small scale

My blueberry yield this summer has been small.  And by small, I mean pretty tiny — definitely serving size: 1.  Actually, what you see in the photo above is my blueberry yield this summer.

I keep telling myself, let’s not throw in the towel quite yet — it is only late July.  So what if we are in the middle of blueberry season and the grocery stores and farmers markets are practically giving them away?  So what if my neighbors’ yards are bursting forth in all shades of blue?  Maybe I have the great city of Portland’s only two blueberry bush late bloomers?

I’ll keep my head held high, keep eating the lettuce that seems to be growing all over my yard and out of my ears, and cross my fingers.  I’ll try not to think about the gallons of precious water I’ve lovingly sprinkled on these guys, or the hours I’ve spent, crouched in the mud, paving a less weedy way for them.  I’ll try to put my blinders on when I walk down the street, careful not to be poked in the eye by a blueberry bush branch with each step I take.

I’ll try, but the truth remains: there’s some beginner’s luck with 1st-time gardening, and there is also the school of hard knocks.  Sometimes one needs to bone up a little and read the directions.  My friend recently came by and, upon seeing my blueberry bushes asked me, “why did you plant them there?”  ”Nothing was growing there,” I said.  ”Exactly!” he laughed.  Ok, point taken.

So, while I may not be writing any gardening books anytime soon, the good news is, there’s only one direction to go from here: up.  I can say with confidence that the summers of gardening in my future are pretty much guaranteed to be more successful than the current summer has been.  And while I don’t have a whole lot of produce I actually grew to carry from my raised beds to my kitchen this season, I do have that sweet piece of wisdom for my back pocket.

But I want you to know, I picked that sole blueberry and I savored it like it was the last morsel I would ever eat on this green earth.  I said to myself, decidedly, this is not the moment to teach a youngster about sharing — nope, I’m keeping this little blue lonesome guy all to myself.  And boy was he tasty.




for the love of a Portland farmer’s market

A recent entry in one of my favorite blogs stated this: “having a garden really makes you appreciate farmers’ markets.”  Well, ain’t that the truth?!  I’d take it a step further and say, “…especially when you live in the Pacific NW.”  Here, oh yes, where the muted skies create the perfect backdrop for colors as saturated as colors get, and a bounty unyielding.  I see those carts piled high with carrots and cherries and deep blackberries and I want to literally crawl inside each one and take a produce bath.

Each morning when we wake up, we race over to the window for the best view of our cherry tree.  And each day, those cherries blush a slightly brighter shade of reddish pink and seem to teeter ever closer to the edge of their branches, and each day I think, it’s coming soon: the great cherry rain.  I think about that chapter in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where Barbara Kingsolver describes the dramatics of owning a mature cherry tree — that basically harvest happens in one day.  It’s as though the heart of the tree says, “ready?  set?  go!” and a great downpour of cherries so plentiful and buoyant falls all around you like a fit of summer rain.  My sense is, if you step away from your window on the wrong day (or even during the wrong hours) you might miss it entirely.

Being totally new at this, as you might imagine, I’m both excited and nervous.  I smile in anticipation of standing there, open-armed, receiving sweet fruit as it falls from the skies.  I don’t want to miss it and I don’t want to donate all of the cherries to the birds.  I’d like to try my hand at cherry preserves or give latticing another go.  I’m not sure how to prepare — how much help will I need?  How many buckets?  Will I be able to get them all picked up in time?

All of this wondering and waiting, plus the work of a few small raised beds filled with vegetables and I’m right there with Alicia – there is a fair amount of work in keeping a vegetable garden; it does make one bow even further down to those humble experts at the Saturday market.  I see the weeds make small piles of themselves as I make my way daily around my 6 small patches of cauliflower and my two pepper plants, and the mini-blueberry bushes in the corner of my yard that are starting to show signs of life.  A lot of love is going into cultivating each berry and leaf of each head of lettuce — and I am delighted to do it, truly — I really do like the process.  I’m also mindful of those farmers — those organic farmers — who have thousands of these crops.  Those farmers who will pick up each and every cherry from dozens and dozens of trees — scrambling to beat the birds to it;  who will, with their hands, keep the weeds from 1000s of heads of lettuce and dig up hundreds and hundreds of carrots — to pile, haul, crate, cart, and eventually sell them to me at what seems like pennies when I consider the effort involved.  The sweat and sore backs, the consciousness and timing, and mostly the love — that’s what gets me, when I think about it.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

I see my little rows of beets there, behaving as they should be, and I see the radish tops starting to look like themselves, and I know this patch of earth I’ve cultivated  – as much as I love it — will still only feed us a small portion of what we need.  We’ll rely on those farmers — their planning and commitment and toil — much more than we’ll rely on ourselves, at least this year — as that’s what we’ve made space for.  And I feel so grateful to know the work of it a little better, and so awed at the bigness of how much we are cared for by others.


