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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven and Compost…

House of compostWhen it’s time to sleep, thoughts disturb your peace of mind and prevent you from unraveling the cares of the day. You wake up in the night and your mind goes into hyper-drive. You try to sleep. You employ your “sleep techniques," whether they be reciting the poems you memorized in the eighth grade or, as I do, inventorying the items in Scout and Jem Finch’s cigar box. These irritants are usually minor but they seem to multiply and fester, become a “to do” list, and while there’s not much you can do in the middle of the night but fret, that’s what you do, wiling away those valuable hours of sleep and rest you need to address what can’t be done until daylight.

I had a night like that recently. That day I had cleaned the asparagus bed, raked off the leaf mulch and last year’s compost, cleared it off  down to the bare soil. To my surprise I discovered some asparagus spears had already sprouted. Much too early for that, I thought. I need to top off the raised bed with new compost and protect those tender spears from the frosty nights common this time of year. After sorting through that cigar box several times, I finally drifted off.

I back the truck into one of the bays at the Werkhovens’ digester. Earlier in the week I had emailed Jim asking him if I could load some “by-product” for my asparagus bed. “Help yourself,” Jim replied, and here I was on the working end of a pitchfork helping myself to a mountain of compost. What I forked into the truck bed looked to be premium stuff: nice, loose, cooked fiber that would amend the garden soil and the asparagus bed with nitrogen while at the same time controlling the weeds. The last couple of years the “by-product” rolled out of the drying drums in fiber balls, many of which didn’t seem to decompose in the garden. Not so with this load; each forkful broke and spilled easily in the bed of the truck. I forked the bed full and headed back to the garden to unload.smoking compost

During the day, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I listen to the radio. When I’m running errands, the truck radio keeps me company; working around the place, you’ll usually see this old farmer wearing a headset which serves a dual purpose: entertainment and inner ear protection when operating power equipment. Usually by noon—oftentimes before—I have heard as much news and radio blather as I can stomach. Up the dial I go to a station that features news and commercial-free classical music. This is the station I’m tuned to as I begin to spread the compost on the garden. The radio host introduces the next piece—Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As the familiar stirring  first four notes issue from the radio, I pause, pitchfork in hand, smoking compost swirling around my barn boots, and think as I stand here wearing my tattered jeans and work shirt, how out of context this tableaux must appear. First of all, as the pianist plays those ponderous four notes, I see Winston Churchill flashing the “V” sign with his fore and index fingers. Churchill with his greatcoat and bowler hat; Churchill with his cigar, watch chain looped across his vest; the Prime Minister, bulldog joweled, his brow wrinkled in a scowl that could divert a V-2 rocket. I think of the three-quarter notes followed by the longer half note, the same duration as the Morse Code equivalent of the letter “V” which became the digital symbol for victory during WWII. The venue for Beethoven would be a symphony hall filled with full orchestra under the direction of a tuxedoed gentleman waving a stick in their faces, both performing for a full house of  concert goers wearing suits and ties, gowns and corsages. But here I am: stooping and scooping compost from the bed of the truck while “dit-dit-dit- dah” blares from the radio. compost mountain

As I mentioned in an earlier post, music conjures up memories, recollections of past experiences, places and acquaintances of days gone by. Beethoven…and memory’s fancy transports me to a movie theatre where Stanley Kubrick’s film classic “A Clockwork Orange” is playing. A sociopathic youth named Alex, leader of a gang of young thugs bent on rapine and violence,  is drugged and strapped to a chair, his eyelids propped open while one violent movie after another spools before his eyes. Alex has been apprehended and justice will be served by subjecting him to aversion therapy through which he’ll be cured of his antisocial behavior and reformed. Part of Alex’s cure will be the drugs he’s forced to take which will make him nauseated whenever he sees scenes of violence. As one violent scene after another flashes before him, Alex, a lover of classical music, realizes the images he’s watching are accompanied by the music of his favorite composer, “Ludwig Van.” The composition he hears? Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Not only will Alex become violently sick whenever he views or participates in acts of violence, but also when he hears Beethoven’s music.

