Saturday, April 5, 2014

February, Part 2

February, Part 2

The rare sunshine at this time of year always sends Beloved tearing out to the garden to put in peas. She climbs into her overalls, ties a bandana over her hair, grabs a "retired" pillow from the greenhouse, plunks it on the ground in front of the row, and goes to work.

The neighbor, a tidy retired man who gardens from June to August religiously, finds this behavior distinctly odd. So he comes out to investigate. Not wanting to be obvious about this, he begins on the far side of the pasture, and inspects his fence around into the apple orchard, then, after what he deems to be a decent interval, stops right by her.

"What the devil are you at in the dead of winter?" he asks politely.

"Peas! Aren't they lovely?" she extends a grubby palm, with a dozen wrinkled seeds.

"You don't expect them to come up, do you?" He peers down at the strange-looking, to him, thick straw mulch that has been pulled back to reveal the brown earth.

"No, I never expect them to come up, but I always hope they will; and I get nice surprises. Sometimes." She grins, and picks up her trowel.

"Huh! well, good luck to you!" He ambles off, shaking his head at the improvidence of the Bear clan.

Though we now patronize Seed Savers Exchange, we used to buy a lot of our seeds at the end of summer, from racks of remaindered packets that are made available by our local hardware stores for five to ten cents a packet. Some of these year-old seeds, especially of flowers, seemed to lose a bit of vitality and planting them was a bit like doing your thinning in advance; but the peas always seemed to come up.

Peas are legumes. We much prefer them to beans, as the whole family has a sweet tooth. We like the climbing varieties more than bush, and prefer sugar snap to the shell-'em-out varieties.

When the season is at its height, relatively little cooking goes on hereabouts, as we are to be found at all hours simply sitting by the pea vines stuffing ourselves.

Those that we pick and bring in are not as good after about two hours, though we use them in salads and stir fries, and freeze the rest. If it does threaten to rain too much on the rows or beds soon after planting, cover with a plastic tarp for two days, then pull it off for a day or so as needed. As soon as the plants are up, pull the mulch up around them close, and renew it throughout the life of the plants, to keep the roots cool. I stake them out by making tripods of cuttings from ash, willow, and hazel. Peas are said to dislike being planted in the same spot two years in a row, so we try to rotate them with other crops.

After the pea crop is gone, I feed the vines to the ducks, geese, and rabbits, who think highly of them.

Today the sun came out for the first time since I don't know when. The ground rises to the east of the house, and a morning-coffee glance through the living room window revealed a jeweled world -- heavy dew on the rumpled grass, the leafless lilac bushes, and the apple orchard. Rainbow hues glinted from the drops, and the glow suffused the house like a dream of a better world.

These lilacs, when they bloom, are of a purple-hued variety, and all the lilacs around all the houses hereabouts are of the same kind.

The originals were planted by the first family to arrive here, not long after the original pioneers in our end of the valley. They built a post-and-beam two-story house in the midst of three hundred and twenty acres of Douglas fir forest. These trees were large, and there were a lot of them; their shade was dense, and it would be a while before this could be farmland. The men, taking stock of their situation, immediately took on a contract to provide firewood for all the one-room schoolhouses in the area, and fell to work with axe and crosscut. As the clearing around the house grew, the women installed plants they had brought with them: vinca, daffodils, flowering quince, lilacs.

The original house, and the forest that sustained it, have been gone for decades. The plants remain; the original lilacs form a semicircle around a pile of foundation stones that were used to fill in the cellar, and the vinca and daffodils cover the area. It's part of our neighbors' pasture now.

Our house was built in the year I was born, 1949, by one of the descendants of the woodcutting family, and his wife grew the dooryard's lilacs from cuttings off the original pioneer plants. All her neighbors appear to have done the same. The family across the road has a thick, healthy-looking hedge of them.

When we arrived here, the dooryard lilacs were much in need of pruning back; winds were scraping them against the house. We took out dead wood, crossed branches and the like, and noticed that suckers had formed around the root collars of the ancient bushes. These had been cut back and had re-sprouted innumerable times, thickening the root collars considerably, providing room for more suckers to form.

We were about to cut the latest ones away, when an idea came to us -- would they form roots if we hilled up earth around them? We brought a barrow-load of dirt and piled it round the bases of the lilacs, and went on to other tasks.

Weeks -- or it must have been months -- later, we remembered our experiment and went to the lilacs with a trowel to see how the suckers were coming along. Sure enough, they had formed roots. Cutting the main stems away from the parent, we were able to replant a number of them into number ten tomato cans, where they awaited dormancy the following winter. Come winter, in its turn, we remembered them just in time, before bud break. They were set out at the corners of the house. They have all done well, and we are filled with admiration at the hardiness and adaptability of these pioneers of the valley.

The lilac has long been hybridized and there are now well over 500 varieties. Around here we plant them in fall, or no later than February, with some compost and bone meal in the hole, which should be spacious enough not to crowd the roots. We top dress biannually with compost, then add some pine or fir needles, or other acid material. If the acidity isn't benefiting the plant enough, there is a trick: add apple parings to the top dressing and stick a few rusty nails (not galvanized) underneath. The iron seems to react with the apple skins in some way the shrubs find appealing.

Watering for the first year is vital. After that, the lilac should be fairly hardy, and we avoid letting the ground around an established lilac get too soggy. A vigorous plant can sustain plenty of blooms. If it seems poorly, we pick them off so that more of the strength can go to building new roots. The bloom season is relatively short, but while it lasts, the scent on the breeze we dig in the herb bed provides a strong argument that in Heaven it is always spring.

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