Down East 2013 ©
I couldn’t get Elysia out to plant garlic with me the other day. Late October and she was working on her Halloween costume, sitting out in the sun on the deck, sewing away. “Daddy, I’ve only got one week!”
She’s going to be Mother Nature. I’m going to be the moon, kind of round and orbiting around her: raw, unabashed typecasting. Her mother will be the sun. The two of them found a beautiful green velvet dress with a faint flower pattern at Touch of Class (which is one of the thrift shops here in Farmington, a terrific place that employs handicapped people across the organization, all the way from cleaning crew to the sales floor to management). The dress is an adult size six, so it had to be taken in and hemmed up, thus all the sewing. She’s also attaching various skeins of flowers and butterflies and vine-like garlands in green and brown and white, cool things she found at Imelda’s sewing shop in New Sharon. And since Mother Nature is a four-season gal, Elysia’s sewn on snowflakes, too, and summer waterfalls and autumn leaves, plenty of blossoms, all cut from colorful felt. Add a crown of vines and paper flowers, a little green hairspray, and she’ll be good to go.
Turns out that planting garlic on my own is not such a bad thing. Twenty degrees overnight, but just as clear and sunny as could be that afternoon, clouds creeping in from the south—a little rain on the way to set the bulbs, no problem (actually, a lot of rain, measured in inches).
I’ve never been a raised-bed person, but tried one this year using heavy old boards from the fallen shed, grew beautiful carrots in—get this—sifted soil. Which means the carrots have less physical character (fewer legs, that is, fewer noses and/or grotesque displays of genitalia), but no less flavor and easier to clean and store. Elysia did help me pull carrots, wow. She was a carrot-pulling machine. She pointed out that the carrots from her row in her section of the garden had much bigger and earlier. True. I pointed out that her carrots had been a different species, and that in any case these carrots were ours, that insofar as she was competing, she was competing with herself! “Daddy, those were mine and these are yours and mine were bigger!”
Trounced by an eight-year-old.
We developed a system. She pulled carrots up by the hair, flung them to me in bunches across the box.
“This is just like harvesting!” she cried. She’s been reading in her history book about the nomads, how they settled down to farm, how farming led to harvesting, ineluctably.
I caught the carrots by the hair, brushed off the dirt, pulled the greens, laid them in our baskets, something near forty pounds, which, stored in damp sand in the basement, should get us through the winter. We picked some kale, too (the guinea pigs and I love kale) and then pulled up the rest of the beets, tiny this year but delicious as always, yanked the dozen or so fat leeks (I’ll store some in a bucket in the chilly barn, use them up by Christmas), finally went underground for the potatoes. The potatoes, sad to say, had a bad year, only fifteen pounds or so, more actually than I expected, and gorgeous in various colors beloved of Mother Nature—and it was exactly like harvesting, so close to harvesting as to be indistinguishable.
In the house we washed carrots a while, till our hands got cold and our brains got bored. Then I split a couple of leeks, showed Elysia how to wash them. And oh, she liked washing leeks; cut lengthwise, the layers open like the pages of a book, white shading into green. Once all the sand and bits of earth were out, she used her sharp-knife skills and chopped them up for me. I peeled potatoes beside her, not a little nervous, big blade in her little hands. But no incident. Four cups chopped leeks, four cups chopped Yukon golds, six cups water, a little salt, boil till soft, run through the food processor, drop a little minced parsley on top, blob a dollop of plain whole-milk yogurt splash in the middle of each bowl: potato leek soup.
Anyway, it was not bad planting the garlic alone. I re-used the carrot box, loaded in a yard or so of black compost to renew the soil, forked it all deep, dug it in and dug it in again, threw in a couple handfuls of wood ash and some eggshells, fluffed all that dirt and compost and all the sleepy worms and ever-ready soil bacteria into a meringue, spent a happy half-hour picking out those little grocery-store fruit labels and whatever other trash had got in the mix (I’m a pile-it-up, feed-the-crows sort of composter), a nice little collection of pull rings from olive-oil tins, twist-ties, lengths of dental floss, things like that. (One year I found a long-lost pair of my reading glasses, kinda scratched, every year a couple of our good spoons, never forks or knives).
Flashback to the day before, when I purchased garlic from Carla Bock (Hoof-and-Paw Farm, New Sharon) at the Friday Farmers’ Market in town, pound of Russian red, pound of Philips, bred for Maine just a couple towns northwest. (Overheard at the Philips store in September, if I may add another layer of time, two gentle ancients: “I just can’t see voting for another of these tax-and-spend liberals!” “Well, I can’t vote for another borrow-and-bomb Republican!”)
And now, to the garlic moment: I broke the bulbs up, filled my pockets with cloves, spent a happy suspension of time poking them one-by-one into the earth, deepest pleasure, planting them closer together than has been my custom, since the box with its deep, loose soil is supposed to support crop intensity (ref. John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables). Last step, cover the whole box with hay mixed with grass clippings and oak leaves, a great pile flattened under sticks, ready for the weight of snow.
Mother Nature waves from the deck, her mouth full of pins, lap a rainbow mountain of material.
The garlic’s planted. Just about my favorite garden task, since it reminds me that things will be green again before too long.
Bill Roorbach lives in Temple. His books and essays are too numerous to name; enjoy one in Down East's A Healing Touch, Life, Death and Hospice.