Friday, February 16, 2007

Myths of Summer

[This is a little bit of a Pierce Penniless pastiche. (I warned him.) Also has corn snobbery.]

In winter, summer is a myth; a report, a rumor, not to be believed. John Crowley, in Little, Big

I'm looking out over my scraggly excuse for a rose hedge in my front yard. It forms half a rectangle, twenty paces by ten maybe, brown twigs poking up through the snow like skeletal and desiccated hands. The make their obscene gestures, reminding me that I didn't prune them back in the fall like I'm fairly certain I should have. (It wasn't entirely my fault. Winter didn't make up its mind to visit until the end of January or so. I got tired of waiting and moved on.) The roses don't do well there, as, indeed, nothing does. Even spraying them every few weeks for the aphids and fungus doesn't prevent them from accruing a blackish skim that kills them from the ground up. The bushes, if you can call them that, valiantly put new shoots and leaves at the tips of their stems, while all is death beneath, and by late summer they end up tree-like, a couple of pallid blossoms and a few miserable bits of green struggling on the top of a skinny, wasted frame. They'll spend the dog days mocking my failure as a gardener, as, in fact, they do right now as they poke out of their snowy grave.

Last summer, the sickly rectangle of roses enclosed a little garden patch. There was little choice about the location. Not only was it boxed in by these poor stunted plants, it's the only place in our yard that gets very much sun. Five years past saw a new homeowner cheerfully turning over withered grass, pulling nasty, viney weeds from between the roses, raking out stones, and working in vintage manure (donated by my mother from a state away) by the 5-gallon pail into the sand and road salt that comprises my fill. Visions of wholesome veggie goodness danced in my avaricious little head, and I plotted quiet revolution against the cardboard-flavored South American oppressors that held the hated supermarkets in their sway.

It was obligation too. Boy Keifus grew up with this stuff, and the torch had, with the purchase of a home and a dinky parcel of land, been passed to the next generation. That boyhood garden began in my mother's back yard, thanks to her generally granola sort of integrity, but it didn't take long to spread from there. The backyard supplied vegetables for a couple of years as my mom toiled over it. She had a tan and a figure that maddened my friends' mothers ("she's so thin," they'd natter as I did my best to tune it out) and calves as thick as a boy's thigh. It was, of course, from the endless bending to pull weeds, to cultivate, to hill and to harvest. This should have told me something, probably. But her house is full of plants too, and her thumbs are so green, her indoor plants constantly outgrow their window pots, trailing lush runners from ceiling to floor. Half a dozen spider and pothos children have suffered ignoble fates under my own care. This should have told me something too.

The single back yard patch certainly was too small for my mother. Satellite gardens sprouted up for asparagus (along with obnoxious poled yellow 'bag-a-bugs' to fight the brand new Japanese beetle grubs and the moles that chewed asparagus roots in search for them), and ones along the foundation of our little house for herbs and flowers. Under the porch, buckets of manure tea from the neighbor's farm fermented until they were ready for the next season, and in the summertime, everywhere was the tangy smell of vegetable matter and the aroma of freshly turned, enriched black earth.

But the yard was only so big, and a gang of boys were constantly tearing through it. The farm up the street was (is) a dairy farm, with cowfields nestled in the biggish space between two residential streets, widening in the middle like an eye, bordered by rows of houses like lashes. Forty or fifty back yards overlook the green space filled with a little pond, electric-fenced squares, and endless cow patties. Some of the lots were empty though, and these were included in the farm property, as access points to the roads, I guess. One of these was across the street from my house and was basically unused. Over the years, Mom befriended the family up the street (they had horses back in the day, which may have broken the ice, and kids my age--bad influences--to play with). After a particularly acrimonious divorce, we still kept on with the crusty old farmer and his (too) young sons. I suspect this was partly for the garden access, but there was also fresh whole milk gathered every morning, and good bulk deals on just-butchered beef and pork. It was awesome.

