Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Gardening 3

“Apart from Thee we plant in vain
        The root and sow the seed;
Thy early and Thy later rain,
        Thy sun and dew we need.”

      —“Garden: A Hymn for the American Horticultural Society, 1882” by John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker Poet

What my garden did not need was a freeze on the morning of the 16th of May. My poor potatoes and bush beans! Their leaves turned a dark, ugly green and folded down around their stems like collapsed umbrellas. Only time will tell if the potatoes can recover.

My Beans and Potatoes After a Freeze on May 16th

Just when I was allowing myself to think that, this year, my garden will be the best I have had in the past several years, Mother Nature may have had other ideas.

Before dawn, I had trained my flashlight on my outdoor thermometer and had seen that the temperature had dropped to 30° Fahrenheit. In the stillness of that hour, I felt alarm. What would happen to the young, tender plants? Would the temperature at ground level be a few degrees higher? Would there be no killing frost? I hoped for a good outcome.

At sunrise, frost blanketed my lawn. A few hours later, I visited my garden, and my heart sank. I grew up on a farm. Accordingly, I am generally prepared to accept acts of God that can menace livestock or damage crops. Even so, I felt sad. As I stood there, observing my poor beans and potatoes, I felt sad for them, not so much for me. For an instant, I even questioned whether I could have covered the rows on the previous evening. Perhaps I could have spared the plants this agony. Then I realized that I would have needed lots of sheets to cover four rows. I had protected a recently moved peony with a large cardboard box, but I could not have defended my potatoes and beans from the cold.

Beans Replanted on May 23rd

Suddenly, I remembered it. Was it an old saying, or was it simply advice from a neighbor? It went something like this: “Don’t plant your garden until after the 15th of May.” Naturally, some plants can withstand a frost. As far as I can tell, my lettuce, beets, and onions have not suffered from the low temperature. For that matter, my border of flowers looks normal to me. The fact that the frost came on the 16th lends the advice the ring of truth, particularly for beans and potatoes.

I replanted the beans on the 23rd. Then I awaited the future. Will the potatoes continue to serve their stems until fresh foliage opens to the sun? As Whittier wrote, “we plant in vain” without “Thy sun”—and without Thy warmth, he might have added.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Gardening 2

“The influence of her taste was seen also in the family garden, where the ornamental began to mingle with the useful; whole rows of fiery marigolds and splendid hollyhocks bordered the cabbage beds, and gigantic sunflowers lolled their broad, jolly faces over the fences, seeming to ogle most affectionately the passers-by.”

     —“Wolfert Webber, Or Golden Dreams,” in Tales of a Traveler by Washington Irving

A few years ago, I had the happy inspiration to surround my vegetable garden with a floral border mixing “fiery marigolds” and “gigantic sunflowers.” My thought was to cut as many bouquets as I might like, and I have gathered armloads of blossoms from the prolific display of flowers surrounding my beans and squash. Even so, I have experienced an irrational reluctance to turn to my borders for blooms. The profusion of petals is so spectacular en masse and such an invitation to butterflies and birds that I am hesitant to claim any zinnias or cosmos for my kitchen or living room. To demur is silly. After all, at the end of the season, the flowers will have gone to seed and, in the spring, their stalks will be plowed under. I might as well remain true to my vision and cut flowers at will.

My Garden on May 12, 2016

Unlike the character in Irving’s tale, I have no cabbages for my flowers to accompany. While I like cooked cabbage—especially on St. Patrick’s Day—I seldom have enough use for cabbage to justify growing any in my garden. When I was growing up, my mother planted rows of cabbages. For exhibits at the annual 4-H fair, we walked up and down in search of the largest cabbage, a heavy one with great waxy leaves spread so wide that it was all I could do to hold it in front of me and to lug it back to the house. In retrospect, I wonder what my mother did with all that cabbage. When I was very young, she made sauerkraut in ancient crocks that huddled in the darkness of a cellar beneath our smokehouse, but, by the time I participated in the gardening projects at the county fair, she no longer made kraut. Our family ate plenty of cooked cabbage, but we could not possibly have consumed as much as my mother grew. A cabbage conundrum!

Sunflowers I have in abundance! Small and large, yellow and red, my sunflowers may not “ogle most affectionately the passers-by,” but they serve as banquets for birds and squirrels. At precisely the moment when their diamond-pattern seed cushions become ready for shelling, the birds come to help themselves to the bounty. In only a day or two, the seeds are pecked loose. The birds are not tidy. They drop many seeds on the ground. The squirrels do not pause to thank their feathered compatriots; rather, they busily comb the ground to scavenge every seed abandoned by the birds.

Alas! I have no hollyhocks. I admire them in the distant yards of neighbors, but I grow none of my own. Up close, they are so dry, dusty, insect-ridden, and full of spiders that I am loath to plant any.

