Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Garden Underground

So I woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning with way too much on my mind. During my first year of teaching, I instituted a personal sleep hygiene policy for whenever I wake up at 2:30 in the morning with way too much on my mind. The rule has since been that I have two choices: get up and do something about whatever is on my mind, or vow to tackle the problem at the appropriate time (tomorrow!) and let myself fall back asleep. There is no lying there worrying myself into a stress-hormone overdose. Well, Monday morning a litany of house projects, specifically, refinishing the cabinets before we show the house to prospective buyers was on my mind. I tossed and turned for another 30 minutes, and then I got up and started sanding. So, with towels draped across the gas stove, a damp bandana wrapped bank-robber style around my face, and the BBC Health Report blaring, I enforced my sleep hygiene policy.

I’m stressed. No doubt about it. I’m manic and whiney and willing to spill my cortisol-logged guts out to anyone within earshot about how much I have to do. But the fact is there is no emergency. It will all get done. It doesn’t all have to get done today. I realized this today when I went to find my brain and it was out to lunch. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say it was out in the garden. Instead of focusing on the planning and grading and phone calls I need to take care of, I’m staring out the window. I’m talking to myself about my life and my plans and all of the things I’m going to miss when I go; and I seem to have no brain cells left for progress amongst all this worry static.

It was time to break and dig the sweet potatoes. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. Sweet potatoes are supposed to love super warm weather. This summer was not a friend to the sweet potato. There was barely a day this summer that was warm enough for the beach! However, as I am wont to do, I pampered my little vegetables just a bit. Just a bit. I draped floating row covers over the vines for most of the summer to create a sultry microclimate in the sweet potato patch. Now, I must mention that these morning glory cousins did not have it easy this growing season. I acquired them from Chris’s mother (who can actually bring plants back from the dead; I’ve seen it with my own eyes) in late April. She brought it to Hopkinton, MA in a kitty litter bucket when she met us there to cheer us on in the Boston Marathon. It was a gorgeous organism that seemed to glow, exuding life and vegetable potential. I knew it was nothing short of a garden miracle that I now possessed. I got it home and planted it, sure that it would have a perfect early start and maybe some robust tubers to harvest in the fall. Then came the hard freezes of May 28 and 29. Everything in the garden died except the peas. (The carrots were under a mini-green house and were okay, and the lettuce made a quick recovery, but potatoes, herbs, beans, and squash were toast.) I was sure my little sweet potato miracle had been squashed like a black fly.

The rest of the summer was cool. The deer had snacked on sweet potato leaves so many times that I was planning violent midnight encounters between their necks and my hands. In the morning, I’d run at them, yelling, waving my arms, and ka-thunking along in my mud boots whenever they appeared near the garden. So, when I went out to dig up the harvest, I wasn’t sure I’d even need a container to carry the loot back up to the house. But I started on the perimeter of the patch and dug my way in. Skinny little pink ropes wound through the soil. They tangled with each other and among the rocks. Eventually I reached into the cold, dark earth and pulled out a handful of actual sweet potatoes, regulation size. I kept on digging. I dug up 15 pounds of the bonus tubers. I hadn’t expected anything. But there I was, harvesting a respectable pile of starchy root vegetables and getting face cramps from the perpetual smile. It was another success I hadn’t counted on. Actually, there had been early summer moments I’d thought about digging up the little vines to make room for more predictable vegetables. There was a bit of faith involved here. The kind of faith I’m getting more and more familiar with. Plant the seeds, amend the soil, feed the chickens, clear the weeds and wait. Sometimes there’s just nothing more you can do to control a situation. It’s just time to wait and have faith in the work you’ve done up to that point.

I screamed like a girl when I upturned a slumbering toad the size of a tennis ball. Its white round belly horrified me for a second. I was sure I’d gored or decapitated an innocent garden gnome. Or a smurf. After considering walking to the neighbors’ house to reassure them that I had not fallen off the roof or clothes lined myself somehow, I squatted down to consider this very rotund toad. (I’d very much like to read his account of the event as I’m sure his perspective was a bit different.) I took a break and gave him the chance to make his escape and went over to the huge sunflower head on which chickadees were landing and feeding on seeds. My camera was nearby and I set a goal of capturing the natural bird feeder being patronized. As I sat there in the October sun, the leaves ablaze all around me, I unwound. I realized how precious that time was. I was doing what recharges me most: following the unfolding story of the garden for as long as it takes. The one early sunflower that I’d let go to seed had sucked up all the plant’s energy and was now a big bird food factory, instead of a fleeting cut flower on my dining room table. The chickadees had set up camp in the shrubs bordering the garden, swooping back and forth between the sunflower and the shelter of the blueberry bush. The sun was low but warm in the crystal blue sky. The toad was warming up and, I imagine, making new winter hibernation plans. Three turkey vultures soared high above, making a b-line south. I was grateful that I’d caught a glimpse of the latest developments in the garden story plot.

