Thursday, August 21, 2008

1600 Square Meters


That’s the size of the yard.
I have no idea what it comes to in square feet, but you’d probably speak in some respectable fraction of an acre.
It’s a lot of yard, most of it today given over to unmowed grass all falling over and dandelions and tall clover, and Queen Anne’s lace now brittle grey-brown skeletons. It’s more yard than I’ve ever had to myself, more than at the house on Dorchester Drive, more than the dull suburban lawn in Eden Prairie, less than my grandfather’s steep and rocky seven acres in the semi-desert.

There are sixteen fruit trees, eight kinds, two each for pollination. A Noah’s ark of fruit. But no pears, and no peaches. Instead, a myriad of plums, none of them my familiar California kinds. There are two of the kind it looks like you make prunes out of, though when they all ripened at once this summer I did not make prunes, nor did I make plum jam from any of them. I’m not a fan of plums. If I owned the house instead of renting it, I’d pull out the plums: put in yellow peaches and red Williams pears.
The sixteen fruit trees are posing me a problem, still a hypothetical one at the moment. They all need pruning. It’s obvious they haven’t been pruned in some few years and some of the plums were so burdened with fruit they risked breaking off significant limbs under the weight.
I have no idea how to trim trees. I do have an idea that you can’t just go out there on a fine Sunday afternoon when it suits you, and hack at them.
A friend who knows about such things tells me you have to wait until the sap falls, and then hack at them. I take this to mean waiting until all the leaves are down, and that looks like it’ll take a couple of weeks yet, which puts us in November. Fine Sunday afternoons can be rare in November - I hope I find a good one.
Also, I have an idea that you can’t just hack at them any old way. You have to pay attention to branchings and new growth and mysterious tree stuff. Or maybe I’m dreaming that and you just cut it short where you want it short. Short, and nice-looking and so that maybe more of the fruit will be within reach next summer, instead of way up at the top only good for the birds.
The cherries and apricots are already so tall that whatever I do I know I’ll be getting into the collection of ladders in the cellar come late spring.
And William says once you’ve hacked at them, to put this stuff on their wounds, so they don’t get tree infections and die. It would not be good for any trees to die. There were 16 when I signed the lease; any less than that when I leave I’ll be liable for.
So the trees are kind of fun, a source of jam and pies and eating-fruit. What about the rest of it?
There’s more fruit. Next to the house, a grapevine, muscat table grapes it seems, is sprawling all over the ground. The spikes in the wall of the gardening shed that used to hold it up have all fallen out, and now the woody vine rests in a chaotic heap in the long grass. Not very good for any grapes. I’ll have to do something about that too.
I’ve seen vineyards after pruning. You seem to just whack them back to a stubby core, and they happily come back in the spring. No problem. I’ll just wait until I see the vineyard down the street has been pruned, and do it.

