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Friday, June 10, 2011

It’s a Long Way Down Off that High Horse: A Valley Garden Lament…

Contented cows

I happened upon Jim Werkhoven the other day. The morning was chilly, more spring-on-hold weather, and Jim was warming up his left ear with his Blackberry. Gladys and I slowed our torrid pace and as we passed, I threw a question over my shoulder, a question I smugly knew the answer to. “Got your corn in yet?” Jim switches the Blackberry to his other ear and multi-tasks an answer: “No, not all of it,” Jim replies and shakes his head in frustration.

Days later I ride by the Werkhoven cornfields and lament the neat furrows bristling with newly sprouted green spears, recall my last exchange with Jim and am reminded of my braggadocio in an earlier post (“Bragging Rights in the Valley…,” May 15th). Now it appears this fall’s fritters won’t come from our corn patch; I’ve had my bragging rights revoked.

It’s been my experience here in the Valley that each year’s gardening season presents new challenges. There’s the weather, sure, but then there’s always the weather and it’s predictable for the weather to be unpredictable: late frosts nip the tomato plants you started indoors in woodstove warmth. Rain, wind, and the occasional freak hailstorm wreak havoc on the backyard garden plot. But we’re all used to that here in the Valley. No, it’s Mother Nature’s menagerie I’m talking about now, those animal and insect pests that pass through your plantings and leave fatter than they came. If it weren’t for the traffic noise at night, I’m sure you could hear the slugs and snails grinding away on the leaf vegetables. I’ve had renegade raccoons pull down my corn, strip the ears from the stalks, and hold their own nocturnal golden jubilation. A couple seasons back I mistakenly planted my cucumbers over a major mole run and discovered cucumbers are not epiphytic: the roots dried up; so did the plants, shriveling that year’s pickle production. Last year it was a rabbit, a young cottontail that blazed a well-worn bunny trail from the woodshed to the carrots and mowed down the carrot tops like a vegematic. And when the carrots were topless, bunny moved on to the lettuce and pastured there. Dogs and cats stray through the tilled patch and with unerring aim tramp on the seed beds, plod down the new sown rows like they’re walking a chalkline. And that loosely turned soil? It’s just one big sandbox servicing all the cats in the neighborhood.

And then there are the birds. As soon as the last blueberry is set, robins set up camp in the shade of the bushes and siesta there, awaiting the first blue blush. Little brown birds do the same in the raspberry row, ever vigilant for the first pink to appear. In the years before the Qualco digester added its spark to the Valley, I would back my truck up to the huge pile of manure that collected beneath the separator, shovel the bed full of organic and head back to enrich the garden plot. One of these loads, for some strange reason, contained a considerable amount of corn kernels. Before I had a chance to till in the manure, a flock of pigeons discovered the corn and moved in to feed. When the corn was gone, the pigeons noticed the garden peas, helped themselves, and when I was off the property for a few days, uprooted an entire row of newly sprouted seed. Before the grape arbor collapsed, you always knew when the grapes were ripe. A cloud of starlings would descend on the vines. Then there would be one giant communal belch issuing from the flock as they rose from the stripped the vines, scattering the landscape with grape seed. And the walnut tree’s first crop? A flock of fifteen crows hauled off the nuts before the squirrels even had a chance.

Now this year’s corn fritters have frittered away because of a new avian issue: jays, a pair of ‘em who have nested somewhere in the vicinity. In my May fifteenth post, I mentioned the missing seed from a furrow I had sowed but left uncovered. I told myself then those jays would be problematic. Do I know jays, or what! Sure enough: that corn seed I planted, that very seed I got into the ground before the johnnies-on-the-spot, those kings of silage, the Werkhovens—a first ever for this backyard gardener—was doomed. No sooner had the first corn spiral of garden 2011 surfaced from the soil than the better half of Mr. and Mrs. Jay swooped down and plucked it from ground before the unsuspecting sprout could throw its first leaf. Before long, each corn row looked like a cribbage board, each hole the exact diameter of a bluejay’s beak. This farmer is nothing if not persistent. I took a dowel, pushed it down each beak hole, and dropped in a fresh seed, covered it up.

Wait a week. Up came the corn. Down came the jay. Up came the corn seed. The jay feasted on the green sprouts—corn salad—and then tossed them off with the swollen kernels. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” How about three times? Four? The farmer’s persistence, time immemorial: I doweled, redoweled, planted and replanted. You know, there comes a time when you’re up against that kernel of truth: your corn patch is the jays’ salad bar and there you have it. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A jay’s smorgasbord. And you’re paying the tab.

I try a diversion tactic: insert an ear of field corn on the birdfeeder, but that proves futile. The kernels disappear off the cob row after row…but there’s that maize salad bar, you know. The collective term for a flock of crows is “ a murder of crows,” and murder is on my mind now: a murder of jays. With me the triggerman. But I think of the jays: how much we enjoyed their jaunty presence at the feeding stations this winter…their blue perkiness to liven up a dreary winter’s day. And now that the jays think the garden is one big feeding station, and then treat them to a hefty dose of # six birdshot? The irony of it all was too overwhelming. Out came the tiller—I’ll show ‘em-- and what few sprouts remained I tilled under.

So as I ride past Werkhovens’ newly sprouted corn, it’s with a keen sense of loss. “From braggart to corn pauper in the space of three short weeks,”I think as I ride on home to the first vegetable garden we’ve had in the Valley that won’t have three or four rows of sweet corn swaying in the breeze on a hot summer’s day. But our loss is the Corn King’s gain. Looks like the corn for our fall fritters this season will be courtesy of Kurt’s Vegetable Stand.

And the new, empty garden space? Well, I’ve planted rows of beans in the void. If the jays choose to feast on bean sprouts, at least they’ll be singing a different tune!

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