Thursday, 28 June 2012

Staking Tomatoes

I spent this morning stringing up my 18 tomato plants. I'm doing less this year. One year I planted 55 plants of Romas and still found I needed to go buy four bushels to bottle at the end of it. So if I'm going to have to buy them anyway, I am just scaling back this year and putting in 18 plants of beefsteak tomatoes.

I don't use the wire tomato cages or wooden stakes. I have had the best success growing them up strings. They are vines, after all. And growing them vertically up strings allows you to fit them much closer together. My 18 plants, in two rows, take up a space approximately 5' long and 18" wide. I put up a simple frame above each row (two posts with a cross bar, nailed and lashed together). I gently tie a loop around the stem of each plant, which I've allowed to grow a bit first so they're thick and strong. Keep the loop under a strong-looking branch so it doesn't slip up the stem. Wrap the string a few times around the plant, working upwards and giving support to each branch. Then pull it up so there's no slack and tie it to the cross bar above.  Don't get too carried away pulling tight, or you'll uproot the plant. And ta da! It's done. Throughout the growing season, wind wayward growth gently around the string, and nip out side shoots so that you're growing more fruit and less greens.

There's nothing so lovely as a fat, fresh tomato, warm from the sun, sliced and broiled with a little mozzarella and fresh basil.  Don't you just love summer?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Home Renovations Relay 2010

We want to renovate our bathroom. It is ancient and moldy and when we turn on the shower, it rains in the family room below. We have chosen fixtures, debated over tile, and decided on the design. However, we can't renovate until we have an alternative to our one and only shower. We have three teenage sons, and a few weeks without a shower will render them public health hazards.

At first we considered running them in the car through the car wash once a week with the windows down. We considered checking the kids into a homeless shelter for a few weeks. We priced what it would cost to get them all gym memberships so they could shower there. The logistics were daunting, so we decided since we eventually wanted a second shower in the lower level of the house anyway, we might as well install it now.

To install the second shower, we first have to knock a hole into the powder room wall to expand into the garage. The powder room is smaller than a kitchen cupboard and you have to sit in the sink in order to close the door so you can get to the toilet behind it. Expanding into the garage will solve the problem, and the garage is too small to ever hold a car anyway.

However, we can't break into the garage until we build a shed to hold the bikes, lawnmower, snowblower, sleds, snowboards, skates, table saw, and lawn furniture currently stored there. We have a lovely corner of the back yard that would be perfect for such a shed.

We can't build the shed until we install a gate into the back yard to allow the work crew in to pour the concrete slab. The wheelbarrows won't fit up the side of the house between us and the neighbours. They inform me they need five feet of clearance and we have only four. They refuse to schlep cement in buckets up the side of the house. They will need to access the back yard directly from the side street.

We can't install the gate until we rip out a section of the hedge. This hedge is eight feet tall and so wide my husband and I can stand on ladders on each side of it and our industrial hedge clippers won't meet in the middle. Taking out this chunk of hedge will be like clear-cutting the rainforest.

Once the section of hedge is out, we will need to erect a temporary fence to keep the dog in the yard and small children out of our fish pond. Once the shed is done, we can put in a permanent gate. Try to find someone willing to take on a single gate. Eight fencing companies inform me it is too small a job for them to consider. But they'd be happy to give us a quote if we want to rip out the rest of the 310-foot-long hedge and fence the whole yard.

So when people ask why I'm buying a wood chipper and an axe, I'll say it's so I can renovate my bathroom.

Maybe the boys can just bathe in the fish pond...

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Burlington Sound of Music Festival

No one told me when I first started playing the bagpipes that I would be risking heat stroke and hernia nearly every summer weekend for the rest of my life. I should have stuck to the piano. No one asks them to wrap themselves in 8 yards of wool and walk several kilometers in 90-degree weather.

On the other hand, piping does have its advantages. You get to skip work and school to do performances. I got to play for Prince Charles once (he was surprisingly and disappointingly short). I actually got P.E. credit in university for playing (it's an aerobic activity, after all). It comes in handy when trying to give the noisy partyers next door a hint at two in the morning. I can use the pipes to call the kids home from the park two blocks away. And piping led me to meet my husband. So I guess it's worth the heat stroke in the end.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sorrow and Strawberries

I took the day off work and went to The Big'r Apple on Heritage Road to pick strawberries. I've been coming to this place for over 20 years. They have the biggest, brightest, sweetest berries, they keep their fields clean and bug free, and they very kindly offer an outhouse for your convenience. They're also super nice and friendly people.

