patch of earth is singing simple songs, not grand oratorios as in past summers. I am learning that simplicity can be the proverbial spice of life.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

My Summer in a Garden: Panic Sets In

Around the third week of May, panic sets in. Lettuce leaves are almost large enough for salads, beets are up but disappointingly sparse, carrots are up in one row but inexplicably not in the next row, potatoes are here and there but not everywhere, onions are going strong, beans are up but stripped of their leaves by varmints, cucumbers are spotty, squash are up in some hills but not in others, flowers are few and far between—and weeds are thick! I worry that I will not succeed in keeping the weeds down. I put on gloves, seize a trowel, and start on the lettuce rows, painstakingly pulling the larger weeds and scraping the smaller ones. I make my way slowly up and down the rows. I wonder why so many seeds failed to sprout and why so many promising chunks of potatoes rotted without forming new plants. I wonder whether my beans have fallen victim to rabbits or groundhogs.

Plants Coming Up on May 19th

I need to sharpen a hoe so that I can clear the spaces in between the rows. Last year, I happened to be listening to the radio in my car when a gardening expert suggested the use of a sharp hoe to clip weeds about a quarter of an inch beneath the surface of the soil. I had always pulled weeds by hand, but the expert said that doing so merely encourages many new weeds to sprout. Even though the gardening season was well advanced, I followed the expert’s advice with great success. This year, I intend to cut the weeds that have arisen in the walkways between the rows, but I still need to grind my hoe to a sharp edge. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says, “ … ‘tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” Hamlet is speaking metaphorically, but, when I look upon my garden, I see no metaphor. I see only weeds, rank and gross weeds, that are about to possess my carefully planted rows! The world in front of me is literally “an unweeded garden”!

I vow to purchase a few packets of flower seeds to try to fill in my border. (Ultimately, I do not fulfill my vow.) I decide that the gaps in my beets are too short for reseeding, and, besides, it’s too late to be planting beets. I must learn to live with imperfection. I profoundly hope the beans will live long enough to set on more leaves, but wild animals have stripped many of them down to stalks that are only three inches tall! I reassure myself that the cucumbers and squash that I have will spread to cover the area in such a way that my fears of a waste land are unfounded.

Vegetables Emerging on May 19th

Unnerved all the same, I stand helpless, mourning the loss of fun, now replaced by work. Can I work hard enough to salvage a garden here? Can I rescue the little I have?

Rows Weeded and Watered by May 24th

And, suddenly, I remember. It is this way every summer! In my experience with gardening, nothing ever works out the way I planned. Nature is unpredictable. The fun lies in witnessing what happens after all. Through weeding, I can exercise a little control, but the immensely complicated combinations of rain, sun, wind, temperature, humidity, fauna, and cell division are far beyond me! Acknowledging how small a part I play in this venture called “a garden,” I echo Abraham and say, “God will provide.”