Then there are the fruit bushes, away at the back of the yard, by the fence separating me from the neighbors. These neighbors do not have fruit. They have a swingset for the grandkids and do not appear to ever be at home. The lawn is carefully mowed when I’m at work, so I know they’ve got to be in there somewhere.
For fruit bushes I have red currants, handfuls of which are now stored in a jar in the freezer, waiting for I know not what recipe. The other bushes I’m told are black currants, and that tree in the corner looks rather like hazel, only the nut clusters are empty.
Taking up the left third or so of the long yard and about half the run front to back, is a fenced-off area, apparently the vegetable garden. Right now it’s just a bunch of weeds like the rest of the place, minus the underlying grass.
Vegetable gardens are very big in this neighborhood. My fenced area, at about 12 feet by 40, is one of the smaller ones. For personal use, I guess. How do those other people eat all that stuff, unless they make an awful lot of canned goods. More likely the ones with the entire yard in a single crop sell at the local markets. Sundays there’s one right down the street.
Two weeks ago some of the neighbors up and plowed under their whole lots, making big bare patches in this area where the backyards come together. Other people still have cabbages going, and leeks. Forty-foot rows of leeks: a lot of soup, many quiches.
Vegetable gardening in Aubière is a real competition. More, bigger, less weedy; one yard after another, it’s serious veg. In the two lots on either side of me, that’s all there is, garden, no houses. On the right they come on the weekends, a fat, elderly couple with their daughter and bored, unwilling grandkids. They’ve got a variety of things planted; a garden to get the family through the year, not to harvest and sell all in one go. On the left I never see anyone, but one day the potatos are in, the next they’re out. Dahlias at the end of the row, all gone one day.
I look at my patch and imagine tomatos and string beans, and basil for pesto, and sweet corn. I’ll have to import sweet corn seed - around here corn is for oil and animal feed; they don’t have the good strains for eating it off the cob, with nothing but butter and salt, and a cold beer on the side.
I imagine onions and carrots and snap peas, and vegetables I don’t eat usually but I would if they were straight from my garden. That’s going to be a spot of work. Every week.
Weed-filled vegetable patch aside, I’ve let the lawn go too. There’s a mower in the garage, but no gas can. Not that a gas can would make any difference. I will not mow. I joke about getting a goat to keep the yard down. Nope, no mowing. What I want is a meadow of wildflowers and weeds, with a path winding through, past the trees one by one.
My neighbors aren’t going to take kindly to such wildness, or neglect and rodent-habitat as they are more likely to see it. But so what. Already I’ve armed myself with seed packets that direct me to sow in early spring. I’ve got butterfly mix, bird mix, mixes by color and by season. Next year there will be blooms other than dandelion, clover, and Queen Anne’s lace. A riot of colors, from spring through fall.
Looking for something to plant right now, I’m eager to get into this gardening thing and everything is telling me to wait. Wait to prune, wait to plant. Hey, it is time to plant bulbs, and here they are on sale! 15 euros, 75 dutch iris. Well there’s a deal.
Daffodils and crocus go along the shady side and front of the house. There’s some sun there; the flowers should do alright. Out back, along the vegetable garden fence, there’s room for a double row of irises 40 feet long.
Time to play in the dirt.
In the shed behind the house: shovel, rakes, implements of uncertain function, myriad spiders, and probably mice. Also some broken chairs, empty wooden boxes, debris belonging to former tenants that nobody’s dared to get rid of.
My neighbors are all fans of the internal combustion engine. They turn their gardens over in a good afternoon’s work. Me, I want my garden to be Green. Not just leafy and alive, but non-polluting, not costing more than the price of seeds and water and sweat. Out come the implements.
Perhaps I won’t have the yield to feed an army or decorate a cathedral, but I have neither army to feed nor cathedral to decorate. Just me and my little house and random dinners for friends and gifts of jam. And the rodents? Cat toys.
Out of the dusty shed comes a well-used pitchfork and a rake and my new pair of gloves, and I’m ready.

Such lovely soil, such complete ground. After a year lying fallow, watered only by the copious rain, the grass and weeds are thick and tall enough to shelter a layer of moss around their roots even in full sun.
The surface resists the fork, but I tear through the web of roots into the pliable soil, and lever forward and back, and lift, and the living web gives way. Once the first hole is made it’s easier.
It’s quite easy, even. This is no virgin ground. This patch of dirt has been turned and tended year after year for generations, planted, fertilized, spread with compost. There’s not a rock to be found, no clay clinging to the times. The rich, humusy soil is held together by grass roots and dandelions and clover. Break up the roots and it sifts through the tines of my pitchfork as easily as potting soil fresh from the bag.
No, I have that backwards. This is the standard of soil. Dirt in a bag from a store is what’s new and strange. Remember that.
This soil is perfect, as far down as I can push my fork. Up to the haft, lever it up, turn it over, pick out the larger roots. Bury the earthworms, move to the right, start again.
Where the grass is thick sometimes I stand and harpoon the ground again and again with the fork, breaking up the roots. There’s more to grass underground than above. Then squatting down I break up the clods by hand, rubbing with my thumbs like a caress, leaving a nest of naked roots and letting the dirt and worms and small bits of root fall back to my garden. How small does a root have to be not to grow a new plant? There’s no getting all the roots out - you’d just have to cart away the top foot or so of soil - you can only break them up.
Two hours later the sun isn’t as warm on my back, and I start to think perhaps I should cool it before I hurt myself. It took nearly two weeks for my back to fully stop aching from schlepping boxes and shifting furniture when I moved. I’m feeling good, but if I wait to notice I’ve overdone it, I’ll have really overdone it.
With the rake I gather up the plant debris and toss it on my considerable compost heap. Compost mountain. I hear you’re supposed to turn compost over or something, to get it rotting evenly. That seems like a lot of effort just to get stuff to degrade. Whatever. I’ll play with the compost some other time.
Two rows of irises, with a handful of anemones and gladioli thrown in, 90 plants. I’ve gotten halfway to the plum tree that’s halfway down the fence. My clear patch looks so small when I see it in the whole garden. Just a few minutes ago with my head full of the scent of the earth and the dandelion seeds and my fingers noticing the seams in my gloves, it seemed I had turned over acres.

