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Vacation? This time of year?! Of course not!

July 15, 2009

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I’ve been asked by numerous people if I’m leaving for a few days since I have use-or-lose time at work, and I had a few days when the kids were out of town. No, no plans to leave. It just wouldn’t work. I should note that none of those asking about a trip in July are dedicated gardeners, or the question wouldn’t have occurred to them.

This spring I hand-dug a second large vegetable garden, and extended the space by putting a no-till zone nearby, where the roots of an expired redbud are still tough and thick. Hand digging is necessary to get rid of a lot of the Bermuda rhizomes. Tilling without removing the sod encourages Bermuda, it doesn’t kill it. I planted, laid out irrigation, I replanted after a late frost, and I hovered, watching for and physically removing or using organic methods to dissuade pests. My corn has come back from the brink of death three times now, but is in flower at this time. The eggplant finally established itself well enough to flower and now I’ve brought in a few fruits.

The tomatoes are falling all over themselves with fruit. Literally. I’m battling red spider mites because I haven’t perfected the water supply to those plants, and they’re a bit stressed. I’ll contour the area better next time, after amending the soil again. And it’s time now to put in some new plants for a fall crop, so I’ve cleared areas near the existing soaker hose to contour and plant.

Leaving town at a time like this is unthinkable. There is no one who knows my garden better than I, who has a mental catalog of the typical pests, where they hide, and how to remove them, and who is interested enough in keeping the fine balance between dry enough and too dry before watering again. And even when another gardener watches over your stuff, it might not be enough. I picked six tomato hornworms off of my next door neighbor’s tomato plants while she was away for a few days. I didn’t know she hadn’t used any BT this year, so the potted plants were demolished. If I had known, I’d have splashed them with fish fertilizer and BT when I did my own plants. 

Tomato hornworm on skeletal remains of a cherry tomato
I hated to give her back such tattered specimens. I was able to  offer several of the fruits I’ve grown by way of compensation. And to be honest, those I give away I don’t have to cook or freeze. This evening my fridge has fruit in bowls on several shelves, a big tray of tomatoes on the counter, a window sill filled with those not completely red, and a towel to keep the ripening cherry tomatoes from rolling around while they ripen. I pick a gallon of tomatoes a day now. I love to preserve all of this, but there is so much that it’s hard to keep up with. Giving some of it away is part of the plan. I took a bucket of fruit to work last week, and they disappeared swiftly. My co-workers love having a gardener in their midst. I deliver a bag of chard to one desk, a bag of peppers to another, and the eggplants are up for grabs for those who know how to cook them. I deliver tomatoes to neighbors who aren’t growing their own, and I sometimes take eggplant over to the Lebanese cook at the Star Mart on the corner of McCart and Edgecliff Road, where I often get a gyro sandwich go to. He tells me how he cooks them, and how his mother cooked them.

Neighbors from across the creek walk daily through our neighborhood because though we don’t have sidewalks, we have nicely shaded streets and little traffic. Several have identified themselves as gardeners, and when we get started talking out at the curb, we often end up sharing plants or seeds or cuttings. And there is the magic of just stepping into the garden that should never be under-appreciated. Last week a couple with a young boy stopped, and I handed over an agreed-upon bag of fresh rosemary. I needed to trim, and he likes it for cooking lamb. “Where are you from?” I asked, interested in the anomaly that seemed to be present. “Mexico,” he responded. This is what I thought, so I asked “And you cook lamb? Is this something from your area of Mexico? I never see it on menus.” He smiled. “I lived in Chicago for 20 years, and learned to cook a lot of those other dishes.” Aha! I learned a lot of my “other” dishes when I lived in New York City. Name a large city and you are offering up the code for immigrant cooking that is such an important a part of the place.

“Do you use a lot of tomatoes?” I asked him, but I directed the question more to his son, who looked to be about six or seven years old. “Yes, we do!” A child who loves tomatoes!

“Well, then, perhaps you’d like to pick a nice one to take home for dinner,” and all of the adults understood that the boy was going to get to pick a big red beautiful tomato. We all wanted him to know that they don’t really come from the grocery store, they grow in gardens. His father nodded, directed him up the drive, and we looked around for a good one, then he bravely plunged his hands deep into a thick plant and came back, after a tug, with a rosy 16 ounce tomato. What a gorgeous piece of fruit. I would have loved to have eaten it myself, but I have a lot like this one this year, and the lesson for this child, that we can grow things things if we have space and the interest, was a good one.

Most people don’t seem to notice that I have a huge vegetable garden in my front yard. Unless they’re gardeners themselves. “Is that corn you’re growing this year?” a neighbor asked the other day. Yes, I’m learning how to grow corn this year. I don’t necessarily expect a great crop, this is a practice run. I hope we have a few good ears to eat, once I learn how to do that trick with mineral oil on the corn silk to keep out worms.

Come fall, when there is more rain, when a lot has been picked, when the majority of the tourists have gone home, then maybe I’ll think about a couple of days in New York City or a trip to Seattle. I feel sometimes like a farmer who can never get away–it’s not really that extreme, but if you have a lot invested in a garden operation, up and leaving at the height of the season doesn’t seem like a vacation. It seems like abandonment. Better to travel when you’re not worrying about what is happening in the garden at home.

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