Wednesday, April 30, 2008

May Day

That's not a recent picture, I'm just not very good at taking pictures. I do like to look at pictures of the garden over time because they are a useful reminder of the changes taking place. My father did use the rototiller in his garden on Monday, so one of the garden plots looks just like that. Every fall he plants a crop of rye and then tills it into the soil in the spring. I'm not such a fan of rototilling as he is, so that lower garden bed hasn't been tilled in years.

One of the reasons I call myself an incompetent gardener is that in general I seem to make decisions that seem a wasteful or foolish to others. I'm quite accustomed to people not taking me seriously, which is quite a gift in the sense that it relieves pressure to take myself very seriously. So for example my father can't figure out why I don't like my garden beds runover with a tractor pulling a rototiller. The simple explanation is that it seems so much work. With a hoe and a rake I can plant what little I want and plan on some scheme for tending it. The tending part is what gets to me and long rows mean a lot of tending. I seem to get more done with smaller plots, planted one at a time. The beautifully planted farmers' fields of corn, wheat, hay, and oats seem all the more an accomplishment to one who's put a spade in the ground. The efficiency is remarkable. But when it comes to small gardens, hand tools seem the right tools to me.

The farmer who plants the fields plants in rotation. We've lived here for almost thirty years and over the years the front edge of the property bounding on the fields has been a question. My mother always imagined a fence. My father never wanted a fence, probably in no small part because of the expense. I've wanted to plant along the edge. Part of my reasoning for the planting is an idea that it's a good plan to design from the boundaries inward, or at least for many years doing just the opposite that's the conclusion I've come to.

Then again I'm pretty unrealistic about so many things in the garden. Lots of the soil around here when dry has the consistency of cement, and in the rockier places more like concrete. But the idea for that front boundary planting was nixed years ago.

The farmer is getting up in years. Last year while plowing a lever of the plow was down and he didn't notice making a furrow along the front edge of our property. I thought he did it on purpose to mark the boundary, but he insisted it was just a mistake. This year he had a young guy plow and when he plowed a field close to the house he seems to have used last year's furrow as a mark. The problem is that the tractor turning on our little stretch of ground busted up the sod with the tires, and harrow and left a very uneven line of disturbed soil along the edge. This made a big problem to mow with my lawnmower.

This is a dilemma for me: For more than thirty years the farmer has turned his tractor on a little stretch of our property. In the past there has been minor damage and inconvenience, but nothing really to speak of. This year's problem really stems from plowing just a few feet closer than they have in the past, but the damage was considerable from my perspective having to deal with it with garden tools, as opposed to farm-scale equipment. I told my father I was going to plant along our line in response. The prospect rather horrified him, but I don't think he really imagined I would; because it requires so much work.

I've got the sod removed from a section about 150 feet long by about 6 feet wide. There's an old white lilac in the front that had suckered under a tall canopy of fir trees. I've dug some up some of the suckers and planted them closely along the front edge of the bed. Last night he came out and his jaw dropped.

I haven't told him my plan to plant sunflowers all along the edge yet. Probably my favorite seed company is J. L. Hudson. This year they're offering a Russian variety, Peredovik, grown for making vegetable oil. They may not be the most fashionable flower, although I'm sure they'll look good, but will provide a useful seed for saving. The birds, of course will welcome them too.

I've still got about half the line to prepare, and it's slow going. The soil is compacted, and the best approach seems not to till all the grass into the soil. One reason is the sod with most of the soil shook loose is quite useful for adjusting the grade in another section of the boundary line. A second reason is there's a good deal of rhizomous grass and annuals like dandelions in the sod and tilling simply increases them.

I won't have enough of the lilac seedlings for the whole line as close as I'm planting them. Next year, if all goes well, I can dig up some of the lilacs, spacing them a little further apart to complete the whole line. I'll probably seed grass on the field side next spring too, so I'll have a narrow swath to mow on the public side of the hedge.

