Midsummer in the Garden

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The middle of July.  Already.

I remember as a child July seemed to stretch on and on, but now it seems no longer than an exhaled breath or the vaporish after-image of a firework hanging in the sky.  I’m unenthusiastic about marking the days off on the calendar – I think I might like a do-over; I’d like for it to maybe be the middle of May again, instead – but the days come and go with no thought to me or my wishes.

That said, the weather has been like a dream.  Avery and Iris asked why it wasn’t cold and rainy, and I told them it was because it’s summer.  This is the way it’s supposed to be!  They looked at me incredulously.

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So.  How is the garden doing?

Technically, I’m only actually growing a handful of things this year.  Hard-necked garlic, elephant garlic and Ruby Red onions. Tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers and eggplants.  So far they are all doing well.

I’ve been busy spreading well-rotted manure and fish emulsion along the onion row.  Onions are voracious eaters, and all the extra amendments will help them bulb up nice and big.  I’ve also been trying to water them regularly, although how often we get out to the farm can be kind of sporadic.  In general, I think I’m watering about every two days or so.

In contrast, I’ve stopped watering the garlic.  I’m hoping to harvest them at the end of the month, and I want them to start drying out in the ground.  If I kept watering them, they could rot.  They’re tricky like that.  I’m doing the same with the elephant garlic, although I’ll miss having their flowers gracing the garden.

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In the greenhouse the tomatoes are huge, more than six feet tall, and they would keep going but I preemptively cut them off once they reached the top of their guide line.  I’ve let tomato vines top 10 feet before and it turned out to be a mistake.  I couldn’t reach the top and they got monstrous with suckers and heavy fruit, and before I knew it the whole vine ended up breaking in half.  Live and learn.

We’ve been snacking on the Sungold tomatoes constantly.  I feel a little guilty about not saving them to bring home for a salad or some other culinary purpose, but they are just too good not to eat immediately!  I also got to try the first Indigo Cherry Drop and it was delicious!  This variety seems perfect for a caprese salad.

The bigger-fruited heirloom tomatoes are still ripening.  I’m practicing patience and thinking of all the tomato and spaghetti sauce I’ll be making next month.
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Out in the fields, the apples and plums and nuts are ripening on the trees in surprising numbers.  We thought they might not fruit this year because of the heat from the fire, but we were wrong.  Instead, it looks like we might have a bumper crop.

The marionberries are turning a nice plum purple and I’ve started picking them (with exuberance!), although I’m eating far more than I’m bringing home to preserve.  I need to clear out the grass growing around the bottom of the fence where they’re growing and plant more canes.  These things are delectable and I want more!

Standing in the garden, surrounded by the things that are growing, it occurs to me how lucky I am, how blessed to be there amid the growing and the greening.  The winter was hard, the spring harder still, but the summer is a dream.

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Introducing Rowan

StockSnap_DYL2LXSRIU.jpgThis is one of the things I remember from when my daughters were newborns – being awake, unwillingly, at 3:00 a.m. and trying to shush a wide-awake and inexplicably crying newborn.  Wishing for all the world that babies were as easy to take care of as puppies.

Now my girls are seven and five, sleep through the night, and tend to their needs by themselves most of the time.  But yet, for the last few nights, there I was again.  Blearily awake in the early hours of the morning with a whining baby.  Bumbling through the darkened house.  Begging her to go potty out here and not in there.  Hoping  and praying that she’ll go right back to sleep when she’s done, so I can grab a few more blessed hours myself.

Granted, this baby is a puppy.  My wish of seven years ago come back to haunt me because, as it turns out, babies and puppies are both essentially the same level of hard at 3:00 in the morning.

RowanRowanberry (Bubblegum) the Brave.

Just plain old Rowan, if we’re feeling casual.

Rowan is the newest addition to our family and our little farm-in-the-making.  She’s a Great Pyrenees/Maremma mix puppy; commonly known and referred to as an LGD or Livestock Guardian Dog.  Like their name implies, these are dogs whose purpose in life is to guard livestock.  It’s what they’ve been bred for and done successfully for thousands of years.

Right now we’re a bit thin in the livestock department (heck, we don’t even live on the farm yet!) but we know that one day we’ll have plenty of critters for her to guard.  More importantly, and the real reason we got her, is that we have a couple of free-range children.  These dogs are naturally protective of young creatures in general, and their family in particular.  Our hope is that with Rowan on guard, we’ll be able to worry less about coyotes and cougars and bears when the girls are out playing in the woods; and I’ll feel safer at night from two-legged intruders when Jasper’s away at work.0713 rowan 2We didn’t make the decision to get Rowan lightly.  In fact, we started talking about it back in January, and put a deposit on her months before she was even born.  I’ve researched the breed voraciously, and read all I can on training these kinds of dogs.  But still I’ve been a bundle of nerves the last week.

