Of Weeds and Berries

It’s getting busy in the garden. There are tasks each day. Weeds to pull, fruit to harvest, and the occasional flowers to cut for the vase. This last I’m not doing very much, though, mostly because I’m not home enough to enjoy them. But also because I don’t have as many cutting flowers as I usually do. My annuals started so late, it may be September before I see the sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, and marigolds that I usually plant for cutting. And for the bees…

Which have been noticeable only in their absence this year… I’ve been writing about the collapsing bug population for years now, but this summer the change is drastic. I hardly see any hover-flies or native bees. There are some honeybees now and again because there is a beekeeper up the road. Not nearly as many as last year though. There was about a week of fireflies, but they’re gone already. I’ve seen next to no butterflies aside from cabbage whites. The buzz saw of love-lorn cicadas is starting up, but I wonder if the singer is going to find anybody… it seems like there might be only one bug…

On the other hand, there are just as many black flies, midges and mosquitoes as always. You cannot have bare skin in Vermont… especially when it’s humid. Which it nearly always is in the morning when I have time to get out there and pull weeds. 

I’ll admit I don’t love weeding… though it’s not as bad as, say, turning the compost pile or cleaning the hen house. But still… Not fun. Usually uncomfortable. Never done. And responsible for quite a number of broken fingernails. Still, it isn’t as bad as turning the compost pile or cleaning the hen house, and when the weather is lovely it can be meditative and calming.

But not on the 4th of July.

On the 4th, I spent my day free from wage work trying to catch up with the garden work. I had planned to do this. I was not dreading it or much concerned about the work load. It was a beautiful day for it, with a cooling breeze to blow away the biting insects. But it did not take long for me to work up an incandescent fury.

First, there was the idiocy all around me. The lovely breeze and the season’s first cicada song were drowned out by revving engines (to the tune of $5/gallon!), explosions… and the inevitable fire engine sirens. I don’t think one truck in our city fire department fleet got to spend more than twenty minutes in the garage all day long. It was a parade of almost constant alarms. Because people would light fireworks on a dry day in a stiff breeze. Worse, these people spent hundreds of dollars to incinerate these bits of paper and gunpowder. Probably had to travel a good distance to acquire the bits also because I’m pretty sure you can’t buy fireworks in Vermont. And this was in the middle of the day when the only appreciable effect of lighting the fuse is noise. The actual fire is lost in the daylight. Except when sparks jump to the nearby car or the brush pile or the house… hence the stream of fire engines.

So all the pops, bangs and sirens were a constant needling reminder of the stupidity of humans. But then the weeding job itself was another one… because it shouldn’t have been as bad as it was.

I just built these raised beds. I painstakingly forked out the weeds and grass from underneath them, laid down paper weed barrier, and filled the beds with what was supposed to be compost. I paid rather a lot for this compost, as opposed to buying a bucket of dirt from Agway or something. But I did not get compost. I got a pile of someone else’s yard waste. It is nearly devoid of good organic material — except for about six million weed seeds… all of which have germinated in the past few weeks. Name a noxious weed, any noxious weed, and I’m quite sure it’s now invading my new raised beds.

There are sweet potatoes in here somewhere…

As an exercise, try to find the sweet potatoes in this bed. I spent about an hour on this 4’x10’ bed alone. This is the nastiest mess I have ever experienced. One builds raised beds to avoid this very problem… So the fact of these beds over-filled with weeds just ticked me off.

Proper composting should break down seeds and regenerating plant material (like ground mint or poison ivy which can sprout roots from any bit of severed stalk in contact with dirt). Maybe this is the best we get in the land of cold composting, but if so, then maybe we shouldn’t be charged compost prices for what is actually just fill dirt. 

Initially, I tried to pull each seedling as it came up, but the hours spent at my new bookstore job got in the way of that… and I wasn’t winning that race anyway. So I decided to change tactics and let them compete against each other. I let the beds grow out a bit before pulling the unwanted plants, with the idea that maybe the shaded soil would yield up fewer germinating seeds. This worked to some extent because, as you can see, all the weeds were about the same size. There were very few sprouts underneath the canopy of weed. But weeds being weeds, they also started crowding out my veg before I managed to find time to pull them.

Same bed after weeding…

I couldn’t even make lemonade out of the experience. I couldn’t call this a bed of free greens because I don’t like lamb’s quarters and garlic mustard — and those were the most palatable species. Most were not even edible; some were outright poisonous (though so are lamb’s quarters unless you know how to prepare them). Also, I just don’t want greens growing where I’ve planted beans and sweet potatoes and squash. I am pugnacious (Irish) enough to want to harvest what I intended to grow in a given bed, not a random selection of barely edible volunteers. I get irritated when those plans are thwarted — especially by stupidity. And calling this infested dirt “compost” is just stupid!