I never cease to be amazed by underground vegetables. You don’t get to watch them grow. There’s no solid reassurance that they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to. You just have to wait. Maybe I let fear creep in too much. I consider all of the things that could go wrong. I feel the need to peek and guess and predict. No matter how many times I do it, I’m always surprised by the leap of faith it requires. I needed to stop and listen to that story just then.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chicken Update

The injured layer is getting better every day. She's walking with less of a limp each day. I hope to release her in just 1 or 2 more days of rest and recooperation in the cozy, warm pen. When she's well enough to roost with the others, she'll stay warm enough up high in the coop next to her fellow layers. She's walking even better now than she was in this video. In this video she's grazing and then kicks her oatmeal. Exciting stuff.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Last Saturday we were busy doing work around the house, when our neighbors ran into our yard after their "foster dog." It looks as if a stray dog was dumped near our house, and the neighbors have taken it in. It's a cute dog. It's nice. But on Sunday I was painting the window trim in the back yard when I heard two unfamiliar voices. It was our neighbors again. (We've seem them 3 times since we've lived here, and two of those times were last weekend.) They were carrying one of our hens over from their yard. I knew right away that their dog had gotten ahold of the hen. This group of hens doesn't leave our yard. They rarely even go out of our sight. They're really tame little girls. The hen was limping and the others immediately attacked her with pecking. I scooped her up and examined her. There wasn't any blood, just a lot of slimy dog saliva. There was an obvious puncture on her back. Many of her newly molted feathers had been torn off. I went through the usual, "Is this a mortal wound?" routine and decided I'd give her a few minutes to rest before I made any rash decisions. I hate to see chickens suffering, mostly because they're so tricky to treat. I was really disappointed that we'd managed to keep our chickens safe for 3 years by providing them with roosts and cooping them up at night. And now, someone's loose dog was about to cost us a layer.

Well, we've kept her separated for a week. She's had a heat lamp, because it seems she might have a fever and be fighting off some infection. She's had antibiotics and oatmeal. She's eating and drinking. She even gets up and walks around a little bit. That reminds me, I've got to move her little coop tonight when I get home. She might make it. These layers are so much more resilient than meat birds.

I can't wait to see her running around with the others soon.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I went down to the coop to find almost 2 dozen eggs. I couldn't say which day I was down there last to collect eggs. It's been a busy month with packing, getting the house ready to sell, and coaching cross country. The chickens have been on their own lately. I leave the coop open all the time. They go in at night and roost up high so they're safe. They roam the yard all day, grazing for goodies. Their pelleted feed is moving much more slowly now that they're free-ranging so much. It takes the pressure off me. They're basically self-sufficient.

The only drawback is the crop of free-range poops all over the yard. Now it's mandatory to take your shoes off at our door. Who knows what you stepped in on your way here?

Chris trained the chickens to be little tame pets. Before, they weren't really interested in people. After feeding them treats and rounding them up like the Pied Piper, Chris trained them to come when called. It's fun to see them running expectantly, full tilt in your direction.

They have a new home in their future. I wish I could haul them to Michigan. (Maybe I haven't fully considered my options.) For now, there's a family that wants some layers for their little farm. I plan to transplant them there sometime in the next few weeks. It's hard to imagine being in the yard without little chicken-foot-stomp-through-leaf noises. It's hard to imagine life without farm chores, as minute as this 'farm' is. It's been a pretty simple equation the last few years: care for the chickens = eggs to eat. Buying them at the store seems so foreign and illogical. Raising chickens was novel three years ago. Now it's routine.

I love eggs. I take them for granted and I savor taking them for granted. (Is that possible?) We have what seem like limitless supplies of egg salad, fritatas for dinner, biscotti, and chocolate chip cookies. I seek out recipes that call for 6 or 12 eggs just to use them up. Fast food means fried egg sandwhiches for dinner. It's not that each egg isn't a little treasure, or that I ever waste our eggs. It's just that there's an abundance of them. And there is an abundance of eggs partly because of the care and effort we put into the hens.

There is a fine line. This summer, one of the hens got sick. Because chickens are chickens, it's tough to know what's ailing them, or to perform necessary procedures once you know what the problem is. So this chicken was weak, absent of appetite, squirting liquid green diarrhea, and generally droopy. I was nervous, and I didn't want to see it suffer. I was prepared to euthanize. I decided to give it a week of isolation, special food, and antibiotics. I agonized quite a bit, imagining that it was egg-bound and suffering from horrible pain. But it kept eating, so I kept feeding it. It kept drinking. After 8 or 9 days, it was looking really good. I eventually released it back into the flock and it's been fine ever since. I might have been less patient, and thus needlessly slaughtered a hen, but I gambled and I waited and the hen survived. It turned out to be worth it.

I can't exactly tell the chickens apart, but I do recognize different characteristics, as if they're all one organism. I know that one of the hens has short tail feathers because she got too close to the heat lamp last winter. I know two of them have worn wing feathers on their shoulders from when we used to have a rooster. I know one of them has a really floppy comb. One of them is smarter than all the rest: she seems to learn faster and change her behavior based on observations. If it weren't for the eggs, I wouldn't have chickens. They're not really the best pets, in my opinion. I prefer snuggly dogs. If they weren't laying eggs, I'd think of them as free-loaders, sucking up more than their fair share of crickets, worms and snakes. It's their eggs and manure that pay their rent here. But I have to admit that their enthusiastic little waddle run and friendly flocking has been nice ever since Chris, the chicken-whisperer, got ahold of them.