In several years, one May Day someone will look out from the road and see a hedge of white lilacs, a football field's length. It will be a splendid vista. It' isn't quite fair to say I planned it. Basically, I was mad about work the farmer's plowing caused me this Spring and wanted to do something to prevent it in the future. I spied the available plant material, the white lilacs, and set about to make a hedge with them. The plan make sense to me, even imagining the mature lilacs gives me a feeling of excitement. I also know that mostly people will think it a crazy or stupid idea, at least now the lilac seedlings look very insignificant. But the line is marked, something I've wanted for a long time, and never found a persuasive reason to argue about it in the past.

Most of the world celebrates May 1st as Labour Day. Through a quirk in history Labor Day here in the USA is celebrated in September. May Day is a wonderful holiday and a chance to reflect on and be grateful for the improvement in all our lives solidarity between working people has made. I wish everyone a wonderful May Day.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I have one face time friend who occasionally reads this blog. He pointed out that the word amateur means doing something for the love of it. I guess the incompetent gardener moniker which came up in my last post didn't seem quite right to him; i.e., incompetence implying that I'm really bad at gardening.

I had a couple of things in mind when I wrote that last post, and I suppose I'll get around to them in this post. But first I'll say a bit more about The Incompetent Gardener.

When I started to write about gardening as The Incompetent Gardener many years ago, I think what I had in mind wasn't so much being a bad gardener, as it was being a gardener without proper qualifications. One definition of qualification in the American Heritage Dictionary is:
Any quality, accomplishment, or ability that suits a person to a specific position or task.
Looking back after all these years, I suppose I was uniquely "qualified" to make my garden, but certainly I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't really even set about to make a garden.

Mostly what I've done is to try to solve problems. When we first moved here almost thirty years ago the grass and bramble was high and the place littered with remnants of a once productive farm. There were fallen down out buildings all over, the rusted body of and old egg truck, and a similar wreck of a combine or some such piece of farm equipment hidden in the weeds and debris. There were literally tons of debris. So the garden started out by way of clean up.

There's a story told, although I can't remember where I heard or read it, of a woman who every year for several years was enticed to buy seed packets by the lovely pictures of flowers on them. Every year for several years she got no flowers. then one year a packet also included a picture of what the seedlings look like. The picture looked familiar, and it dawned on her she'd been meticulously weeding out the flower seedlings. Once she let the seedlings grow the flowers seemed all the more wonderful for her years of fruitless effort, and she got hooked. Somewhere along the line I got hooked on gardening too.

Part of what I mean by calling myself an incompetent gardener are surprises similar to her misstep; where as much as we try to teach the land and flora a thing or two it's the land and flowers that teach us. Over the years I've written about my garden, and one place or another I can find a lump of this writing.

I've been in contact with a group of students at Makarere University in Kampala who have formed an organization to write and publish textbooks for use in Uganda. They hope to make them available to students cheaper than what's available now. The pressing challenge is some money to get this balloon off the ground. But that's just one of the many challenges.

I have thought to pull some of my garden writing together in a book published by the on-demand publisher Lulu. The organization has set some modest and attainable goals, foremost the acquisition of a computer. So I thought that sales of a book, The Incompetent Gardener, might be something I could do to assist them. that was the brainstorm anyway.

The idea for the book fits together with several other ideas. One of the issues is finding ways to use information and communication technologies to further education in Uganda. I'm so excited about the organization, they call themselves Science Publishing And Community Elevation, SPACE, because it's Ugandans making educational materials that will fit in Uganda. But the members are only just exploring computer software and Internet collaboration. So I thought to make the preparation of the book public and online, so that the members of SPACE could get a look at some of the ways of using online tools. And in the back of my mind the thought occurred to me that perhaps there are other authors who might consider using sales of Lulu published books in support of their effort in the future.

