Falling In Love with Bumblebees While Being Maddened by Gophers

 

 

Managing the ecosystem in the garden is one of the biggest jobs for an organic gardener. Too much of anything can mean disaster. The rhythm of the garden commands respect and patience. I mostly serving at the whims of the seasons and try to balance the conditions and needs of the plants with the weather and pest control. Gardening is my time to slow down, a respite from computers, phones and any stress. I retreat into the land, and it holds me steady.

 

I love to watch bumblebees at home in my garden. They let me know exactly where they are with a nice loud buzz that must be a greeting. I respond with a hearty “Good Morning, Ma’am Bombus. How do you do?” To which I normally get told what area is off limits to me for whatever activity is on my task list. I’ve planted small beds of the bees’ favorite flowers here and there to keep them happy after the lavender is harvested and the blueberries are ripe. This is an opportunity to extend community to my flying insect pals. I work in a different spot from my bee friend in deference to her earlier arrival, chatting amicably all the while. I’m teaching my eight-year-old helper not to run and scream when she sees one, but to say a greeting and watch her skillful work. It’s working. She’s learning not to respond to sighting them with blood-curdling screams. Instead, she now greets them nicely if cautiously. I have to laugh because I was exactly the same way when I was eight.

 

This week’s big job is hacking back the Mexican Sage, which is prolific and unplanned. It creeps in from under the fence of my neighbor’s yard. It’s not native but the humming birds love it, and I cannot do without their charming presence so I care for the sage as if I had planted it myself. I’m removing the woody dead branches and the spent flowers with mildew tops so that the new growth can be unencumbered by the old. I’m sure the aesthetics of the landscape pleases the birds and bees alike. We are all in good company as the rain promises to see us into an early spring.

 

While weeding the vegetable beds and I notice two healthy broccoli plants are floppy and wilted. After a careful inspection, I notice the mouth of a burrow that connects where each plant previously stood tall and fertile and the tenderly nibbled roots. This critter wants shelter from the resident hawk, that’s obvious. It also likes to eat well. But if he takes out any more healthy plants, I’ll offer him up to Madam Hawk myself! Who is this new fellow? I ask myself, and How do I make friends? I imagine a plot of carrots secretly devoured and my heart sinks. I’ve got to find a solution quickly! This week I will plant some garlic next to the Broccoli because I heard from a friend that gophers hate garlic. I’m schedule for a Saturday seminar on gopher control, and in the meantime I’ve scooped out a few healthy spoonfuls of cayenne pepper into all the holes I could find. I’m not sure that will work either, but most critters are not running around munching chili peppers for fun. I’m desperate, people, and I don’t want to hurt the gopher, but I do want to eat my broccoli myself! Wah!

 

Since the rains have started, I’ve noticed some mildew or rot on some of the blueberry branches. I don’t know what this means, but I’m on high alert. So much of Gardening is waiting and responding to nature. My life has become bound to the cycle of growth in the garden, and an interdependency has formed between us. We need each other to survive. I cannot let a day go by without connecting in some small way.

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Lessons from Our First Six Months in Majestic Garden: Eating Local and Organic in San Francisco

Gardening is contagious. When people come over and see our garden, they say things like, “I could probably do this at my house.” It goes on from there. I find myself sharing insights, putting random seeds in soils and working in other people’s gardens. My mother calls me for progress reports. We’re planning an expansion to new areas and thinking about adding a compost bin and chickens. I’m suddenly a locavore, harvesting collard greens minutes before dining. It’s all too easy even though I spend hours in the garden every week.

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Dinosaur Kale

 

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Dinner!

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Roman Broccoli

Maybe this all seems normal to someone, but not to me. This is an extraordinary occurrence. I’m a woman who grew up in New York City, believing that food comes from cans in supermarkets. The idea of fruit growing on trees did not take root in me until my late twenties when I walked around Oakland in late summer, eating from the bounty of the neighborhood. The metaphorical light bulb turned on in my consciousness, and I knew then what I had never understood before—that food grows from the earth. You can laugh, and please do, because I did and still am laughing, but this is a reality for too many urban youth, who like me, have not experienced a food culture unmitigated by mass-produced and commercially-driven enterprises, packaged in cellophane and built to last. So it is with this charge that I dutiful show people pictures of things growing in my garden, and when possible, share its bounty. I snap snow peas off the vine, offer one and eat the other warm from the sun because I know from experience that the caterpillars won’t wait either. I bake delicious homegrown vine-ripened blackberry-laden desserts, sauté garden-fresh collards, juice kale for my friends and bring a just-cut cauliflower to a dinner party. We have choices that nourish us.

I want two things now. The first is to share my excitement, knowledge and passion for gardening with others, which is no surprise since I am a teacher. The second is to share this magic with my community. How to do both is slowly becoming clearer, more certain.

Many of my garden experiments are instinctual and daring. Soil quality in our yard varies tremendously from rocky to claylike to dusty. The sun is intense all day in one corner year around, while it shifts seasonally left of center. When something doesn’t look right, I make adjustments. For example, pests attacked most of the beets in the first bed we planted in late summer; they had grown crowded and knotted, nothing like the carefully spaced seedlings I originally put down. I decided to transplant them to a lower bed and to clear out the infestation as much as possible. After uprooting bunches of them, I worked a new dry bed into small sections and unraveled the beetroots that had grown twisted together. Within weeks, the new bed was lush green and burgundy with every indication that the transplants were thriving. I had a new problem owing to a minor change. I hadn’t mulched the new bed as I had done with my initial plantings. Now I have a generous weed problem that keeps me attentive and reflective. No one told me I could do this. I just tried it. I’m like a mad scientist with a shovel and chicken-manure compost. Those beets look about ready to eat. As I water the garden, Mr. Hummingbird supervises the care of the Lilac. He knows that one’s for him.