My borders feature the delicately arching cosmos, the frankly sturdy marigold, the utterly dependable zinnia, and the wonderfully robust tithonia in rainbows of hue and tint. Going to the garden to fetch a batch of beans is a treat for the eyes!       

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gardening 1

“ … Mr. Collins invited them to take a stroll in the garden, which was large and well laid out, and to the cultivation of which he attended himself. To work in this garden was one of his most respectable pleasures … .”

      Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I can hardly believe that the year has rolled around and I am back in my vegetable garden again. I share Mr. Collins’ respectable pleasure. While my garden is not large, I hope it is well laid out. I planted on April 20th. Steve, who plows my garden, had worked the soil into velvety smoothness. I felt that this year’s garden would be better than those of the past two years. My intuition was justified. Most of the seeds sprouted, and I could see that the garden was indeed better—at least for now!

Garden Ready for Planting on April 20, 2016

Gardening appeals to many senses at once. Occasional breezes lift my straw hat and carry it cartwheeling on its brim while I chase it, brush it off, and push it down on my forehead as tightly as possible. Robins, cardinals, song sparrows, and catbirds sing. Canada geese suddenly honk overhead and fly so low that I hear the whistling of their wings. The heady aroma of honeysuckle and the sweetness of the iris intermingle. The scent of the iris is elusive: sweet at first with an indefinable hint of sourness as the flowers are nearing the end of their bloom cycle. The mowed lawn stretching away from the garden is a golden green, more perfect than I can remember during the dark winter months.

Mission Accomplished: Garden Planted on April 20, 2016

Those who recall my blogs from a year ago know that I plant lettuce, beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, bush beans, squash, and flowers. I avoid corn because it takes up too much room and is such a beacon to raccoons that, when I have grown it, I have had to surround the garden with an electric fence. I prefer no fence.

This year, I have planted flowers on the western, northern, and eastern borders of my garden but not on the southern edge, which I have left open so that plenty of sunlight can reach the vegetable rows that run north and south. In the past two years, my flowers have been so thick along the southern boundary that they have shaded the rows. Also, I have planted fewer squash seeds than ever before. I hope to avoid being overwhelmed with so many squashes that I must hurl the majority of them into the brush on the hill above my creek.

I cultivate my garden with a plow consisting of a wooden frame, a single iron wheel, and five small plow shears in a cluster. Although, at first, the temptation to pull weeds from within the rows was strong, I avoided it for several weeks because lifting out the weeds would undoubtedly disturb too many of the vegetable seedlings.

Few experiences in my life are so hopeful as gardening. Each hour spent working with my plants encourages me to envision dinners to come, and nothing tastes better than vegetables fresh from the garden!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Easter (Last Installment in This Series)

Before Easter, my mother kept her eye on the incubator, which stood like a thick table in the screened breezeway between our house and the smokehouse. She candled chicken eggs and duck eggs with a flashlight. Inevitably, an egg or two went bad, and, if not caught in time, left an unpleasant odor even after removal. All of this occurred back when I was in grade school.

Completing My Easter Sunday Wardrobe
With a Pair of Hollywood Celebrity Sunglasses

Memories of Easter crowd my mind. Every day when I walked home from the public school across the highway, I lingered beside hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips that my mother had planted as a border between the driveway and the white board fence surrounding the yard. The variety among the daffodils appealed to my artistic sense. Yellow, white, and orange. Tall and short. Large blossoms and small blossoms. The variations were many, making it difficult to choose a favorite. I delighted in the heavy perfume of the hyacinths, and I loved the delicate fragrance of tulips—a fragrance reminding me of Easter candy.

She may have taken her inspiration from a magazine, or she may have developed the idea from her own creativity, but my mother wrapped two cylindrical Quaker Oats boxes in green aluminum foil, glued construction paper decorations on the foil, slipped a stuffed bunny toy inside each box, and ornamented the lids with foil and bows. She claimed that the Easter Bunny himself had left the boxes for my brother and me. I kept my rabbit toy for many years, but, eventually, I must have lost interest in it before losing it altogether. I wish I had it now.  

There is one memory that tops the rest. In my bed at sunrise on Easter morning, I gradually awoke from my dreams because of a persistent peeping. As the nights were still cold, I had pulled the covers up to my chin. Dancing on my head were tiny feet. As my eyes opened, I saw my mother’s face nearby. She was smiling that beautiful smile that time cannot erase from my recollections. Her hands were stretched protectively toward the fuzzy yellow duckling that was peeping and sprinting across my forehead.

“You can hold it, but be careful not to squeeze it,” my mother invited. I slipped up into a seated posture and lightly held the duckling between my hands. It had just been born in the incubator and was full of life. My joy knew no bounds!

To this day, when I think of Easter, I think of that duckling and my mother sitting on the edge of my bed. She passed away in 1988, but I trust that she is full of life, smiling, and raising chicks and ducklings in a dimension just beyond my dreams.