Sunday, December 25, 2005

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Although I heard it in a different context, somehow it seems like the right thing to do for a garden - never put it to bed without a good meal.

Besides, its a damp, fifty degree autumn morning and a little spading and raking will allow me to barbecue our lunchtime hamburgers without having to lean my chilled torso over the flames for warmth.

But most importantly it's one of the things that I do to keep the gardening season from finally slipping away into the black hole of winter inactivity. And to let the garden gods of spring know that I'll see them again on the other side of the cold weather.

Some of us horticulturists are like that - unable to accept the inevitable fact that the physical part of the gardening season will cease for the next one hundred thirty days or so. (The imaginative aspect , on the other hand, goes on forever - even sometimes in the face of direct contradictions from the real world.)

This year my denial began in late September with a steadfast refusal to believe that my tomato plants had actually stopped producing. First I sulked. Then I snipped off all the branches that looked totally dead.

A few days later, after sulking again, I removed those that had no signs of potential life - such as tiny fruits, flowers or flower-wannabes.

Several more days, two or three more sulks, and I severed anything that wasn't actually supporting a living tomato - of whatever size. If none existed then finally and regretfully I removed the plant. What I now had left was a single stalk, with a single branch, with a single green fruit, firmly attached to a single green plastic stake by an overabundance of velcro tie-strips.

This lasted for a couple of weeks until I finally admitted to myself that the plastic support pole actually looked healthier than the plant itself . So I sulked again. Stamped my feet a few times. Uttered a couple of adult, non-gardening phrases and, with a heavy heart, ripped out the desolate plant. And sulked.

Uprooting plants that have stopped producing is fun in midseason when the sun is hot on your shoulders and the possibility of another crop that year is likely. Doing it on a cold, overcast day is the absolute pits - a feeling of total surrender to the inevitable.

But this year I was still able to put off the final stripping of my garden thanks to the mid-September arrival of five eggplants. Although they didn't develop much beyond their late September size and color, they at least remained alive looking enough to let me pretend that I was watering and nurturing them until mid-October. And the plant's leaves remained thick and healthy. Which allowed me not to end up with a purple-fruited replica of the solitary tomato at the other end of the otherwise empty vegetable plot.

I also planted grass seed. This past year we re-landscaped our front yard and had two small crab trees removed leaving us with several new significant areas of bare dirt, in addition to a multitude of smaller patches of nonproductive soil that already dotted my front lawn.

I tried filling some of these areas in July when we finished putting in most of our new plantings - but the results were as limp as my body felt after preparing the yard and spreading the seed. For whatever reason, I thought grass growing was a warm weather project. But the folks at Stonehedge Nursery told me otherwise.

That was all I needed to convince myself that the yard immediately required a few more heavy doses of my homemade topsoil/compost/peat moss casserole to prepare it for its tiny, pre-emergent seed visitors - most of whom, with the help of several feet of rain, have now appeared in all of their bright green Spring glory.

And finally I decided to turn the vegetable garden. Truthfully this is my absolute, most favorite gardening task of all. As a result, I deliberately choose it to mark both the beginning and the end of the growing season.

In the Spring it awakens my gardening muscles from their off-season dormancy and introduces the over-wintered soil, strengthened by its pre-hibernation meal, to the warming world with a nourishing breakfast of nutrients.

In the Fall it fattens up the dirt for its long winter nap, imbeds the motions and strains of the effort into my muscle memory for the winter, and states my commitment to remain on the right side of the dirt for another season.

I've performed the Autumnal part of this ritual, with minor variations, for the past several years now.

The recipe is pretty constant - compost from my bin, peat moss and composted cow manure from my pile of plastic bagged dirt additives, and pine needles from the ground around those trees.

The amounts differ - enough compost to cover the garden one layer thick, about half that much of needles, about one quarter of the manure bag and however much peat moss is left in the bag. I lug the ingredients to the garden and spread them evenly across the surface, and turn them into the soil once by hand.

This year I'm leaving the clods of dirt intact and the tossed-and-turned garden unraked.

Symbolism is important here.

I want to make sure that everyone concerned, the garden, mother nature and myself, realize that in spite of the interruptions of the seasons, nothing in this life is ever really completed, even though the change of seasons may make it seem as if they are.

And that whatever you harvest in the future depends upon the ground that you are laying right now.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Black Is Black - Unless...

We had a white grackle in our yard the other day.

Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in......a WHITE grackle.

"But"you say "I thought that they all were...." Yeah, so did we. Until we (let me say it again) had a white grackle in our yard the other day.

Truth be told it wasn't entirely colorless - closer actually to ninety-eight percent. There were small black spots at the shoulders of the wing, and possibly on the tips. Because we were in the house we didn't get terribly close to it. It was outside in our yard along with about eighty or so of its closest grackle chums who had descended en masse onto our property. They do this periodically - as do the crows and the starlings.

Of these three groups the grackles are my personal favorites. Their oil colored feathers and hop along walks are mighty entertaining. The crows are also a lot of fun with their stop and go swagger - they act as if their mind has to consciously remind their body to move with each step. But since they are larger than the grackles we can get more of the latter on our property thus increasing the quantity of the entertainment.