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Fuchsia

Lessons learned in the garden are easily shared intergenerationally. When I helped some friends start a vegetable plot in their garden several weeks ago, I made sure to recommend mulch. These are the lessons that can be shared from observation, trial and errors. My little expert preadolescent gardening friends, twin daughters of fellow urban gardeners, recommend that we release ladybugs at night and get them a house to increase retention. I listen carefully to their wisdom and ask questions; after all, they’ve been gardening all their lives. I weed, plant and water with my eight-year-old friend. I know she understands the land better than I do already. One day, if all goes according to plan, she’ll eat avocados from my yard. They’re her favorite.

There are other valuable lessons to learn from gardening. Our distinct San Francisco microclimate is a good teacher. A longer growing season also means cycles that aren’t as clear as a traditional spring-planting and fall-harvesting ones. The latest cold spell took out several lovely perennials, including a blooming fuchsia. I was surprised and saddened by the death. I would have taken action against the frost if I had anticipated its demise. The lantana and the fuchsia had both been thriving, now they have withered and died. Our dark leafy greens can weather it all, but delicate blooms favored by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds need to be protected during periodic cold fronts. Our dry, sunny and cold winter does not nurture the earth, especially when one considers there is no dormant cycle. I’m learning to pay attention to new kinds information. Also, one feels and understands drought intimately when gardening. How does one bed a blooming garden?  Compost, mulch and water until the rains come. Pray for rain.

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Brussel Sprouts

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Cauliflower

While we continue to expand the garden, breaking and carrying out decades-old concrete, driving questions emerge. Can I really live off my land? Is this a viable option? Will this garden sustain us? Maybe with some chickens and more diversity—we’ll plant carrots and beans this year—we can make it last. We take fewer visits to the market, but produce is cheap. Maybe this year I’ll learn to can and make jam. I’m not going back to the land, because I didn’t come from it, but I’m claiming something even more powerful and magical: growing a life in my home, giving an entirely new connotation to the concept of land ownership. I’m now the steward of my little plot, responsible to a pair of mating hawks, resident humming birds, our local squirrel and some prowling raccoons and cats, among the numerous life forms we witness on any given day. Dead bees break my heart and crawly bugs encourage me. It would be wonderful for this ecosystem to sustain us all for years to come. This is possibly a legacy that redefines local and organic food. I know what’s in it because I know what I put into the ground. I’m not a farmer, am I? I’m too deeply in love with the smell of wet dirt not to be. I now dream of grapevines and fruit trees, ferns and broccoli, strawberries and dahlias. What did I dream of before?

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Our First Terraces, Summer 2013

 

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Majestic Garden, January 2014

 

The Reiki Garden

It may be surprising that I love to garden since I have been a city-dweller since birth. Somehow I cultivated this passion on a Canadian farm in Quebec during my teenage years and later as various friends or family members had gardens, I’d throw my heart into the work and get my fingernails caked with dirt. So it shouldn’t be shocking that when we finally found our home in San Francisco, I couldn’t wait to break open the concrete laminating the outdoor space surrounding our house and plant some seeds.

From the start, hours of autumn harvesting the hardy blackberries growing from the cracks in the concrete gave me great pleasure. As blackberries are indigenous to our hillside, they seemed to multiple with every trimming, and we were feeding the neighborhood blackberry cobblers, muffins or baskets of ripe, sweet berries. I soon wanted more vegetation that I could take ownership of and have pride in.  That’s when I learned the limitations of my new micro-climate.

It’s important to mention I live in the fog belt of San Francisco. During the summer months we go weeks without sunshine. In fact, we routinely don’t see the sun between June and September. It tends to be balmy, windy and chilly in the Oceanview. On occasion, the early-morning fog is so thick that we can’t see the houses across the street. It’s no wonder then, that last year my sweet peas didn’t flower, my lavender didn’t root and that my basil rotted on the stem, not to mention my withered broccoli or my stunted peppermint. All of this not withstanding, I remain as of yet, undeterred, especially as I have a new tool in my tote.

Tending to my garden feeds and nurtures my soul. As early spring found me ill and unable to socialize and the long winter began to recede, I was totally ready to get back to my little potted garden. Pulling weeds, planting, beautifying, trimming and cleaning are invigorating. I observed as I repotted that several plants from last year never matured. I spruced, swept and watered. Then, I sat down to give each plant a Reiki treatment. The results have been extraordinary.

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Fog View

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Apple Tree
After my impromptu experiment, I read that one should always give Reiki energy to the roots of the plant first and foremost. My approach lacked balance. Apparently, it is possible to overdo it. I found that the plant that was flowering really couldn’t tolerate that much fruit. It might hurt the tree in the long run.

On the other hand, the tree that was almost dead was able to communicate with me about its needs. I understood that it needed a bigger pot and better soil drainage. The plants are teaching me to be a better gardener.

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Orange Tree

As in all things, we have to let ourselves make mistakes. Even though I felt I had hurt the apple tree with the flood of energy, I could see that with my careful attention and focus on the plant, I could help strengthen the roots and meet her needs by listening carefully. I also sang to the tree, giving her permission to slow down the growth. The leaves have since filled out nicely, growing darker and broader.

The beets that I planted last year are an entirely different challenge. I may need to start over.