I spent three and a half hours picking 63 litres of berries in glorious sunshine. The weather was perfect - breezy and cool, the sky a spotless blue, just the right temperature for picking. I loaded up the car with red juicy jewels, dreaming about the shortcake and milkshakes to come. The only sound was the occasional redwing blackbird and the soft murmur of my fellow pickers consulting each other. One fellow told me he's been coming to pick berries for 45 years.

But he also told me that The Big'r Apple has been sold to developers, and after next year, they'll be out of business.  I wanted to lie down in the straw between the rows and weep. I spoke with the owner, who - understandably - wants to retire, and needs a nest egg to do it with. His children apparently aren't interested in being farmers. His cousin who owns the farm across the road is going to do the same in a few years. I totally understand his position. But housing and bypasses cutting into this perfect corner of the earth? It's unthinkable. It's tragic. And it's short sighted. We are losing farmland at an alarming rate. With all these houses being built on our limited land resource, what do the people in those houses expect to eat?

As one elderly woman in the field today said to me, "Where will I go for my strawberries? I won't eat those awful things in the grocery store." I told her we should all chip in and buy a farm and I'd run it for them and they'd have free berries for life. I was only half joking.

But I know just how she feels. The sorry excuses for fruit coming from Chile and Mexico and China just don't meet the standard. They lack flavour, colour, nutrition - but more than that. They lack heritage. They lack locality. They lack history and connection. They lack joy. No old man in the future is going to remember wistfully how he took his children and grandchildren every year for 45 years to buy rock-hard berries from the Metro. No woman is going to wail at the loss of the latest limp shipment from Chile. The loss of this farm hits a lot of people right in the heart.

While I know the farmer deserves his retirement, I hope he knows the meaning his farm has had for so many people, the memories he has created, the happiness he has contributed to. I don't know the man personally - today was the first day I've spoken to him - but I love him and his family for feeding my family for all these years.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

I'm Relaxing as Fast as I Can

It's spring, heading for summer, and that means the second busiest time of the year for gardeners. I've spent the winter drooling over seed catalogues and making elaborate lists and diagrams. I daydream of ordering seed by the kilo instead of by the tiny packet. I draw up plans worthy of a ten-acre hobby farm instead of my humble suburban backyard. Gardening dreams even sneak into my writing, invariably colouring my plots and settings.

Now I'm up to my neck in mulch and mud, bringing it all about and loving every minute of it. Gardening is relaxing to me, the suspension of time and stress, when I can just commune with the plants and with my own soul. A robin follows me around hoping I'll dig up worms. A rabbit hops from the hedge and grazes companionably beside me as I weed - I suppose he thinks I'm grazing too - close enough that if I wanted to, I could reach out and stroke his red-brown fur. I love nothing more than plunging my hands into good rich loam, dark as chocolate, breathing in the scent of damp earth, and anticipating the abundance to come.

The early onset of hot weather has sped things up this year, however. Everything is a month or more early. It seems I have hardly gotten the seed in the ground, and the plant's bolting into flowers and running for the border. The asparagus is going to fern faster than I can pick it. I gather bouquets of it, a foot tall, and by evening there's another foot-tall harvest to bring in. I keep it in vases of water in the fridge, and it's too tall to fit. Amazing! The lettuce and radishes have long since gone to flower, three feet tall and filled with butterflies. At this rate, summer will be over by August and we'll be thick into the busiest season for gardeners -- harvest.

Harvest time is when I cease to sleep. I've told my editor I can't travel or do book signings in the fall. The garden comes first. I pack the work into every spare minute of my day - shelling beans, bottling tomatoes and peaches and pears and apples, making grape juice, jelly, jam. Dehydrating carrots and herbs, stringing up garlic and onions, freezing squash and pumpkin. I don't want to waste a second of precious time. I think it's probably safe to say I'm the only person ever to have threshed wheat on the Toronto subway system. But I couldn't bear to just sit there, commuting, knowing how much work was waiting to be done. The funny thing is, no one on the train raised an eyebrow. Torontonians are an unflappable breed.