So I was angry. Angry at myself for letting the weeds get out of control. Angry at the people who sold me weed-choked dirt at compost prices. Angry at the continual explosions and sirens all around me. And in the midst of all this anger…

An older man pulled into my driveway, got out of his car, hobbled over to the veg garden, introduced himself and proceeded to thank me for putting all this work into the garden he has to drive by on the way to his dialysis… (My jaw hung open a bit on that one…) He said my veg patch, weeds and all, is a bright spot of happiness in his day. He talked for a long time about the gardening he used to do. He told me he’s been sad because he can no longer tend to a garden of his own. And in any case, he said he’d never been able to turn out a veg patch as neat and productive as these beds that had, up until the moment he drove up, had me in a towering rage. 

Ahem… duly chastened… after he left, I listened for the cicada song and ignored the sirens. I looked at my future harvest and ignored the weeds. I saw the garden beds with new eyes. Now, I won’t say the anger evaporated. I am Irish after all. But it was tempered… made into a steely resolve, I’d say. And my day was much nicer because of his kindness.

So I finished the weeding and set about tackling the berry harvest. That first round of strawberries was all I got from my own plants before the rodents found them. The delay was odd because the plants have been in that spot for over a year, and I’m pretty sure there are chipmunks living in the pile. The squirrels run through the bed regularly to get to the back-door bird feeder. So I don’t know why they let the first berries go. Maybe kindness? (Right…) Maybe a first fruits sacrifice to their deity of the garden? (Hm…)  But now they’re not even waiting for the berries to swell. They’re eating them as soon as the little green nubs appear on the end of the shoots. This is more what I expect from rodents. I’m just glad I got a couple quarts before they began their normal marauding because most years that’s far more than I get to harvest — unless I cover the beds. 

These are quart bins!

But I did get a couple quarts. And I’ve planted more two-year-old plants in other parts of the yard for production next year. And I’ll be planting another strawberry mound in the veg patch this autumn. So I should get a decent harvest in the future. However, this year, I’ve bought from the local farms. I’ve got 12 quarts in the freezer now and will probably bake a few dozen muffins and scones to freeze for fall snacks. Of course, there are always a few berries from each top-heavy quart that don’t fit on the baking sheet that I use to freeze them. So, I’ve also eaten fresh berries and my own fresh yogurt for breakfast for many days running now. I would never tire of that meal!

But strawberry season is running down. (It’s July! How did that happen!) So it’s time to transition to raspberries. I have canes from the former folks that produce a heavy crop of black raspberries. These aren’t as flavorful as I’d like, neither as sweet as red raspberries, nor as tart as blackberries. But the birds and rodents mostly leave them alone because these canes have vicious thorns. So, given a certain tolerance of abrasion, I get to eat the majority of the berries. (Though there was a debate with a robin who was clearly put out by me picking the berries he hadn’t already eaten…) They make good jam and are pretty good in scones and I can freeze these as well. They’re small enough that a pint freezer-bag can hold more than a week’s worth of breakfast berries. I should get 6-8 pints out of these bushes. Should keep me in raspberries for the winter.

A few red raspberries…

Now, I don’t like having only one kind of berry, so I planted red and golden ones last year. These were canes that my employers had put on clearance. No idea what the varieties actually are. The plants had fruited in the pots so I could tell what color they were, but that was it. They aren’t fruiting heavily this year, perhaps because the canes didn’t have a chance to develop last year, having spent the growing season in a 6” plastic pot. But they have sent up a half dozen canes on each plant this year, so next year will be a fence-row of fruit.

My first ever shallot!

Even though I love them, I hope my berries are mostly done here in the next couple weeks because the rest of the early harvest veg is getting really close to ready. I pulled my first shallot this week to see how they were doing. I think they’re done, but I’m going to wait for the greens to turn brown before pulling the rest. The carrots and beets are looking fat at the soil surface, so they’re about done too. And the onions probably will be ready by the beginning of August.

I have to get that new cold frame built before the onions are pulled. I decided that it could double as a summer house, giving me someplace dry and sunny to cure the onions. Under glass and set on dry straw, they should be ready for storage within a few days. I was concerned about that particular step here in cool and humid Vermont because there is no dry place for airing them out in the warm sunlight they need to toughen up their skins. So my impulse winter veg bed turned out to be an onion saver.

That will be another project for next week. Or the week after… Because I still have a pile of mulch that I need to move around. I could not do that this week because I smacked my hand at work and managed to bruise the middle finger spectacularly. It was so swollen that for a day or so, I was worried that I’d broken some bit of the joint. (Son#1 made me ice it — which I did — and suggested rather forcibly that I go get it looked at — which I did not do…)  It still hurts to type today. I could not manage a shovel. But the swelling is gone, so by next week it ought to be fine. 

Which is good because it’s definitely a busy time in the garden right now. No time for swollen fingers or flaming wrath… And it is July… turn around and it will be September. In fact, the weather is already hinting at autumn, with cool morning mist that turns into warm sun and blue skies. It has to hold off for a few more weeks though. I want to harvest tomatoes and chiles!

©Elizabeth Anker 2022