It’s the first of December now, and I’ve finally read my little book on pruning. Roses in the early spring. I have time for that still. But the fruit trees, they should have been done already. William meant while the sap was falling, not after it had finished. So I’m a couple of weeks past the season, but I feel it’s better to get out there and do it rather than let the trees go another year.
I have armed myself with a bright new Fiskars pruning shears, with 3-foot handles. The parrot-beak can take off a branch an inch thick. It’s from Finland. I feel like a pro.
Off we go, and off the branches come. The blades slide through the wood like butter, smooth, the pressure from all that leverage gliding through the wood’s resistance. It’s easy. The bright cut ends look polished, perfect rounds of golden wood on the background of grey branches and sky. You can see the cuts from all the way across the garden, as if I had hung ornaments in the trees.
I try to follow the booklet’s advice, shaping the trees, paying attention to the eyes from which next year’s branches will sprout, making the cuts slant this way or that, directing the new growth. I also try to copy the position of older cuts. Only three of the newer trees have never been pruned before. For all this studying, though, I am really just hacking at them. My booklet seems to assume I’ve got little baby trees, not fully grown monsters.
Piles of green wood rapidly accumulate on the ground, and I move them to a heap behind the garage. That’s what all that burning was last month in the neighborhood gardens: people were burning their pruned branches, letting the sweet fruitwood smoke drift and fill the river valley. In fact, that should have been my cue to prune, but I didn’t recognize it.
Alas, it’s been raining off and on for the past two weeks, and is likely to continue for the next few. I don’t know when it will be dry enough to set this stuff on fire. Certainly not today. I figure I’ll wait until my neighbors are once again burning debris in their yards to have a go at it. It would be too strange to be the only one having a bonfire; they would all notice and stare from their kitchen windows at the novice. If only I had a fireplace in the house! The next house, my own house, will have to have one.
In a couple of hours I have a significant pile of branches, and all the limbs low enough to reach from the ground have been hacked back to my satisfaction. It’s getting dark, so rather than get the ladder out to start on the higher branches, I go around with a tube of black-green tree wound gunk and cover up all the bright branch-ends.
Just in time, because when I step indoors to wash up and put some coffee on, it starts to rain more seriously.
That may be it for tree-trimming this year. The next few weekends I’m busy elsewhere, and then it will be way past time to trim when I finally get outside again on a day fit to be outside. It’ll be time to prune the roses and plant the spring flowers. For now it is winter.