It's worth every bit of effort, though, to be able to open a jar of strawberry jam in the middle of January and taste fresh, wonderful berries, the essence of summer. Opening a jar of homemade grape juice in winter is like drinking in sunshine. Once you have experienced that, the culmination of all your efforts in something so rewarding, you can never go back. You are hooked on gardening for life.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Halfway There

Today I turn 45. I'm sure the significance of giving birth on D-Day wasn't lost on my mother.

I figure I'm about halfway done. My goal is to live to 90, and it's not a far-fetched idea. Many of my ancestresses lived to their late 80s, and one lived to be 107. So I felt this would be a good time to take stock of the "Bucket List" and see how I'm doing. Ordinarily I dislike lingo or new terminology, but the term "Bucket List" is handy, and I think having one is valuable. I'm not entirely sure what's on mine, but I know a few things, and the majority of them have happened already.

I've married and had children, and now I'm enjoying having a grandchild - and I'd love to have more. I finished school. I have my own home. I've been published. I've traveled - and I'd love to do more. What else, really, is there to put on the list?

Well, I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up. I'd like to go on a cattle drive. I want to go dog sledding. I want to see the Northern Lights again. I wouldn't mind finishing my Masters. I want to learn to operate a greenhouse and maybe start a nursery. I'd like to see Ireland. I want to learn Iroquois. So I guess there are still a few things left. But I think the best things to put on the list are the simplest ones: Laugh a lot. Eat well. Be kind to people. Get to bed earlier. In the end, those will make the most difference in my life and be the most satisfying.

I'd l\ove to hear what's on your list. Maybe we can help each other reach them. Is there a company out there that will help you complete your Bucket List? If not, there should be. Someone to help Granny go bungee jumping. Someone to whisk Fred off to Egypt or take Mabel whitewater rafting. Someone to call me up at nine o'clock every night and say "Bed time."

Monday, 4 June 2012

Rats in the freezer, snakes in the basement

My sister just emailed to say they bought a 4-foot king snake for their daughter's birthday (at her request), along with a year's supply of food. They now have 75 frozen rats in their freezer. Now while I might be a bit leery of the idea of rats mingling with my frozen corn and asparagus, part of me has to laugh. It's like watching our childhood repeat itself.

We had a zillion pets growing up, from hamsters, mice, and rabbits, to frogs, dogs, cats, and horses. My sister would come home with garter snakes in her pockets (there would be surreptitious hunts through the house when one got loose - "Quick, help me, before Mom finds out!"). Once I came home with a field mouse in a paper cup. Once a hamster got loose and turned my only Barbie doll into a pile of chewed bits of rubber under the bed. And our parents were amazingly calm about it all. Dad would build wonderful cages with elaborate latches for taking Snowy to show-and-tell at school. Mom let us bring Pipkin the bunny into the house in a cardboard box so we could keep watch over him when he was ill. When Grandpa showed up one evening with a gift of a new horse in a trailer, my parents staked her in our suburban backyard without batting an eye until we could find somewhere to board her, and they let me stack a ton (literally) of hay on the lawn. Dad helped me break her, walking patiently around and around the paddock behind her with long reins in hand. We children learned lessons in birth and death, in hard work and compassion.

My parents took us out into nature, bird watching and animal tracking, hiking up the canyon to see golden eagles, down to the lake to feed ducks. They allowed me to disappear for hours on end in the trees on the hillside above the house. They let us wade and chase water skeeters in the irrigation ditches. They let us take a roll-away bed out to the carport, where we spent the night reading Tolkien by flashlight and hiding under the covers from the mosquitoes. We went camping a lot, and I remember listening to Dad play the harmonica as all seven of us watched the night sky, hoping to see a shooting star. They encouraged us to be curious and courageous, and the encyclopedia was always somewhere handy to the dining table, so we could explore some more while we ate and discussed.

I am extremely grateful to my parents for encouraging us to experience and love nature. It has added a rich dimension to my life. And my sister with the snakes in her pockets - now the mother of the seven-year-old king snake owner - grew up to get a Masters Degree in conservation biology. So I suppose it's not new to her, having small mammals in her freezer.