by Mimi Hedl
Could you call any place more beautiful than where you find yourself at any given moment? ‘Tis a tribute to the planet we live on, to marvel at how life presents itself in any environment, in astonishing variety. I’ve acclimated myself again to my beloved Midwest after spending a week in Florida, by the ocean and the Indian River. And to my good fortune, I met a botanist, right across the street from where my daughter and family live. He’s as eccentric as me and funky in his own way too. When our eyes met, I knew I’d encountered a kindred spirit, especially when he pointed out, in his jungle of a garden, one plant after another he’d started from seed, the pride obvious and his successes a testimony to his persistence and passion.
The Big, Heavy Hand hadn’t descended when I returned, but the driver’s side window in my ‘96 Honda refused to go up when I drove home from my trip at 11pm. I laughed. Welcome home, the window said to me. You will now face one challenge after another. Let’s see how calm you can stay and deal with each trial, as this is the life you chose, a homesteader’s. OK, OK I said to the voice and threw the blanket I keep in the cooler away from mice looking for nesting material in this underused vehicle, over my legs and sang with the Halloween music on KOPN, one of the last free-form radio stations in the country. If I hadn’t stopped for that Big Mac, something I’d never had before, the window would never have been rolled down, so that made me laugh too. After a week of being in the bosom of love and two energetic grandsons, it all seemed right, the price we pay for an adventure.
I managed to pick one more bouquet of zinnias and see their exuberance in the gardens before a killing frost arrived. We will plant even more zinnias next year. Everyone from flies to people love this flower. The monarchs sipped up their nectar when the asters had shut down for seed making. With activity slowed way down in the gardens, I could observe the butterflies instead of noticing and then quickly moving on to the next chore. To see their proboscis going into each ovary, as carefully as a brain surgeon, lifting out, and going into the next ovary, methodically and carefully, transfixed me. Sometimes it takes a combination of approaching winter and a healing vacation to slow us down.
Rain kept us from planting the garlic until the 5th of November when sunshine and blue skies ruled. I declared it garlic planting day. We worked all day, from 8am until 3:30. In the chilly morning, we first sat inside and separated the cloves of the garlic heads of the five varieties we’d plant. Italian Silverskin, Rocambole, Sicilian Silverskin, Music, and Jane’s Hardneck.
We divided the cloves of each variety into four piles and plopped each lot into a clay pot, put them in a basket to haul out to the appointed bed. I like how the cloves look inside the pots, and how the pots look in a basket. The head gardener rolls her eyes at me, she thinks plastic would work just fine with a card board box as basket. I tell her planting the garlic is like the running of the bulls, a celebration. “Whatever”, she mumbles and out we go.
What? I thought to myself. The bed selected for this year’s garlic still had bean trellises, native plants, and a few rogue garlics that sprouted with the rains. I looked at the head gardener, and in as much of an anti-accusatory voice as I could muster said, “Hmm, I thought you said you’d take this all down while I was gone?” And she replied, coolly and calmly, “It all looked too beautiful to destroy. I wanted you to enjoy it when you came back.” And of course how could I argue with that? I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. In jig time we moved the palm sedge and ageratum out of the new garlic bed, dug elephant garlic we’ll use as leeks in soups, piled the bamboo for separating later, raked the bed smooth, and declared it ready for planting.
Planting garlic with autumn breezes, lovely sunshine, mellow soil, invites a leisurely pace. When the wind picks up leaves fall to delight the eye. I toss my head and close my eyes, it’s the essence of autumn, right now, on this November afternoon. Absolute perfection.
I’d made a note to cut down the amount of garlic we grow, and did, by 100 cloves. You see, in early July, when it’s time to dig the garlic, for some reason, that’s when the head gardener goes on vacation and few of my gardening friends come by, it’s hot and humid and the soil does not dig easily. What’s that expression that warns us about paying a price for a hasty decision, oh yeah, marry in haste, regret in leisure. Well for the garlic and planting, it would be, plant in Autumn, regret in the Dog Days. So this year it’s at 324 cloves, next year it’ll come down by how hard the digging is in July.
The head gardener makes the first thirty-foot furrow. I bend down and put in the stake for Italian Silverskin, pick up one of the terracotta pots and carefully plant the cloves 3 to 4” apart. Then in goes the next stake for Rocambole, and so on, until one pot filled with each variety has been planted, one long furrow, filled with garlic.
We trade positions, I make the furrow, she plants each variety in its turn. We both get lost in the process, the garlic looks beautiful, there aren’t too many mole runs we have to avoid (the garlic would free fall a good ways into one of those runs and never make it back to daylight) so we make good time.
Soon the last set of garlic goes in the fourth furrow, we’re both thinking about a beer and a rest. It’s been a long day. I remind the head gardener we must first haul over a bale of straw and cover the garlic. Several years ago some enterprising critter saw all the freshly turned soil and had a hay day going after cutworms, throwing garlic cloves every which way. What a mess! I learned new words after that episode. From then on, I made an iron clad rule: straw must go over the garlic before any beer gets poured. And so it was, is and ever shall be.
With the garlic snug in the earth, my anxiety vanished. All the other garden chores could wait. No panic to pull up tomato cages or take apart trellises. The clean-up will provide happy hours, even if it feels cold. Just pleasant, mindless work. My thoughts will travel many a road, some happy, some not so much. Through it all, I’ll feel eternally grateful my sweetheart brought me to Strawdog, where life might not always be easy, and sometimes the challenges seem too big, but it’s home, it’s where I belong. This piece of earth and I have made a pact. We belong to each other.