It’s mid-February, still officially the thick of winter. On clear nights the frost lets us know this, but the days are bright and warm this week.
Three times now I’ve spent my Sunday afternoons playing in the dirt. It was a fair job getting a strip of soil broken up to plant the irises - I figure I’d better get a head start on the vegetable patch if I’m going to want more than two tomatos and one string bean.
On this third Sunday I’ve finally begun to understand how to properly work my body. Lean in, lever, let my weight and gravity work for me. I’ll be tired but I won’t be injured tonight. Already today I’ve turned over as much area as my earlier efforts combined. If the rain confines itself to weekdays I’ll have quite the patch to plant.
The physical work of turning over the earth is mesmerizing. Stab the thick ground, then push the tines in by standing, balancing, rocking gently to and fro. I can feel the steel cut through the grass roots and slide down. Then lever the pitchfork forward, ripping through the roots attaching my forkful to the solid ground I’m standing on, like fabric tearing. And -op- a slice of ground lifted up and away.
I’ve learned there’s not much point in sifting through and discarding lengths of root in the compost heap. Just tear them into small enough pieces. Every three or four forkfuls I squat down and break up the larger clumps, separate out the larger dandelion knobs, as much to interrupt the use of my muscles as to undo dirt clods by hand. Bury the earthworms. At the end of the row it’s time again to clear the mud off the pitchfork. On my shoes, my gardening shoes since last week when I decided they were hopeless and bought a new pair of trainers for actually wearing anywhere but here in the yard, there is a pound or so of mud clinging to each foot.
Getting this solid web of roots and dirt off me and my tool every quarter hour or so, I can see why people build houses out of it. Glued by the dirt, tensile strength provided by the long, long grass roots, it’s resistant stuff.
The trees are getting ready for spring. The apricots especially look like they’ll be ready to leaf out in just another week. I hope the don’t - there’s always a wicked frost or two in mid March.
I never realized what a busy time the winter is for trees. I thought they dropped their leaves and slept for a few months, waking near the end of winter to start again.
But in following these trees, most closely the apricot that grows just outside my bedroom window, every week they have been busy working on their leaf buds and preparing for new branches. Less busy than they will be shortly, but these trees have not been asleep. They live year-round.
It’s so good to be outside. Breathe the air. Feel the sun on my shoulders if there is any sun, but enjoying the cloudy days too. The cats are all out here with me, chasing each other, running up the trees. A neighbor cat I haven’t seen before comes around and plants himself on the iris bed as if to say he was here first - he knows we’re just temporary, renting gardening people. He stands his ground against Natalie and Sienne, and young Bandersnatch just climbs a tree and lets her elders decide who’s top cat. I pitch dandelion root clumps at the invader, but my aim is not threatening.

A few weeks later I try to get an early start on the seasons; the weather has been so fine that even now in mid-March there ought to be vegetables already springing up. In planters I can move inside I start green beans and tomatos and snap peas.
A week later nothing has come up, and the week after that we do have the obligatory early spring freeze on April 1st, on a night I failed to move the planters in, so nothing ever does come up but a few peas. So much for my early jump.
Now in April it is time to seed, but I have trips to California and Iceland on my schedule. By the time I’m back it’s nearly May. OK. I try some more seeds but also pick up seedlings at the Sunday market.
I get two or three plants for what I spent on a whole packet of seeds, but at least I have plants with leaves in the ground. I put in two kinds of tomatos, white onions, basil, rosemary and thyme, cucumbers, melons, artichokes. Peas and corn are the only things that ever come up from my seed efforts, and a random patch of radishes. Curiously, there are never any string beans on offer at the market, and my second attempt at seeding them in containers (to keep the delicate seedling away from ravenous slugs and insects) fails. Eventually I just spread the rest of the packet of seeds out in the empty bean patch, cover them up, and figure that whatever grows is a bonus.

Meanwhile, the rest of the yard is exploding. The irises come up in their double row and put out one flower each. The grass and clover shoot up knee high. The trees all flower and leaf out and are covered with small, hard fruit that in the coming months will turn orange and red and purple and yellow in turns.
Now that the lawn has been untended for about a year it’s visibly returning to a wild-ish state. I never did get around to turning over large swaths to plant my butterfly or summer color seed mixes. The two patches I did plant are coming up, a little, but look like sad bare patches compared to the prairie that has bloomed over the rest of the yard.
There are dandelions as always, but in contrast to last summer when they dominated, this year they have largely given way to other plants, including buttercups and some low-lying plant that gives a carpet of delicate blue blossoms.
It’s wild, and colorful, and I’ll not be mowing, ever!
There are birds pulling out the radish sprouts.
The cracks in the patio slab and the concrete areas around the house are filling with weeds, and as I’m responsible for the state of the property I break down and buy Roundup regularly to keep down the concrete-breaking ability of their roots. I bet if I left nature to take its course for just one brief year you’d have to completely redo the paved areas. Kill one batch and something else is peeking up the next week. The worst is the edge where the patio meets the yard. There’s just no winning that battle unless I’m out there every day, pulling up the grass that lives at the edge and cries out for more territory.

Natalie is having a great time. The walkway around the north side of the house is regularly littered with the front halves of the lizards that live in the holes in the concrete. Dead shrews and mice are frequently deposited at the front door. Occasionally a cloud of feathers invades the porch. And this morning, as happens sometimes, a lone kidney by the mailbox. I figure she eats one and that reminds her she hates kidney. Laurence’s cat does the same thing - all that remains is a few random feathers and one kidney.

