Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Summer Gardening 4

Awaiting the arrival of snow peas for my dinner table, I had plenty of time to pull the occasional crabgrass from the largely open expanse of soil that had been my wonderful garden earlier in the year. The peas were an experiment to discover whether or not seeds planted in July could produce a harvest in August or September. I considered what I could do with the stalks of the sunflowers after birds had harvested their seeds, and I watched for more bush beans to appear.

More Produce Rolling In on July 11th of 2016

Meanwhile, I noted that walking on the dormant grass of the lawn, a tawny tan in August, sounded much like striding on the frosted grass of earliest spring: crunch, crunch, crunch with each step.

On a special day, I observed a large Zebra Swallowtail gracefully sailing among the flowers. Its silvery stripes imparted elegance to its form. Where I live, the Black Swallowtails are the most numerous; the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, the second most numerous. I seldom spot a Spicebush Swallowtail, but I may be mistaking them for Black Swallowtails. The Tigers are my immediate topic. They are energetic, as if they might be coffee lovers having imbibed a bit too much caffeine. They rapidly flit from blossom to blossom before darting way toward the tops of the trees. The Zebra Swallowtail was much more serene. Its smooth movements made the tranquility of the scene all the more noticeable. The Zebra was in harmony with its surroundings, and, as I was part of its environment, I was in tune with it. I watched and watched until it floated away.

Empty Spaces in My Garden After Removal of Carrots

I realized just how pleased I was to have tried a second season of gardening, even if circumstances had reduced my crop to only one vegetable: snow peas. In the extreme heat and humidity of summer, I was given time to keep my garden spot entirely free of weeds and to watch a Zebra Swallowtail hovering above the petals of sweet flowers.

The metamorphosis of the butterfly never fails to inspire my sense of awe. The same creature that is a larva during one phase of its existence becomes a pilot capable of exquisite flight in another chapter of its life. What would it be like if we were to reach a certain age when we would go to sleep for a time, after which we would awaken with wings to lift us lightly into the air? Perhaps our lifetimes are the preparation for that flight. My friend Mary, whose story served to initiate my blogging, often said she was earning her wings.

A Cat Among My Squash Plants

I stood near my garden and asked if the individual human life indeed extends beyond the grave, and, at that moment, a cicada alighted on my nose and chattered before dashing off. I laughed aloud! Walt Whitman’s lines rushed into my recollection: “Ya-honk [the wild gander] says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation … I listening close, / Find its purpose … .” Chee-chee-chee the cicada said like an invitation to me. I recalled a passage from Chuang Tsu: “A cicada and a young dove laugh at Peng, saying, ‘When we try hard we can reach the trees … .’”* Summer gardening welcomed me to experience far more than I would have thought possible.


*Chuang Tsu Inner Chapters: A New Translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Vintage, 1974).

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Summer Gardening 3

The grand experiment of growing a second garden went fifty percent bust with the loss of my beets to an animal that ate the tops of the few that had sprouted. My snow peas, though, remained green, promising a good crop. Meanwhile, sparkling waves of goldfinches visited the towering sunflowers. What a pleasure to see so many of the bright yellow birds feasting on the seeds!

My Sunflowers on July 11, 2016

The patch of earth where I grow vegetables occupied much of my spring and summer. You could say I was focused on the garden. Nearly every day found me bending to pull weeds so as to keep the area as productive as possible. In early August, the lack of rainfall prompted me to pump water from the spring-fed well every other day, to carry the buckets to the garden, and to pour them on the row of snow peas and the half rows of gladiolus corms, now in full flower from cool pink to hot pink. I started the corms late, and not all of them thrived.

I noticed that a few of the beans were blooming again. I wondered if I would get another bushel from the spectacularly productive plants.

A Cat Among the Squash on July 11, 2016

At a time when I would have been preparing to teach early American literature in the fall semester, I spent my days as a retiree appreciating the curling tendrils of snow peas and the joyous flutter of goldfinch wings. Life had come down to terms simpler than those to which I had become accustomed during the thirty-four years I had taught a grueling four-course load. While I loved teaching, I was finding that I loved the tranquility of the garden. Under the blazing sun, passages from the great works that I had taught flitted in and out of my memory like finches visiting sunflowers. For me, living in retirement was becoming more elemental: less the elaborate construction of creative minds. The garden presented philosophy in starkest conditions: cycles of life and death, as well as beauty arising from the human touch but taking its own forms without reference to the gardener.

I found the snow peas in the hot soil of the August garden symbolic of Thomas Aquinas. The vital spark sprouted the material plants from the seed peas and unfolded their leaves. Studying their growth inspired my intellectual responses. I was connected to the peas by having planted them, but I was disconnected from their life, which I had not created. I was both in the picture of my garden and out of it. The more I contemplated my vegetables, the less I felt the presence of ego. I did not vanish, for I was necessary to keep the garden weeded; but the “I” so often at the forefront of my waking activities counted for less and was quiet in the face of such a splendid nature that hardly needed me.

