Tag Archives: gardening

Planting Season

This April has not provided a great backdrop for poetry, despite its designation in the U.S. as National Poetry Month. Too many people are busy slamming each other physically or via verbal abuse. Not enough are participating in good-natured poetry slams. 

Likewise, the month has been somewhat problematic for planting, as military invasions and erratic weather have both contributed globally to farmers’ woes. So I was heartened when, amid all the horrid news coming out of Ukraine, I saw a short video clip a few days ago about a Ukrainian farmer who’d regained access to his fields after a Russian military withdrawal from his area. He was out surveying his acreage, preparing to fill in recent bomb craters and then to plant much of his 100 acre spread in sunflowers. 

As a neophyte gardener in southern California, I’ve been tentative with this year’s planting, with limited success so far. Some of the succulents I’ve attempted to grow in pots have survived, others not. My springtime carrot “crop” is laughable. Most of the yard plantings that predated my arrival are holding their own, though about a third of the trees in our housing development have varying degrees of die-back. Each weekend, I spend time at our neighborhood’s closest community garden, listening to more experienced gardeners, gathering tips. Then I continue planting and experimenting with water conservation and shade provision measures, as the sun daily gets higher in the sky. 

It’s nourishing to me to spend time outdoors—minimizing my exposure to airborne viruses like covid. Outdoor, unplugged time also helps reduce my exposure to the incessant chatter of media types. Many seem intent on nudging everyone toward the extremes of the political spectrum, clamoring for our attention like overstimulated toddlers.

When active gardening isn’t enough to mitigate my worries about the state of the world, I sometimes turn to scriptural sources for reassurance. One partial verse that has long inspired peace activists and aging flower children like me occurs in two different books of the prophets. Both Isaiah and Micah talk of a time when wars will cease, when former weapons will be transformed into gardening tools:  

“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3) 

      Micah then goes on with a second gardening reference:  “…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4)

Loath to conflate any of our current earthly political leaders with the “Lord of hosts,” not even a little, I still long for and work toward a time when it may be possible for each of us to sit outdoors unafraid. 

So, as another planting season progresses, I take heart. Maybe this year some sweet potatoes, maybe sunflowers, maybe corn. Maybe a different kind of seed—a donation for humanitarian relief, a soothing refrain in the ear of a frightened child. What seeds will you plant?  

Meditation/Appreciation of “Earth Was Given as a Garden”

“Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity; 
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was at a UU music camp a decade or so ago. This paean to our earthly garden echoed a lot of my beliefs about the value of gardens and the importance of caring for our home planet ( hear a rendition of all three verses at YouTube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84). (A later set of words to the same tune also touches some of the same themes: “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer, in later UU hymnal Singing the Journey as #1064, at YouTube.com/watch?v=0XziR3M2wYk). 

The first time I gardened was in childhood, I don’t remember exactly when. One season that sticks in my mind is a dry summer in Maryland in the mid-1950’s. I would have been about eight years old. During this drought, it was my job to water the bell pepper plants in our small hillside garden. A couple of times a week, I would haul a bucket of water uphill from the nearest outdoor spigot and carefully surround each pepper plant with water. My dad had dug a saucer-shaped trench around each pepper so the water would have more chances to soak in, rather than run off.

Later, when our family moved nearby to a larger house with a lot more land, we had a bigger garden, too far away from the house to water. Most years, extra water was not needed. I don’t think I contributed much to this garden, aside from eating the produce. I remember we used to grow corn. Somehow, the homegrown ears tasted sweeter than anything we could buy at the grocery store. Despite the predations of area raccoons, there was nearly always enough for a few delicious corn-on-the-cob meals. 

We also grew tomatoes. The red fruits were a bone of contention between human eaters and the local turtle population. Nearly every year, we’d find at least a couple of ripe tomatoes with substantial chunks eaten out of them. Actually, we didn’t mind the turtles’ inroads too much. Having turtles in the tomato patch made it easier to find a competitor for that year’s 4th of July turtle race—a neighborhood tradition. For several weeks before the 4th, we kids were busy scouting out turtles and putting them into temporary quarters in cardboard boxes or somewhat more formal animal cages. We’d feed them lettuce and vegetable table scraps and try to “train” them so they’d be in top form for the race.

When the big event came, around noon at the neighborhood picnic, we’d carefully place each turtle under the bushel basket “starting gate” at the center of a roped-off circle. We’d whisper some final words of encouragement, then step back behind the rope circle to cheer our turtle on. Most turtles snoozed through the race, but each year produced a winner—at least one turtle valiantly lumbered toward his/her former remembered home in the tomato patch.   

The year my new husband and I moved from a series of urban environments to Vermont in a somewhat misguided attempt to “return to the land,” I became a part-time adult gardener. We purchased a small house on a wedge-shaped lot in the state’s capital city, Montpelier. Because we moved in November, it was a half year or so before I could put seeds into the ground. I did start some tomatoes indoors—local lore suggested beginning seedlings on “town meeting day,” a set date in March when all Vermont’s towns held local meetings. My seedlings were anemic and spindly. Later, once the danger of frost was mostly past, I replaced my homegrown efforts with hardier young plants from the local garden shop.  