The cherries have been turning on one of the trees for more than a week now. Since Saturday I’ve been waiting for the rain to stop so I won’t get soaked trying to pick some.
Cherries off my own tree!
Monday in a pause in the showers that are predicted to go on all week, I see why too much rain can be a bad thing. My cherries! They’re splitting from being so suddenly gorged with water. Sigh. Most of the fruit is okay still, but if this continues as they say it will, it’s time to start making jam.
Good thing I loooooove cherry preserves. Cherry, blueberry, and apricot, those are my jams. Blueberry jam I’m still working on from last season. Apricots, however, are looking like they’ll be scarce this year. The late freeze did in most of the fruit on the tree that’s closest to the house - the one that bloomed early - and the other tree simply has none at all.
In fact, most of the trees aren’t doing much. They seem to have some nasty infestation of their leaves, which on some of the plums are sad, gnarled stumps instead of leaves. Two of the other trees just look dead of old age, half their branches didn’t leaf out at all; they’re just covered in lichen. Even my good cherry here, I now notice, has large clumps of leaves entirely covered over with something black and sticky. Some sort of tiny insect, I discover as I accidentally grab a clump instead of a cherry. Yech.
This mature cherry does seem to be the healthiest of the lot - which is worrying. It isn’t exactly covered with fruit. There’s more than enough for one person, even a cherry-loving person such as myself. But the fruit is sparse. And now these bugs. And now this rain.
Across the yard, closest to my mountainous compost heap, the fruit has just begun to turn pink on the very old and much amputated cherry. Now that fruit is splitting and will rot before it matures.
I get one of the ladders out from the shed, a fairly short one, and in an hour have picked fruit to eat for the rest of the week and to fill several pint jars with jam. There are plenty more cherries, even within the reach of this wimpy ladder, but my jam-making capacity is limited. On the weekend I figure I’ll make a huge cobbler to share with friends, then harvest another batch to pit and freeze.
This rain is wreaking havoc on my cherry crop (or is it keeping it in check?), and has pushed the lawn/meadow up to my waist. The grass, not being used to such freedom to grow, has all fallen over from the weight of the water and its own seed-heads. Ragweed, or something like it, is coming up so I go around pulling it all up. It’s easy in this wet season - just pull straight and the roots come right out.
There’s a growing patch of mint between the apricot and the garage. I notice a clump of Swiss chard by the western fence under the sickly plum tree. And there? Much more appalling than semi-edible greens, it’s yet another clump of kudzu.
Or I think it’s kudzu. I have no idea what the actual thing looks like, just as I didn’t know the apricots from the plums only I saw them in fruit once. This stuff is a vine. Nice enough looking when encountered in small amounts. Just wait a week though.
It grows like a weed, even among my weeds. It’s sticky, and puts out flowers as soon as it can. It knows you’re going to pull it up, and that’s its way of ensuring that it will have seeded new ground already when you do so.
Already on the eastern side of the garden I’ve pulled out many cubic yards of this stuff. I went out one day and discovered it had completely covered the grapevine by the shed, and the gardenia at the far end of the vegetable patch, and fully half of the compost heap. It must be Chinese.
Fortunately, it is a weak plant and is easily ripped out. You just have to keep ripping it out, every time you see the least sprout of it.
No currants this year. I was supposed to trim them back, not that I knew. This year the plants have so much plant to maintain they’re not putting out any fruit. Okay. Come fall I’ll hack them to the ground and we’ll see.

It’s mid July, and things are clearly getting out of hand. 1600 square meters is an awful lot of garden for a person like me who’s rarely home. I’d like it to be more of a when-I-feel-like-it hobby, not something I’ve got to deal with every weekend, with double time to make up for rain-outs.
I’ve invited friends over for an evening, and since the weather looks cooperative I think we’ll eat out on the patio. Ah, that means that we’ll be able to see my magnificent patch of butterfly mix wildflowers, and the row of fading irises and emerging gladioli, but also the ragged and weedy vegetable patch. The tomatos I should have pulled out when they came down with mildew from the excess of rain. The peas gone wild. Basil all bolted. Dandelions everywhere. What a mess.
I make a last-minute effort on the worst of the weeds, but my friends mock my gardening skill all the same. It’s fun. I’m determined to get a goat to help me out.