I looked forward to dining on fresh snow peas.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Summer Gardening 2

Coaxing a second season from my garden was more challenging than I thought it would be. Only a tiny portion of my beets appeared above ground. I stood in the hot sun in the dusty ground surrounded by towering sunflowers and looked carefully for beets among the small crabgrass clumps in the row that I had not plowed or plucked. There were perhaps twenty beets. I shook my head in disappointment.

Sunflowers Twice As Tall As I Am

The snow peas, though, were thick and green in the adjacent row. They were the soft green that snow peas always are, and they were enjoying the intense heat of the season. I should have thought that snow peas would have preferred the cool weather of spring, but the happy plants belied my perceptions. Such an ironic name, “snow peas,” in the midst of the hottest weather of the year!

Snow Peas on July 17th

I pulled most of the squash plants from the ground. They were finished producing, and I wanted to keep their area free of weeds. I had harvested three bushels of beans from my two rows, and I picked another half bushel. My guess was that the beans might not set on again.

Potato Harvest

The sunflowers were the real story of late July and early August. I had purchased mixtures of seeds, and I was not disappointed. The tallest of the sunflowers reached twelve feet. What amazing growth! Think of them! Seeds in the loose earth sprouted in April, spread roots, sent up a stalk, added leaves, and kept strengthening and extending the stalk until the flower stood twice as tall as I am! From the soil came this magnificent display!

In my solarium were trays filled with the potatoes I had carefully lifted from the ground: more potatoes than I have ever grown, and all of them from only two rows! On my screened porch stood the old grocery wire shelving on wheels that I use to dry my onions. Yellow and white onions far larger than I have had in years past were spread in tiers on the shelves. I planned to gather them in groups, tie them with twine, and hang them from nails in the solarium. I wondered if I had enough nails!

It had been a splendid garden, but it would have so few second-crop beets! There probably would not be enough to justify canning them.

Later, when I returned to weed the garden, I discovered that an animal—probably a bunny—had eaten the tops of most of the beets that had managed to come up. I had only three left! I hope the rabbit enjoyed the beets.

The snow peas were still abundant and growing richly. I kept them watered.
A pleasant outcome of the summer, salad tomatoes from voluntary vines that I had permitted to start among my lettuces when I still had rows of lettuce were now golden yellow and good! The few tomato vines that I had allowed to grow were scattered across the broad area where the rows had been, and I could easily go from one to the next without stepping on them. I collected many of the yellow baubles to decorate lunch bowls of spinach leaves or to serve as snacks.   

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Summer Gardening 1

I have always planted my garden early, harvested the vegetables early, and stepped aside in late July to let crabgrass and pigweed take over.

This year, I did not follow my usual practice.

For the first time, I experimented with a second crop. On the 7th of July, I planted a row of snow peas and a row of beets. By the 17th, the peas were well above the surface of the earth, but the beets had not yet made their appearance. I wondered what was keeping them.

Diver’s in Middletown, Ohio
Which Has Everything for Gardeners
And Where I Bought My Seeds

I felt under obligation to prevent pigweed and crabgrass from growing. The pigweed presented no problem. The little pigweed starts were easily pulled. The crabgrass posed a challenge. When the ground was dry, the blades of the grass tore off between my thumb and forefinger, but the roots remained in the soil—ready to send up more blades within a short time. I had to hunker down and dig the roots with a trowel. A steady rain on the 18th meant that I spent a few hours digging crabgrass on the 19th; the soil was nicely workable after the showers.

Bean Harvest 2016

When I first picked beans in mid-July, I picked a bushel of them. I think I noticed a phenomenon. My beekeeper friends can correct me if I misunderstood the situation. I began combing the bush bean plants for beans not long after the sun had come up. When I was perhaps a third of the way through my two rows of beans, buzzing interrupted the quiet. Bees were busily collecting pollen from the sunflowers and squash blossoms. I have the impression that the bees arrived all at once, as if they had awakened at the same minute. Perhaps the angle of the sun served to signal the bees that it was time to fly to the flowers.

Having harvested the lettuce long ago, the beets next, the carrots after the beets, and the onions most recently, I cleared half of the garden space. In that open area were my voluntary salad tomatoes and my new rows of snow peas and beets. My original beets were canned, my carrots were frozen, and my onions were dried on a tall steel rack that I wheel onto my screened porch for the purpose every July. Later, when the onion stalks had dried completely, I tied bunches of onions with twine and hung them from nails in my solarium. Throughout the fall and well into the winter each year, the walls are decorated with golden and bronze onions.

When I first planted my snow peas and beets in mid-season, I was full of anticipation. I hoped they would thrive, but I had never tried to grow a second crop of vegetables so late in the year. I worried, asking myself questions I could not answer. Will they struggle with the heat? Can I keep the plants watered? Will the crabgrass take over, despite my best efforts? As so often happens, my excitement was mingled with trepidation.