It’s been more than a decade since I last had to train a puppy, and I’ve never had this kind of dog.  Una and Juniper are both herding dogs, and thrive on having direction and being told what to do.  Rowan is different.  For thousands of years dogs of Rowan’s breed have been expected to think and act independently.  They have been turned out among their flock and left alone to guard and protect them.

I have to remember to keep that in mind while training her.  She’s a little more like a child that way than a dog.  I’ll teach her my rules and I’ll give her the best foundation I can.  But then the rest is up to her.0713 rowanWe’ve only had her for five days, but Rowan is quickly picking up house-training and last night (despite the opening gambit of this post) she only had to go outside twice, giving me a solid five hours of sleep.  It was heaven.

She’s learned her name, and will come when called if I’m proffering the right treat.  She’s learning not to chase the chickens, and to walk on a leash.  She is not learning not to chase the cats; the cats, likewise, are not learning not to hiss at her every time they see her across the room.  She’s also not a big fan of riding in the car, which makes it hard to bring her to the farm with us.  We’ll keep trying though.

She likes to play tug of war and to nap next to us while we read.  She loves to play in the fields, and burrow under drying cut grass.  Avery and Iris throw the grass up like confetti and Rowan smiles with absolute glee as it rains down on her.

I can already tell she’s going to be a very good dog.

A very good dog

Una

Portrait of Una by our friend, Robin Loznak

It’s summer, finally. The days are long, the nights are warm and the flowers are blooming.

I always spend a lot of time during this season watering the garden and Una, my 14-year-old border collie/blue heeler mix, likes to be there by my side. I’d like to say it’s purely because she loves me, but I know she has an ulterior motive. What Una’s really after is fresh food. She will stealthily nose among the sugar snap peas searching for plump pods to clip between her teeth and eat. She does the same thing with tomatoes, strawberries, apples, and blackberries. She only takes the ripe ones, and she only does it when she thinks I’m not looking. This isn’t the first summer I’ve gardened with Una by my side, however.  I know exactly what she’s up to, and used to chase her away with stern admonitions. But this summer, more and more, I find myself pretending not to notice.

She has, after all, spent the last ten years being an unfailingly good dog.

We got Una when she was already four years old. We were living in Roseburg at the time with four cats and a rambunctious puppy, and we hadn’t wanted or needed another pet. I don’t know what brought us to the animal shelter that day in late September, but for whatever reason we found ourselves walking down the long row of chain-link and cement-block cages and frantically barking Chihuahuas, pit bulls and lab mixes. She was sitting politely by the door of the very last cage, silent while the other dogs were loudly trying to get my attention. As soon as I laid eyes on her the hairs on my arms stood up and I heard a voice screaming in my head, “That is your dog! Get her out of that cage and bring her home!” I crouched down and stuck my fingers through the fence, and her tail thumped softly while she smelled me. She raised her bright, keen eyes to mine and gently licked me.

Without speaking, my husband and I both knew our family wouldn’t be complete without her. She knew sit, and stay, and heel – she was the most well-mannered and beautiful dog we’d ever seen. As we filled out the paperwork to take her home, we asked the attendants why no one had adopted her yet. They didn’t know. All they did know was that she’d been in the shelter a month already, picked up without a collar along a road dotted by farms and ranches, and was slated to be euthanized in the next day or two. We surmised she must have been waiting just for us, and all three smiled with relief at such a close call as we headed out the doors to home.

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Una’s first official act as our dog was to appoint herself the protector of the family. This has meant, through the years, mostly chasing neighbor cats out of the yard and barking ferociously at the UPS man. I know, however, that in her heart she is a bold, courageous and dutiful dog, and that she would not hesitate to protect us from an actual threat. Just a few months ago Avery, my oldest daughter, went to help a neighbor wash his car while I watched from my porch. Una didn’t know the man, and she was not comfortable with him and Avery being so close together without me there. She flew down the street and positioned herself between them – eyes flashing and snarling menacingly at our poor neighbor – and herded Avery home.

Despite being a good dog, Una isn’t always a perfect dog.  She is sometimes distant and proud.  We refer to her as our “schoolmarm” because she cannot abide it when people or other animals have too much noisy fun. She has garnered a reputation as a connoisseur of kitty litter and dirty diapers. More than once in our many years with her, she has come home from an adventure in the woods caked in mud and swamp sludge, and reeking of something long dead. She is most affectionate after killing and eating rodents and snakes – she’ll climb onto our laps, look deep into our eyes and attempt to French kiss us. And of course she has that sly propensity to pluck and eat the ripe vegetables in the garden before I’ve had a chance to.

I’ve been mad at her more times than I can count, but there have been many more times when I felt like she was the only real friend I had in the world.  When I was a new mother and suffering from post-partum depression, she would unfailingly lick the tears rolling down my cheeks while I cried into her fur in the early hours of the morning. She’s listened patiently as I’ve told her my dreams, my ideas, my fears.  Like all good dogs, she never judges. Sometimes, after rooting in the litterbox or barking excessively for no good reason, I remind her how lucky she is that I decided to go to the shelter that day so many years ago. I say it, even though I know for a fact that I’m the real lucky one.