In Vermont, I was able to grow cool weather crops that did not thrive in Maryland when I was growing up—romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a strange shaped brassica called kohlrabi. When my in-laws paid a visit in late summer, I proudly cooked them some homegrown kohlrabi. Afterwards, I belatedly learned that it was one of my father-in-law’s least favorite vegetables. While living with his mom and siblings on a friend’s Midwestern farm during the waning days of World War I, he’d been fed an overabundance of kohlrabi and had sworn off them for the rest of his life. Kohlrabis look like something out of a sci-fi movie—central orbs with little leafy projections sticking out of them. I was not sorry to have experimented with them. I just needed to remember never to serve them to my father-in-law again. 

Our experiment in Vermont living did not last long enough for me to become a very adept northern gardener, but it did whet my appetite for further garden attempts. Our next move, to Richmond, Virginia, included an initial stint of apartment living that did not foster gardening. However,  when we purchased a house with a yard, I was off to the races. The first chore was removing the growth of wild clematis that had vined its way across the back yard. Next came turning the hard soil and deciding what to plant. Tomatoes for sure. Maybe some corn. Peas, carrots, lettuce, scallions, onions, beans, eggplant, and one year, potatoes. My early harvests rarely made much of a dent in our grocery bill, but digging and hoeing and weeding the garden helped me let off steam, forestalling the escalation of many a family fight.    

Partway through our Richmond stay, I wandered further afield—to sub-Saharan Africa for a two-year stint in a Peace-corps-like program. Our younger son Scott and I lived in half of a small duplex at the edge of the United Nations housing complex in the small city of Bujumbura, Burundi. The climate there was much different from any I’d encountered before. Although day length and temperatures varied only a little during the year, the rainfall changes were stark. From May to September or October, it rarely rained at all. Maybe a brief occasional shower, but basically nothing. People who had vegetable gardens either watered them or arranged for anything to be dormant during this “long dry season.”  A smattering of  planting began in advance of the “short rainy season” that typically ran from late September until mid-December, when there could be a harvest of sorts. A “short dry season” in late December and January allowed us expats from Europe and North America several storm-free weeks in which to fly home for the winter holidays with our non-expat relatives. Then it was time to plant in earnest—the “long rainy season” was when most foodstuffs were grown. Staples like manioc, corn, and beans, plus fodder for the cattle and other ruminants, enough to last through the long dry season until pasturage again became available with the short rains. 

I tried growing beans and peas on trellises outside out kitchen door. They were kind of straggly, but I think we may have gotten a couple of meals’ worth. They certainly did little to replace our need for the town market, where our housekeeper bargained for most of our food. During my two-year stint, I learned a little about the predominantly rural, agrarian economy of Burundi. Population pressures were immense, so a diet based mostly on beans, corn, and manioc made much more sense than the western meat-heavy diet I’d been accustomed to before. 

Once back in Richmond, I refined my techniques. Eventually I was able to produce enough vegetables to reduce the carping from other family members about my “less-than-minimum-wage” work. 

“Besides,” I told them, “it’s a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.”  

Then, about the time the younger generation was ready to fly the nest, we moved to a larger house with a huge yard containing a level, sunny spot just perfect for gardening. Over time, I got better at outwitting the bunnies and squirrels. We eventually had lettuces, onions, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, and a little corn. One year I experimented with popcorn—fun, but not all that practical, given the cheaply available store brands. 

The year we put the house up for sale, I went all out in spring planting. Maybe the well-ordered rows of lettuce, scallions and spinach encouraged the eventual buyers, who were also avid gardeners. The following year, my empty-nester husband and I lived in a northwestern Chinese desert. I tried windowsill gardening. Basil grew well with some pampering and watering. Our several other jaunts in China were either too brief or too busy to allow for a real garden. However, I reveled in the variety of produce available in the “garden province”  of Sichuan, where I spent over a year in total during the course of the next five years. 

Now I live in southern California, a climate best described in an earlier environmental book as a “Cadillac desert.” We have long, long dry seasons. If we are lucky, we get enough cool weather rains to green the hills a bit in January and February. I heard recently that some early fall rains this year had been unexpectedly generous, filling some of our parched reservoirs from a third to nearly half full. Still, not enough moisture to break a lingering multi-year drought. I’m studying rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, mulching, and other water conservation techniques. Learning to live in harmony with this climate will make for an interesting, challenging gardening year.   

Sometimes You Win; Sometimes You Learn

Now can be a challenging time to be a human. A global pandemic has killed over 4 million of us and infected over 200 million, with no signs yet that the number of cases or deaths is abating. The United States of America has just become the most recent foreign government to exit Afghanistan after a lengthy ground war. Whether that country can meet its many challenges remains to be seen. Within the USA, recent severe weather has caused deaths and destruction in nearly every region, with floods in the South and East and wildfires in the West. There are so far few indication that widespread wars, deaths, or destruction are likely to end any time soon. 