I never knew what attracted these groups, but they all seemed to be quite serious about pecking at our grass and evidently have been finding rewarding things therein. Just for the record a group of crows is called a "murder" or a "muster" and a gang of starlings is a "chattering" or "murmuration". My research found no such spiffy names for a bunch of grackles.

Anyway there was the usual large unnamed crowd of grackles on my lawn, which Marsha was kind of watching, when her eye caught a glimpse of a bobbing and pecking speck of white in the midst of the wall-to-wall bouncing blackness. She called out to me and I confirmed her sighting. Then a dog or something wandered by and frightened off the whole bunch of them.

After we both said "But I thought they were all....", I went to the internet to look for information on white grackles.

The top of the list in Google (and therefore the most frequently accessed source) said in it's short description "On October 10 or 12, 1893, a farmer named Dean Miller shot a White Grackle on his farm one mile west of here....". "Here" turned out to be Nebraska, and that was pretty much all that that story told me. That article turned out to be the only one I could find on "White" Grackles.

I did however learn in another piece that the conventionally colored members of that species ate acorns (the reason they were flocking to my oak-bordered yard). I was also informed that "although birds have no teeth, the Common Grackle is one species that has prominent tooth-like projections in its palate; these barbs--like the ones at the back of the triangular tongue--keep live prey items from crawling out after the grackle swallows them whole." (

However, other than in the Nebraska farmer story, there was no mention of grackles coming in any hue other than basic black. I reported my lack of success to Marsha.

"Maybe it's like the White Buffalo." she said. I remembered that the sighting of the chalky bison was a spiritual event with major ramifications for those who saw it - but I didn’t know what those consequences were.

"Is the White Buffalo supposed to be a good sign or a bad one?" "Good, I think." she answered. So I rushed back to Google - hoping that I could learn something from the myth of the W.B. that we could apply to our own snow-colored Grackle.

"Many years ago", says Tony Ironshell of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, "three hunters encountered a white buffalo calf. The white buffalo turned into a woman and instructed the hunters to return to their village and prepare for her arrival. When she came four days later, she carried the sacred pipe. With that pipe she brought Sioux laws, and many things changed."

"In their ancient White Buffalo Dance, the Fox Indians of Wisconsin shadow the vision of a legendary hunter, who could turn himself into a white buffalo at will after the beast appeared to him in a dream. A white buffalo with red eyes and horns, says the Fox, gave the hunter the power to single-handedly turn back an army of attacking Sioux." (

In other words - seeing the W.B. is a very good thing. But clearly irrelevant to our life style. So I decided to continue searching the internet hoping to find a "white something" legend that we could, without too much twisting, transfer to the grackle and then, with great personal benefit, to ourselves.

From I learned that "Since the first cultivated eggplants were white, the name 'egg' was the logical choice since they were, and still are, about two inches in diameter." - interesting but not unusual enough to be life-altering.

In Brevard North Carolina White Squirrels are apparently common enough to have their own festival - complete with a "White Squirrel Village". That's as far as I went with that one.

And seeds for White Tomatoes, some heritage, are readily available for planting in anyone's garden. Even the white poppy is fairly common as a symbol of the peace movement and as such is probably banned from gardens in the Red States.

No help here. So I'll just have to make up my own myth of the White Grackle - which I will call the saga of Sinaiglansstare.

Like most of her relatives and friends Sinaiglansstare liked to spend her days flying around with her fellow grackles, stopping at open fields and decimating the acorns, insects and other edibles that they found. Of these victuals the fruits of the oak tree were by far her favorite. But as housing developments and industrial parks took up more and more of the available land, there were fewer and fewer unclaimed spaces for she and her friends to hang out in.

One day they returned to the birth place of Sinaiglansstare to find all of the oak trees gone, the ground paved with black asphalt, and every one of the nuts raked up and removed. The sudden shock of seeing her ancestral home razed to the ground drained all but two percent of the black coloration from her body. And her anger turned this mild-mannered bird into a great avian leader and an unstoppable crusader who, in the process, also somehow became impervious to bullets (especially those fired by Nebraska farmers).

"I will fly forever with my nameless group of black grackles to find a place that is filled with healthy oaks and an unending supply of food. I will know this spot by its overabundance of acorns and by the friendliness of it’s inhabitants - they will be true F.O.G.'s (Friends Of Grackles). And then I will die there.

But from my remains will arise even more oaks, impervious to any of man's attempts to remove them. Fruits, vegetables and flowers will also flourish on that land. Never more will my fellow grackles need to fly all around the world searching for sustenance.

And, by the way, the owners of that land will become incredibly rich, irresistibly attractive, and able to eat whatever they want , whenever they want, without ever gaining even one ounce of fat. Oh, they'll also have a lot of great sex too."

Who knows? Perhaps this myth, imaginary as it may seem, can really come true. And maybe, if I buy enough acorns and spread them around my yard, then someday I will find Sinaiglansstare lying feet up and heart stopped in the very same spot on my lawn that the other white grackle appeared.

Soon thereafter my lawn will become lush and my flowers will flourish. And my oak trees will tower over it all, showering acorns onto the gathering of oily black birds below. And all that other good stuff will happen too.

Then I would say that a group of grackles should be called a "Blessing".