Mom and the farmer reached some agreement in which she "developed" and gardened in the lot across the street. Picture now horizontal rows of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and several vertical rows of peas (that I'd be coerced into shelling every June). Neatly hilled potatoes, with little olive jars of kerosene at the end, filled with the ballooned and stinking corpses of hand-picked beetles. It ended up producing more than could be eaten in a season, and that's when the canning and freezing started. A few rows of corn on the end of the plot turned into a dozen, and before long, the tall green stalks took up half the across-the-street garden. Mom convinced the guy to open up a couple more of his cow acres to corn, and July and August soon turned into sixty days of maizelicious gluttony. Every year, new varieties were attempted and their maturations were staggered just so, to keep us fed until September with all of the hottest, sweetest, and riskiest new breeds. She sold bushels of the stuff, sharing revenues with the property owner, and they evidently broke close enough to even to get new seed every year. I remember trucking the stuff around the neighborhood in a wagon, knocking on doors, peddling dozen and half-dozen bags.

How we lorded it with the corn! Some customers complained about the size of the ears, to which my mom would retort that the taste was incomparable (and it was). Of course, even the savvy buyers were getting screwed, because you weren't really eating corn unless it was in the pot within thirty seconds of getting picked. We'd scoff at the naïve purveyors of antiquated 'butter and sugar' varieties at the local farmer's market (yup, I got drug to those too). "Better than 'Silver Queen,'" Mom had the audacity to paint on a sign at one of these, as we sat across from someone else selling the allegedly inferior strain.

"It's good. I guess. But it's nothing like 'Country Gentleman.'" This from my grandfather, recalling the old days. I loved the guy, but there's no denying he was exactly that sort of prick. One year, my mother grew a stand of his treasured Country Gentleman, and paired it surreptitiously with a few ears on a plate for him.

"Which one did you like better, Dad," she asked sweetly.

The old man was a crafty bastard, but not in matters like these. He never played much defense. He told her the truth. It was one for the annals: my mother got my granddad to concede, to disavow a treasured tidbit of his past. To this day, my aunt calls us a family of corn snobs.

I never had ambitions for maize in my own pathetic experiment, but I thought it might be nice to have some fresh tomatoes and stuff. The first year, the tomatoes did OK, but the squash had a similar disease as the roses, excepting that the black death swarmed up the vines faster than they could grow. We got maybe three peppers. By the second year, the nasty fungus had infected the tomatoes too, and everything else basically didn't grow or died before it bore fruit, choked in teeming crabgrass. Last summer, we planted some potatoes--Mom's potatoes--late in the year next to the usual failures. As the tomatoes and beans and whatnot succumbed without fruit, we strewed grass seed over them (which also grows poorly there), but somehow the damn potatoes flourished, and late in the fall, we enjoyed them.

Under the snow, there's two bare rows of dirt amid the new grass, where the potatoes were harvested late. Come the revolution, maybe I'll seed my yard with spuds, but until then, it's back to the withered grass that we inherited when we first moved in. It's no secret: the soil is beyond poor, and there is simply not enough sun. It doesn't stop me from feeling like a failure, letting down the family somehow.

My yard is actually nice in the spring. There are many hearty perennials waiting under the frozen ground to poke their shoots out in a month or two, and to bloom in the warm season. But now all I can see is the dead tips of the roses. Summer can hardly be believed.


TenaciousK said...

Lovely post, Keifus.

Don't prune your roses in the fall - not if you want them to last. You prune them in the early spring, before they green.

I lived in a house a few years ago, going to school, that belonged to the family (built by great grandpa, last occupied by my great aunts, and then just my great aunt). There are 90 year old roses there.

I'm sympathetic to your grandpa. It seems impossible to buy the kind of apples we used to find when I was a kid - the varieties have been homogenized.

kzojrhx: keifus shore [bear with me - think scandinavian] hates crosses.

rundeep said...

Great post Keifus. My husband is a gardener, and quite the rosarian. (By the way, if you sow the rose beds with garlic, that will keep the aphids off and give you a nice crop of home-grown for your fall cooking). Blackspot is from a fungus in the soil, so you have to treat it and not the roses. Hate to say it but maybe try another fertilizer or put more lime in the soil to kill it.

Beautifully told. (We are tomato snobs, but now I'll be more discriminating about the corn too)

Keifus said...

You can get a lot of heirloom and varietal apples up here still. Dunno if that's as true out west, where the apple crop seems more industrial.

Good news about the pruning (uh, yeah, just like I planned it), and good excuse to plant garlic. Less enthused about the disease, I guess. (Meaning it'll require attention and some trial and error).

If you get farmer's market corn, make sure you ask if they picked it that morning. If it's yesterday's, it's crap.


rundeep said...

