by Mimi Hedl
Blackberry season has begun. The head gardener picked the first batch a few days ago. I reminded her, as I looked through the berries, that the berries won’t ripen anymore after picking, so we need to carefully choose the berries we pick. She glared at me. A ripe blackberry is sweetness personified, an unripe blackberry makes you pucker and use far too much sugar.
To pacify her, when she complained about all the dead canes in the patch and how difficult it was to decide which berry was ripe and those that needed a few more days in the sun, I told her I’d clean up the patch. Frankly, I should have done this task weeks ago, but summer has a way of tripping us up and unless we have explicit lists, and honor them, we will forget many, many chores until they look us straight in the eye. And the blackberry patch was a mess! A real, horrible thorny mess.
Armed with long pants, long sleeved shirt, leather gloves and my trusty pruners, I spent a cloudy Saturday morning, with more rain promised, cutting, then pulling out one dead cane after another. Needless to say, the ripe blackberries rebelled and fell off the canes. I felt bad, but I knew our friendly turtles would have a feast. You say, why didn’t you pick the berries first? Because I would’ve had to pick them with heavy leather gloves, necessary to navigate in and out of the dead canes without getting mercilessly stabbed. Can you imagine how many berries I’d manage to get in my basket? The head gardener had an impossible task. I should apologize, but…
Not only did many dead canes interfere with the picking process, but Virginia creeper, that beautiful 5-leaved vine neophytes mistake for poison ivy, had also moved in, crept in. Climbing in and out of the canes, I had to explore the terrain to find the source of the creeper, and then extricate it. Some vines were just too strong, they’ll require a fork to dig them out. Later, I promised, when the blackberries quiet down.
By lunch time the patch looked picture perfect. I picked the ripe berries and now have a quart, enough to make a generous blackberry cobbler, using Edna Lewis’ wonderful recipe, a recipe I’ve used for almost 40 years. When Zoë and Hilary, my niece and daughter, were young, they loved blackberries, maybe not picking them so much, but yes! To the cobbler.
Mary Tindall and I used to go blackberry picking together, all over the woods. She and her husband Ray were our good friends (Ray died and Mary moved away). He was a back yard mechanic who could just tap a pliers on the engine block and make ‘Ol Red, our ‘62 International, purr. Mary had a sweet heart, loved company and had us over for countless barbeques. Their daughter, Tara, became one of Hilary’s Belle friends. Every Saturday when the Tindalls would drive to Wal-Mart in Owenvsville to do their shopping, Hilary would ride along and be gleeful over the candy and soda and then TV she could watch at their house. We deprived her of those essential building blocks and she was beyond grateful the Tindall’s gave her what she needed.
I don’t think Mary liked the picking of the blackberries as much as the company and the chance to chatter away. We’d get into the thick of blackberry patches and before I knew it, my greedy hands had touched poison ivy. There wasn’t hardly a blackberry expedition that didn’t end in a good case of the rash. That is, until I learned to identify jewelweed.
Jewelweed has hollow stems with sticky sap inside. This sap contains, among other things, a substance called lawsone that gives the mighty blow to both poison ivy and stinging nettles. Rub this sap on your skin, and like magic, poison ivy and nettles become neutralized. And often, blackberries and jewelweed will grow in a similar habitat, shady and damp.
I remember one year we took our nephew Corey and one of his friends blackberry picking. They got into the poison ivy and I spied the jewelweed close by. I had the boys rub the stems all over themselves and they never broke out into the rash. Phew!!! I thought to myself; one disaster avoided. Still plenty more to contend with, like ticks and chiggers and wasp stings and blood suckers… Shall I go on? No one will want to come visit!
With the 4th of July a week behind us, summer seems well on the move. When I was in high school I remember marking this date as summer half over before school began again. Groan. Now as I tend the gardens, it’s more of a time to observe, make mental notes of tasks to do in the future, watch caterpillars feeding on their special plants and wondering where they’ll go to spin their chrysalis.
The male cardinal has been making eyes at a female lately. They’ll mate one more time this year and it looks like that will happen soon. It’s hilarious to watch their antics and wonderful to pause and take it all in.
Earlier this spring as I was preparing a site for the okra, I came across this rabbit nest. Look at the sweet little bunnies! As much as I don’t like them eating my plants, I do like seeing them bop around. As my friend Jessie observed when she saw a hawk sitting close to her garden, that hawk will help keep everything in check. It’s only when things get out of balance that we have problems.
So I observe the hawks stalking the area and I know a kind of balance exists. Nothing turns out just like I would program it, thank goodness, as I do get distracted by one thing or another, and couldn’t maintain order like Mother Nature when she’s unfettered by chemicals and poor conservation. I feel grateful to observe the order, the health of the plants, the life cycle of so many insects and other creatures.
To watch the pipevine swallowtails feed on the pipevine and become partners in these gardens,
to see the honey bees pollinating,
and the milkweed tussock moth caterpillars devouring the milkweed, (what an amazing single file),
to watch black snakes in flagrante delicto,
and to see this bushel basket gourd flower at sunrise.
How does one count her blessings but in all these small scenes of beauty? Especially with a blackberry cobbler in the oven.