Then Jerome spies the gigantic rhubarb. A volunteer from previous seasons, not my work at all. It’s insulting, even, this huge plant that I never watered, never weeded, never tended at all; it’s magnificent. My melons barely put out flowers, they never got to the melon stage at all. The cukes: two cucumbers for three plants. And then this thing. It just grew, all on its own. Nobody asked it to.
Anyway, Jerome is a fan, and he’s happy to take a ton of rhubarb off my hands. I get out my Fiskars tree trimming weapon and away we go. Whack whack whack. I am assured that after such a refreshing correction, the rhubarb will be back thicker than ever next year. For the rest of this season, though, it looks like its own little war zone.
Still, after the dinner, tales of the state of my yard become widely known, and I decide to make an effort to keep up. At least a little. A presentable vegetable patch is my goal. I promise an hour four evenings a week, as long as there’s light after I get home from work, plus an afternoon each weekend. A little bit every day and I should be able to clear all the weeds from that part of the yard, and keep it that way. Once I’m caught up some, I can clear patches in the wider yard, and plant bushes that take up space so there will be less territory for the weeds. Bushes that will also serve as a screen from the neighboring yards. A little privacy for my amateurism among pros.

Apricot season came and went without my pausing to write about it. When I visited the house last July, the tree out my bedroom window was golden with apricots. This year I had enough to make three pots of jam and have apricots at lunch for all of one week. In addition to falling victim to the late frost and the endless rain, it seems apricots bear fruit alternate years. Only on wood that’s a year old, or some such story. Alright. What it grew to replace my amateur trimming will next year be covered with fruit.
It’s not a plum year, either. The wild plum that overhangs the garage at first seemed to have nothing on it, but then they started turning yellow and red and I shared the cherry-sized plums with friends for a week. Whenever there’s wind at night I remember I should trim that tree to within an inch of its life, to keep it from scratching and squeaking against the metal roof of the garage.
But apples. It’s an apple year. Last year the one apple tree had four apples, and the other one was pretty much covered but they were so small I ate the whole crop after all. Delicious. This year I discover there are four apple trees. There’s a Canada grey that’s covered. Even now in early August the larger ones are edible, with a bit of chocolate pudding or honey to take the bite off. In a month I’m going to have to have an open apple house. Pick all you want - please! Jerome wants to make fried apple fritters.
In spite of some newfound discipline, the vegetable patch is rather forlorn. I’ve ripped out the peas already - they grew incredibly fast, every single sprout, and swamped me with far more peapods than I could get through. I like them small and tender, with just hints of peas inside, but peas don’t stay like that for long. They just keep on growing, getting woodier pods and big fat peas in them. I froze a bunch, but I can’t stand peas just now. Next was the wave of green beans. Happily, with their late sowing they waited until the peas were done, so I wasn’t flooded with two green veg crops at once. Ate a bunch, froze a bunch, and when I do my evening hour of garden maintenance these days I make sure to munch a handful right off the bushes.

It’s feast or famine in the garden. Next year I’ll know better. I’ll resist the spring urge to plant Everything, Right Away, to Get Veg As Soon As Possible. The veg is going to take a while whether I plant three peas or a hundred. So plant a couple of this, a couple of that, and two-three weeks later, repeat. Spread out the starters and you’ll spread out the harvest.
And plant more tomatos. It’s a good thing to be flooded with tomatos when you’re looking to make sauce to last the year. Peas I don’t make sauce with.
More corn, too. With eight corn plants, I’ve got maybe six ears coming up, and no guarantee they’re all edible. Put the corn on the other side of the patch, too, where the trees won’t shade it in the afternoon.
These little details count. Just small things, like yes, you really do need to weed all the time, because otherwise it gets way ahead of you and when your friends come over for dinner on the patio they use adjectives like “abandoned”, and keep mentioning their brother with a rototiller.
No, no, no. No gasoline, no chemicals, no cheating. Seeds, sweat and water only. It isn’t the neatest of gardens, but that’s how I like it.

Ciao; I’m off to play in the dirt.

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