I haven't figured it all out yet, but that's what I was thinking about when I wrote about puttering in the garden. I still am puttering, the weather has been beautiful and spring in Western Pennsylvania is lovely. I'm not very good about getting my camera out, so the picture was taken several years ago. I chose it because now many of the white daffodils are in bloom. The ones in the picture are called Thalia or the Orchid Narcissus. They have a lovely fragrance, as do many of the later blooming daffodils. My favorite is the Poet's Narcissus, probably my favorite flower fragrance of all. They are so willing, that is they increase or naturalize easily. And the ones blooming now were planted long ago by former inhabitants here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Spring is here. There are daffodils blooming all around the garden and they cheer me. Most of the daffodils come from spreading about bulbs from a patch that's about the same size in the picture, in fact you can see that very patch in the distance in this photo. The daffodils are all around, but I'm disappointed that I can never seem to take pictures that capture the yellow riot of color. There are an incredible number of daffodil varieties. I've planted several which extend the blooming season considerably. I've not a clue as to this variety's name, but they are early and clearly naturalize well. I bet all of them have spread from just a few bulbs planted fifty years ago or more.

I like gardening very much, but I'm an incompetent gardener. I don't really mean to be self deprecating when I say that. My garden is a source of exercise, curiosity and delight, so I value the garden and gardening highly. I say incompetent more in defiance of formula, and in favor of and attitude of "go ahead and take a stab at it."

My mother was fond of naming what she spent a great deal of time doing as "to putter." The AH dictionary--the tattered First Edition by desk--notes that to putter in the way my mother used it is chiefly British: "To occupy oneself in an aimless or desultory manner." I'm more apt to say "putz." That word isn't in my book copy of the dictionary, but means much the same as putter. Putz is Yiddish. Not clear at all how it became part of my lexicon, nor whether it has a similar etymology to putter. Nevertheless, putz is vulgar slang for penis and I've never heard putter to mean that, although I suppose it may somewhere. Putzing in the garden is perhaps as masturbation is to copulation, and so like the distinction between an incompetent gardener and a real gardener. In any case, my approach to gardening is most certainly desultory: "Moving or jumping from one thing to another; disconnected; rambling."

In spring, I often also have the pleasure of working in other people's gardens. One friend gets my style and when working in her garden even encourages my rambling. Coordinating between vehicle availability and weather, she picked me up with her car so we had a chance to chat. The conversation turned to politics and I mentioned the current world food crisis triggered by rapidly rising commodity prices. As we approached our destination, she asked something to the effect: "Can we get out of this mess?" Or more to the point: "Tell me we're not doomed!"

Phil Jones points to two articles warning that food price increases will cause mass hunger. And he asks:
What are *you* doing to help produce more food and avert this?
I'm not doing enough, but at least the issue of famine is on my radar screen. Phil's question gets to the point, all of us ought take this challenge seriously and wonder what we can do.

Mostly what I do is to rearrange flowering plants in my garden. I've been gardening long enough to be happy I'm not dependent on my efforts for my food, it's not easy to raise crops.

My friend Nathan's CBO, the BSLA, in the Iganga is working with people in people in villages to form farmer groups. The particular emphasis is with widows caring for dependent children orphaned by AIDS. Education is a key component of the program, not just about HIV and AIDS but education especially about food production and post harvest handling. The BSLA provides help with inputs like fertilizer and seeds. They also conduct training in husbandry and other subjects at their offices in Iganga. This sort of community action is worthwhile, but difficult to find support for. I've got to give Nathan credit for sticking to the work even when the going gets really tough as far as finances go. Slum Doctor Programme a small non-profit in Washington State is providing generous assistance.

The current food crisis is precipitated by world economic events. But by in large the solutions to famine must be local developments. In 2005 I wrote a post titled But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden taken from the last sentence of Voltaire's Candide. I searched for the post as an easy way to find a quote from a wonderful Adam Gropnik review of Ian Davidson's Voltaire in Exile:
By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.
The modest help I'm able to lend to Nathan's BSLA program is important to me because I think it's helping. Yet I'm frustrated I don't do more in my locale. I do cultivate my garden. By doing more, I think I mean to encourage others nearby to cultivate their gardens too. Our gardens are indeed a proper answer to Phil's question about what we can do.