Monday, May 3, 2010

And now for something completely different

Okay, not completely different, but somewhat. I thought it would be nice to take a break and share a narrative I wrote about an early gardening experience I had. It was a, shall we say, learning experience.

It was April and the last snow of the season had come and gone. The back yard of my home in central Utah was beginning to show signs of life, with the green of grass warring with the yellow of budding dandelions. My garden plot was looking good. Really good. I had taken pains to put it to bed properly at the end of the previous season, and I had been planning this year's garden for five months! Five months of sketching designs and plans, layouts and trestles for beans. And now the time was fast approaching.

I turned to my wife. "Hey," I said, all innocent and completely ignorant of the pain I was about to commit myself to, "why don't we plant some corn?"

"Great idea." She squinted in thought. "Is it hard to grow?"

I shrugged. "No way. Everybody does corn."

Three weeks later I was ready. I had tilled the plot again, mixing in some nice steer manure and keeping it watered to get the worms excited. On a perfect, sunny Spring day, with a packet of seeds in hand, I dashed outside and planted four rows of corn in the southern end of the garden. I splashed some water on the five by ten foot area of future cobs and then moved north up the plot to put in some beans and zucchini.

Two weeks later I stared morosely at the bare plot. No corn sprouts. None. No future maize. Glaring at the dirt, then the sky, I asked, "Why?" Nobody answered. I jerked open the shed door and dug through my box of seed packets, finally coming up with the packet of corn seeds. Having only cursorily skimmed the planting instructions, I had not actually read all of the information available. Two lines down, I found the problem: Plant in warm ground in a sunny area.

I looked up and glared again. But this time, I glared at the trees that shaded the southern end of my garden for about six hours of the day. Muttering to myself, "Too early. Planted them too early. Gotta have warm ground," I made my way to my healthy tomato plants and took solace in their rough stems and fuzzy leaves. I broke a leaf off and inhaled that wonderful sharp aroma of the tomato plant's foliage. Recharged, re-energized and renewed, I weeded around my zucchini then went inside.

"Yeah, so we planted that corn in the wrong place," I said, stepping through the back door into my small home. "Needs to be in direct sunlight."

"What do you mean 'We'?" my wife asked, grinning at me.

I muttered something witty and rude and stalked off to the kitchen, in search of a drink of water. "Yeah, well we'll give it some time. Maybe as it warms up and stuff it'll grow okay."

My wife, Annemarie, gave me a hug. "You'll make it work." She loves that I love to garden. She enjoys it too, but she allows my seasonal obsession to run amok and she enjoys the fruits of said obsession. "Besides, we're in Utah. It's sunny here."

With greater hope, I was back outside every day of the next week, checking for sprouts. It was on a Thursday that it happened. I was sure it wasn't grass. The shape was wrong and it was too far away from the edge of the lawn. "A sprout!" I hollered, bringing my kids running and my wife walking: she was carrying the baby.

"Yay!" my two oldest boys shouted. "Corn sprouts!"

And it was true. There were several tender green shoots poking out of the tough Utah soil. I was elated. We were gonna have corn!

Two months later we were giddily eating raw green beans, raw peas, fresh zucchini and yellow squash, and were pretty sure our pumpkins were going to be big. But the corn stalks were two feet, maybe three feet, high. No sign of the fuzz that comes out the top for pollinating. No sign at all. And the stalks were thin and the roots were visible at the base of the stem. I had no idea what to do.

Then it happened. I came home from work on a blustery day that promised rain. I was beaming at the cloudy heavens, pleased that the sky was going to water for me. I walked in the front door, kicking off my boots and settling into my prized blue easy chair. My two oldest boys came dashing up. I held out my arms for hugs and kisses, but they stopped short, their eyes wide.

"Dad," my oldest boy, Thomas, intoned, "bad news." He was a well-read six and an oldest brother, both of which he took seriously.

His younger brother, Hintze, nodded in agreement. "Bad news!"

"The corn fell down," Thomas said.

Heat and cold tingles fought over my spine and face. "What?" I yelped, my voice cracking. I leapt to my feet, dashed through the house and flung the back door open wide. "No," I whispered. It was true. My small field of light-emerald, three-and-a-half feet high corn was leaning. No, more than leaning. Some of the stalks were practically horizontal. Slipping my feet into my work shoes, I hurried to the corn.

"See?" It was Thomas, coming up behind me, "It fell down. The wind did it."

I nodded, numb. But, never one to give up, I set to feverish action. I waded gently into the garden, my hands tenderly lifting each corn stalk back to its vertical position. The wind blew. The corn fell again. I cursed the wind and straightened my corn plants again, daring the wicked southwestern gusts to come again. They did; the corn fell. Muttering dire imprecations for all things stormy, I strode to my storage shed. My gardening twine in hand, I (seriously) gently roped each and every stalk up, tying the rows to firm anchors on each end. Now the wind blew impotently. My corn was going to live! It was going to thrive! It would provide loads of delicious, nourishing staple food for my family!

By the end of August, it was clear my corn would provide very little, if any, delicious, nourishing staple food for my family. The tallest stalk in my tiny field reached no higher than my neck, fuzz and all. Small nubs were growing here and there on the healthiest of the plants, but they were not developing well. In the end, we got five little cobs. Kernels had formed over maybe seventy percent of the cobs' body.

But I couldn't believe that this disaster was due only to insufficient sunlight. As a regularly successful gardener, I knew that sunlight was vital, but my corn looked well, malnourished. It looked like I was promised I would look if I drank coffee as a kid: stunted.

I read the back of the seed packet again. Plant in warm ground in a sunny area. The crumpled packet also informed that the corn would be ready for harvest in eighty-two days. It further informed me that the seed company had a long tradition of good seeds. But it did not explain why my corn looked like it had been on a forty day fast.

It turned out that my corn had indeed been on a fast. A forced fast. A fast caused by my ignorance; one caused by my eagerness to plant and unwillingness to study and learn about my crops before I planted them. I wound up asking a garden club I had just begun attending if they had any idea why my corn had been such a spectacular failure. The patron of the club smiled, not at all condescendingly really, and asked me if I had used nitrogen.


"Corn is basically a fruitful grass," he rumbled. "Grass absolutely needs nitrogen. You can get nitrogen pellets at the seed shop."


He nodded, taking a bite from a club member's home grown apple. "You've gotta have it. Otherwise, your corn won't come out."

"Nitrogen." Embarrassed at my ignorance, I buried my face in a plate of blueberry cobbler.

So what did my garden teach me? After long days of staring at bare ground and then obsessively urging my puny stalks to grow? Followed by weeks of wishing the corn cobs would finally form and thinking that corn was supposed to be taller, wasn't it? My garden taught me to look before I leap. To take a few minutes and get educated about what I am planting. My garden taught me to ask around and to talk to people in the area who have experience with vegetable gardens.

You know what? My garden also taught me that gardening is also about community.

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