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This is Una’s fourteenth summer, and more than likely her last good one. Despite the warm temperatures, her arthritis has begun flaring up. She is stiff and her joints creak alarmingly when she gets up from the floor. Opaque clouds are blooming in her eyes and the black spots on her muzzle and ears have suddenly started turning grey. She doesn’t go on long expeditions in the forest anymore, preferring to nap in a sunny spot close by the house.

These days, while picking peas or any of the other fruit Una likes, I always make sure to drop a handful on the ground for her to find. She gobbles them up with gladness, and I am happy to give them. I know that summer and its fruit, like the life of a good dog, won’t last long.

Or at least not nearly long enough.

(Originally published in The Daily Astorian on 06/24/2016)

The First Tomato!

0629 tomato.jpgThe first homegrown tomato of the summer!  There is nothing better.

It was the grey and cold of early March when I planted the seed that sprouted into a six-foot-tall vine that budded a flower that grew into this little round burst of sunshine.  March!  Looking back, I had unimaginable and boundless faith back in March.  Faith in tiny seeds and warmer days.  And that faith was surely tested a few times in the last four months but I’m here now, proven and rewarded.

The first tomato of 2017 was again a Sungold F1 Hybrid.  Possibly the best tasting snacking tomato the world has ever known.  In my opinion, anyway.

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It’s quite a bit later than last year, and I’m a little surprised by that since I’m growing all the tomatoes in the greenhouse this year.  We did have a pretty terrible winter though, so I suppose I should cut the tomatoes some slack.

The rest of the tomatoes – the Polish Linguisas, the Pink Berkley Tie Dyes, the Brandywines, the Indigo Cherry Drops, and the San Marzanos – are growing large but are still green, for now.  Give them another week or two (or three) and they’ll be ready, too.  Give them another month, and I’ll be absolutely overwhelmed; my counters overflowing with these jewels of the garden.

Notes | 7.2.17

0702 eggs.jpgOne of our hens laid a pretty brown egg covered with white speckles.  I’ve never seen one like it before.  I think it’s from Amelia Cordelia, our three-year-old Cuckoo Marans, since there were also her tell-tale brown spots on it.  I’m pretty sure the white spots are calcium deposits, brought on by her advanced (for a chicken) age.  The other usual suspect is poor nutrition, but as the chickens’ diet is organic feed, kitchen scraps, bugs, and whatever else can be foraged on an acre, I’m pretty sure that’s not the reason.

We found two other very normal looking eggs.  One blue, and one brown.  I know there is more laying going on, as I can hear their triumphant cackles and songs all morning long, but for the life of me I can’t find them.  There’s probably still some egg-eating going on, unfortunately.  We’re going to have to figure something out soon.

0702 raspberriesI weeded around the raspberry canes yesterday.  There won’t be many berries this season, but some.  Enough to whet the appetite, anyway.  There are a lot of primocanes (first year growth), so next year’s harvest is shaping up to be more productive.  As long as I can keep the deer away, anyway.

My plan for today is to spread a good layer of manure around the canes, and mulch heavily.  I’m not sure when that was last done – certainly not in the last three years – so I think it’ll be appreciated.  I should do the same thing to the marionberries, and the blueberries too, I suppose.

Sigh.  The works seems never-ending sometimes.  The weeds unstoppable; the needs of vegetation surprisingly high-maintenance.  But then I imagine the fruits of these labors, plump and sweet next summer in a bowl of cream or straight off the vine, and the rewards seem worth it after all.

Another Nest

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Image by Andreas Eichler

“I don’t know if you know this, but somebody else is already living in your house,” our builder said to us.

Eyebrows raised quizzically, I looked at him.

“The barn swallows,” he said, gesturing to the shimmering orange and blue streaks in the air.  “They built a nest overnight!”

And sure enough, there is a little mud-daubed cup near the ceiling in the living room of the new farmhouse.  It is not lost on me that they are building a home to safely raise their children in the same place we are building one to raise our own.  As different as we are, our goals are essentially the same.  Our dreams not that dissimilar.

Still, I know the nest will have to go soon.  Before the swallows lay their eggs, before the windows are installed and the ways in and out are closed to them, I will have to climb up and carefully pry it from the wall.  It’s the kindest thing I can do.  But, for a little while longer anyway, I will stand transfixed and watch the pair dip and swoop through the empty rooms and the unfinished walls.

Energy and graceful half moons in the air; little prayers of hope on the wing.

Wood and Nails and Walls

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The house is real now.

It’s become actually real, where before it was still mostly just drawings on a blueprint and a hearty dose of faith.  Even when they poured the foundation, even when that first wall went up like a false front in a western town, it wasn’t quite palpable.  It was a dream.  It was something rich people did, not us.  It was not real.

But here we are now.  A real house.  Our house.

Soon to be our home.