I do and I do. Fortunate enough that we live within walking distance of 2 farmers markets and a very short drive to a third. Note: Jersey corn on the whole is better than any other state, PA and MASS included, at least in my experience. Though I'll have to be sure to ask about the freshness of the NE corn next I visit.

And I'm not sure about that pruning in Spring, biz. I thought the general rule of thumb was not to prune until after it's bloomed. Will check with the rosarian when he next awakes.

Artemesia said...

Great advice you've gotten here Keifus..A boon for the rose bushes.

I too am a snob and buy corn only at the Farmer's Market.

What a great childhood you've had, raised by a green thumb! Thanks for posting this slice of life.

hipparchia said...

chicken shit !!

dyspq: dysfunctional pequod

LentenStuffe said...

What a pleasure to read. Voltaire would've been proud of thou.

Our seasons here are completely out of whack. I've been monitoring the changes in the birds' behaviors in the backyard: the River Lee runs by us and is home to an aviary, of sorts. The majestic swans aren't coping too well; the geese are full of blateration; the crows are only a bunch of wank bags; the finches take refuse in the dense foliage, thank God, and the gulls are scavenging everywhere they can ... The magpies! Apparently, Lebanon's gift to us! Go figure.

It's been too wet -- for weeks -- to tend to the garden, with the excepting of some modest pruning.

Keifus said...

Hi Artemesia, thanks. It's how I was raised, but it didn't take well (as you see), but I tried.

hipparchia: you may not believe this, but I was an expert as a kid at distinguishing manures by scent. The neighbors had cows and also pigs, and my parents had chickens. During those years, there was frequently buckets or piles aging here and there. Chicken shit was the worst, but the pig product was pretty awful too. I was immune to cow poop. (Horse droppings were almost pleasant. Didn't spend a lot of time around the animals, but frequently found patties in teh woods when hiking. Dad would throw them at us kids if we weren't paying attention.)

LentenStuffe: Thanks, you helped get some of those wheels rolling a month or two ago. The seasons have been all wrong here for the past few years too. Either too-warm or occasionally horrid winters. The plants have been confused, and though I'm not in the habit of watching birds, I don't doubt it.

Is your blog back up and running? (I was thinking I wouldn't see you again till Easter.)


twiffer said...

if you're going to grow tomatoes, make sure they are romas. and grow basil too. mmmmmmmmmmmm.

rundeep said...

The first rule of tomato growing (in our house): Never grow anything you will be able to buy cheap at the market. Go heirloom: Brandywines of various colors (I love the traditional one myself), the Green Zebra, the Mortgage Lifter, and the kid's favorite, the little cherry tomatoes. Yes, we routinely put up 16-20 plants and yes, that is way too many tomatoes. And I don't can.

And of course a little herb garden and at least 2 kinds of basil because, you know, you have a lot of tomatoes to eat. If we could keep goats, trust me, my husband would be in the garage making artisanal cheese all through the year.

hipparchia said...

rundeep: if you could keep goats, i'd move to philadelphia.

hipparchia said...

keifus: i know them all by smell, too, and i'm mostly a city girl, so yes i believe you. i also agree with your ranking, chickens are the worst, but they only barely beat out hogs.

this was a lovely post. i've been reminiscing for days now, over the varied and many memories you've evoked, all of them pleasant, and a few of them buried so deep i'd forgotten them. thanks for the reminders.

lrtvz: letters to venezuela

Keifus said...

Thanks, hipster. That's wonderful.

(Suburban kid myself, and, sigh, no Venezuelan pen pals.)

rundeep and twiff: I'm a corn snob (though 15 years out of date), but sadly, a tomato yokel. (Just so long as they're fresh.)


hipparchia said...

oh dear. i never did get around to actually telling my corn snob story, just recalling it [one of the forgotten ones].

i've got friends who say the only real way to eat corn on the cob is to take wood and a kettle of water out into the field, start the fire, get the kettle boiling, bend the corn stalks over, plunging the cobs directly into the boiling water.

one year a group of us had a community organic garden, with sweet corn, so we tried it. honestly, i couldn't tell the difference between that and picking the corn the corn, carrying it down the street to my house, and putting it in that boiling water.

except that the latter was a heck of a lot easier, even if it was fun to just once try the former.

txmrig: texas mud rig
nwbgqp: northwest bagpipes
uvcnanv: university of canadian nevada

Keifus said...

Well, that's a whole otehr level! But I'll say that any excuse to somethign silly with fire is often it's own reward. Thanks for sharing.