Now is the season in the part of the globe where I live when children return to school  after a traditional summer break. On a recent weekend, I volunteered with a group of parents and community members to help clean the outdoor spaces at my granddaughter’s elementary school before the start of classes. Time spent at the campus gave me a broader exposure to the school than I’d earlier gotten while picking her up at her classroom. Many classroom doors had inspirational sayings written beneath the teacher’s name. Some were fairly pat, “You’re amazing;” “You’re awesome;” “You can do it;” etc. 

One door had an inscription that was new to me: “Sometimes You Win; Sometimes You Learn.” A brief internet search showed the slogan as the title of a book written by American motivational speaker, consultant and pastor John C. Maxwell in 2013. I haven’t yet read the book; I was favorably disposed toward it after learning that its foreword was written by former basketball coach John Wooden of UCLA fame.  

If there has been one positive aspect to the covid-19 pandemic for me so far, it’s been the motivation to spend an increasing proportion of my waking hours outdoors. Public health officials counsel outdoor activity, especially socially distanced outdoor activity, as one aspect of an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Along with the use of face masks, reduced crowd size at both indoor and outdoor events, contact tracing, and vaccination, the use of the outdoors for as many activities as practical is recommended. 

I love to garden. For me, putting seeds in the soil and having plants later appear is little short of miraculous. I also love to participate in group singing. Now that most choirs are virtual, I’ve developed a pandemic ritual of listening to recordings of favorite hymns. A special blessing in this challenging time has been the lyric “Earth Was Given As a Garden.” (You can listen to one version at  youtube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84, a recording by the UU Chancel Choir of Oakland, CA.)  When I’ve had a discouraging day, the final few lines help renew my hope: 

“…bid our waste and warfare cease,
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing,
Teach us how to live in peace.” 

Amen!  

Didace’s Garden

Didace’s Garden   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a magical time of year here in central North Carolina. The trees have leaves of that vibrant green that’s unique to early spring, before they gradually darken and fade in the heat and dust of later seasons. Shrubs and flowers bloom in profusion, both in cultivated spaces and in parks and woodlands where they’ve either originated or escaped. Recently I spent a couple of hours “tidying up” parts of a traveling friend’s back yard. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to revel in the colors and blooms of the nearly solid wall of azaleas along one side of her property.   

As I raked and pruned, I remembered a different garden, a different season, a different part of the world. For a couple of years in the 1980’s, I had a temporary assignment in the small central African country of Burundi. Most weekdays, I worked in a rural development office in the country’s capital city of Bujumbura, participating in a project to strengthen and diversify a network of consumer/producer cooperatives throughout the country. Burundi then had a few business people and high government officials with great material wealth, a local and expatriate community of civil servants and shop owners who lived modestly, and over 90% of its populace who ground out a bare living as subsistence farmers. It is somewhat ironic that this Peace-Corps-like assignment was the only time in my life when I had human household help. Modern appliances were few; electricity was expensive and intermittent; having an employee to tend the yard was a godsend. My duplex neighbor and I shared a gardener/night watchman, Didace.

Any lasting impact I had in the country was more likely a result of my interactions with Didace than of any tasks I accomplished at the office. Though he had little formal education, Didace was proud of his skills as a small-hold farmer. While he scoffed at my feeble attempts to grow temperate-climate vegetables in the tropics, he faithfully dug small plots for me in September and January, at the beginnings of each of the country’s two rainy seasons. Later, he tracked down supports for the pea and bean vines that straggled upward. The income he got from maintaining foreigners’ gardens supplemented what he could grow on his farm to eat or sell, helping provide a better life for his family.

Before the first Christmas season of my assignment (which occurred during a lull between the shorter and longer of the two rainy seasons), I mentioned to Didace that I would be traveling to Greece to see family over the holiday. Was there anything I could bring back for him and his family as a small gift?  He thought for a while, then explained that what he’d really enjoy were some pictures of his family and his small farm. Didace had noticed the snapshots of family and travels that I kept on the room divider in our open-plan bungalow. Would I be willing to visit his home, take pictures with my (traditional) camera, then get the film developed on my trip and bring back several of the best photos?

We made plans for me to borrow a project vehicle one weekend in early December and to drive, then walk, to his family’s home in the hills above town. The paved road quickly became dirt, which gradually got more potholed and rutted. Didace met me at the intersection of the road and a person-wide path that led further into the hills. Once we arrived at his house, he pointed with pride to the tin roof he’d recently installed with a loan/advance on his monthly wages. He introduced me to his wife and two young sons, and then showed me around the small plots where they grew beans, corn, and cassava, a root vegetable whose tubers provided most of the carbohydrates of the Burundian diet. At one edge of the house was a small banana grove. A few chickens scratched in the dirt.

Then, in a small fenced area, I saw a flower garden. If memory serves, it had a mixture of gladiolas, dahlias, and other showy flowers I didn’t recognize. They were beautiful. I asked why his family chose to grow flowers on some of their limited acreage. Partly, he said, so they could sell the best blooms at the Bujumbura central market for additional income. But mainly, just because they were pretty. I wish I had made and kept copies of the pictures of Didace and his garden. Beauty knows no boundaries.