Top 5 tips for newbie gardeners

I’ve been a gardener now for almost 2 weeks, and I’m really starting to get it….which is to say, I’m starting to get what it is to be a newbie gardener: green and spongy.  As it is with learning any new skill, this beginning part is so exciting because it’s when the learning curve is the steepest and excitement is at its peak.

You might be thinking: why would I take tips from a 2-week-old gardener?  I’ll tell you why — for the same reason it is so important to learn from kids — because the perspective is so fresh and current.  I remember when I was breastfeeding for the first time, and while it was crucial to me to have the support and wisdom of experienced breastfeeders — both live and in books — it was equally as crucial to talk with moms who were at the very same stage as me: the awkward hard stage.  There’s just nothing like the beginning — of anything — but once we are seasoned, so soon we forget.

So here they are: my top 5 tips for starting a garden and hoping it’ll grow:

1. Grow something easy.

You might remember that I went out and bought a 2-pack of mint starters before realizing, in fact, half my backyard is covered in mint.   Indeed, this little herb does like to grow.  You can try to stop it, but it’ll likely be in vain.  That makes it a great starter pot for your herb garden.  I planted that two-pack in a decent-sized pot and I swear, two days later it had doubled in size.  It’s more prodigious than most weeds.  And thus, it builds confidence.  If all my other plantings fail to thrive, I won’t be a complete gardening failure.  I’ll have plenty of mint.  And that’s good for the ‘ole confidence.

2. Incorporate some gardening vernacular into your speech.

You might remember I did a lot of the yard prep and planting when my mom was in town.  She had no sooner picked a shovel up off the ground than she started spouting gardening idioms like weeds — they were spilling out everywhere!  Gardening does bring out the joker in many of us, I’ve noticed.  My personal favorite was when she found an old hoe in our garage and upon testing it said, “this isn’t my favorite hoe I’ve ever met but it will really be your friend in the garden.”

There are thousands of gardening idioms that we like to throw around all the time and they take on a whole new meaning once you are really planting things.   Calling tools by their proper names and acting like you know what you are talking about just makes the whole proposition so much more fertile for laughter and confidence both.  Upon weeding, I actually heard Rob say, “I love weeding!  I love just getting in there and tearing it from the root!”  I rest my case.

3. Hire a professional.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting a bit of help from some experienced gardeners.  They need not be “professionals” per se, but someone who has actually brought something from seedling to string bean is very helpful.  Gardening is a lot about trial and error, as everyone’s yard is so different.  Having some of the trial spawn from time-tested advice can be a boon to the possibility of an actual harvest.

I was so grateful to have someone tell me I need to, for example, purchase some gloves.  And to show me how much dirt to turn when I’m turning dirt.  And to point out the difference between a weed and a plant-that’s-supposed-to-be-there.  My mom was great help with this, and so were the good folks over at Garden Fever, here in NE Portland.

4. Hire a non-professional.

If you can get your hands on a child under the age of 5 to accompany you in your gardening project, I highly recommend including them.  There truly is nothing like a child’s sense of wonder — especially in the great outdoors.  From a child’s perspective, what’s not to love about a garden?  It’s got all the necessities: dirt, water, and lots of tools and containers.  Include your under-fiver and I think you might notice, as I did, just a little bit more the wonder of it all: the beauty of soil, the miracle of water, the utilitarian nature of everything, the simple and ultimate pleasure of interacting with the earth.

5. Eat what you sow — immediately!

One of the advantages of starting with an herb garden is it offers itself to you in edible form pretty quickly.  I popped some heads off the basil plant about 5 days after it went in the pot.  I don’t think it had grown much, but I needed to taste the fruits of my labor.  And my goodness, was that the best basil I’ve ever tasted — I was so proud you’d think I’d given birth to the stuff.  Getting to eat what we’ve planted — even just a taste — reminds us what this is all for.  Sure, it’s about the process and the politics and the footprint and the beauty, absolutely.  But it’s about tomato-mozzerella-basil salad too…and the cornucopia to come.  Cross your fingers.