Garden Debriefing: Some Wins, Some Losses

Those have McNuggets?
Those have McNuggets?

Last night’s hard freeze in mid-October abruptly ended our hope that we might watch our visiting grand-daughters pick the last of this summer’s green beans. Instead, despite our Norman-Rockwellian visions of cherubic children and lush-hanging legumes with autumnal wisps of cirrus overhead, the shift has happened, our center of focus and energies translated for months to come from garden to woodpile.

In our life as a movie, watch the last page turn in the ledger of gardening memories and snapshots, soft-edged and receding, a metaphor that closes and fades. And from just beyond, rising to focus, another journal opens, enlarges, and the story morphs into the present, smoke curling out the chimney in Currier and Ives fashion–an episode not at all new to us, revisited afresh and with a certain sad joy for one more year.

The garden–maybe this year more than most–has yielded lessons among its fruits, lessons that, if they can be properly cultivated, will in the next gardening year make us better gardeners, perhaps better neighbors and citizens, and will harness our finite stocks of enthusiasm and energy in more productive directions.

First I should admit that late this summer–and in spite of considerable misgivings on my part–we did follow through on my wife’s strong feeling we needed chickens in our lives. I thought the birds would not pay their way. Now we have four meat birds. They have names and little personalities, so you know how this is going to go.

But in their defense (since they are here to stay and will probably outlive us) they earn their keep somewhat with their eggs and they generously if too-randomly extrude their contributions to amend next year’s garden soil. If we could only train them not to waste all that waste as they free-range.
Also this year, we have made a more serious effort to transition towards “heirloom” varieties of vegetables.

These old fashioned vegetable types have been largely replaced in recent decades in home gardens and especially on large industrialized farms by “improved” hybrids, owned in many cases by Big Agriculture. They are bred for disease resistance, size-color-shape, blemish-free endurance on the vine and when shipped a thousand or more miles; and infrequently, for taste. But they are bred from specific and in many cases patented parent combinations. Next year, saved hybrid seeds will unpredictably carry or drop the desirable gene combinations that account for their desirability.

What’s more, the gardener becomes dependent on the Seed Corporation, while seeds derived from heirloom or open-pollinated tomatoes or beans and such are more democratic and can be saved and passed down and shared year after year. Ownership and control of the source of our food is an increasingly urgent issue for wider public discussion. And in no place is loss of biodiversity a bigger concern than with regard to the world’s shrinking supply of edible plant species.

We had very good success with Goose Beans this year, after we learned we must provide tall, sturdy support–like the reinforcing wire tomato cages and the cattle-panel “walls” of our fortress garden. Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, also heirloom, did as well as most and better than some in this blighted summer. Planted way too early (the third week of April–I can’t tell her anything!) they survived. (Okay. She won that one.) And they processed very well, skins falling from them in the hot water prior to pressure canning. I of course saved out a choice specimen and have a hundred seeds for the garden of 2010.

In this second year of gardening a small plot that had been lawn in 2007, we did see a lot more earthworms. We have a long way yet to go. I witnessed a wonderful example of a low-tech vermiculture-compost-hydroponics system at Growing Power in Milwaukee two weeks ago. But we have experts right here in Floyd County, and I hope to learn from some of those neighbors to work with nature harnessing the growing power already showing potential on wisely managed plots that lie just out our back doors.

Now our grand daughters have come and gone, their American Gothic grandparents just barely shifted into the winter-tilted chapter of life in Floyd County. And while they were not able to pick those beans fresh from the vine, I do wish you could have seen their eyes when they opened the little nesting-box door to find three eggs, still warm, not cradled in styrofoam.

Road Less Traveled, Floyd Press, November 5, 2009 (c) Fred First

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. If you don’t know Ed Cohn, you might try to see if you can pick his brain – he runs Miracle Farm and is very into permaculture. But you probably already know that …. seed saving is the way to go, for sure. A pox on industrialized agriculture!

  2. Winter in the offing – one tops up the woodpile and puts her favorite woods (birch, apple cherry) where she can find them easily without rummaging through the whole darned woodshed and turning it upside down. Ditto for kindling… The freezer and the larder are full, and all that remains is to lay in a great stash of tea for the long cold season.

    Summer, it seems to me, was gone in the blinking of an eye this year – is it time which is speeding up, or is it me? I can’t picture me speeding up at this ripe old age.

    Having said all that, I am rather looking forward to winter, good fires in the old wood stove, lots of books and many pots of tea.

  3. From my John’s book, SEASONS, a record of climate data, important daily information, seasonal writings, and his observations on the same, I offer the following entry.

    “Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasure which attends a wintery fireside: candles at four o’clock, warm hearth rugs, tea, a fair tea maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”

    Thomas DeQuincy