As the refrains of Beethoven’s 5th issue from the radio, I think about my morning caffeine. I think about the compost I’m standing in.unload me, please I think about my labor of loading it into the truck, unloading and spreading it in the backyard garden. And I think about Beethoven and aversion therapy. Then comes the silly thought: “What would happen if I became physically ill whenever I tried to shovel compost?”A very good thing for me, but the garden would not take it so kindly.compost blanket

Friday, March 22, 2013

When the Lion and the Lamb Converge…

spring snowfallThe swallows returned to the Valley on March 15, the Ides. Two days later the first Rufous hummingbird made its 2013 debut at our window feeder. The Rufous is our summer hummer and now the year-round Annas will have to compete with the more aggressive, territorial Rufous until its fall migration leaves the Annas sole proprietors of the syrup. Spring creepers—tree frogs—are again conducting their evening concerts at “Old Barn Pond” across the road: nocturnal frog lullabies; morning wake up calls courtesy of chirruping robins. And March 2oth promptly at 4: 02 a.m. PDT, the vernal equinox began its processional. Ahhhhh! Spring at last!

This morning I switched on the coffee pot and raised the kitchen shade to inspect the day. I looked out through a scree of snowflakes at a world of white: the lawn, garden, hedges—the roofs of Valley houses blanketed by snow. The white stuff has pretty much left us alone this “past”season. I can’t recall any accumulation here in the Valley this winter—certainly not enough to roll up a slushy snowman anyway. Snow the third week of March? What’s up with that!shivering iris

It’s location, location, location. That’s what’s up with that. The Valley lies in the crosshairs of what the local weather gurus call a“convergent zone.” The Ripple reports the Valley weather from time to time, grouses about it  just as often (Mark Twain said: “Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”) but because of its limited budget, there’s no meteorologist on staff. As a Valley resident always “under its weather,” I’ll do my best as a layman journalist to explain this so-called “convergent zone.” Unsettled weather systems target the Valley from the west, sidestep the Olympics’ rain shadow, tag team up with the weather gods from the north, then are sucked into the vortex of the Cascades, leaving the Valley at the mercy of inclemency. There, I’ve explained the entire phenomenon without a single mention of isobars, isotherms or millibars.dazed daffodils

(Whenever the wind blows the Valley trees sideways and the house shudders; whenever hail pellets ricochet off the roof or sleet pelts the windows; whenever raindrops drum the shingles mercilessly; whenever thunder and lightning rumble through the Valley like a marching band; or whenever while we’re driving out and about, the wipers can’t keep up with the rain sheeting off the windshield, the wife and I look at each other, shake our heads knowingly, and in the same breath say, “convergent zone!”)

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” the old saying declares. That might be so, but today is March 22nd, a snow day, and I say the lion still reigns…the lamb has yet to appear.late snow; late crocus

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Take a Little Off the Top…If You Can Reach It…

tree gone wildThis time of the year as I visit the Valley, I can’t help but notice the various stages of dishevelment the Valley’s fruit trees present. The dormant, defoliated apple trees display themselves as an unruly bunch of customers. Some have become an entire forest unto themselves, a dense confusion of twigs and branches. When Jonathan Chapman cast his apple pips about the countryside, I wonder if he gave any thought to the management of his efforts once they sprouted.prune me, please

I was raised on an apple orchard and participated in just about every facet of apple horticulture that comes to mind. The annual pruning of the orchard was an important routine; every tree in the entire acreage received a yearly haircut. In those days the orchard amounted to nearly 300 acres and not a single tree was neglected; each received its designated winter trimming. In mid-November the pruning crews converged on the rows of trees, and for the next three or four months we cut and trimmed for five and a half days a week.

My first recollection of pruning concerns the old standard red delicious variety of apple. These trees were huge, much like the specimens in our Valley. My very first victim was a day’s project. I climbed up into its branches in the morning, came down for lunch, and clambered up into its limbs again in the afternoon. If memory serves, pruning that first tree took me nearly the entire day. Thank goodness those old apple patriarchs were the last of their race.

For some strange reason I’ve had in mind to try my hand at pickling crabapples, so the other day I planted a bare root crabapple tree out back. After I dug the hole and added a couple shovelfuls of compost, I positioned the tree so the bud union cleared ground level by a good two inches and watered it in with a gallon of water/fish fertilizer solution. As I puttered and fussed over this lone little sapling, I thought about how shaping and pruning a fruit tree begins the moment it’s planted.

There are several reasons to employ a regular pruning regimen with your fruit trees, not the least of which is to prove who is to be master—man or the tree. For one, pruning promotes better fruit quality and quantity: opening up the center of the tree allows greater exposure to sunlight, coloring and ripening the fruit evenly; annual pruning  also leads to a consistent crop year after year instead of a bumper crop one year, a barren tree the next.  Secondly, pruning a tree helps shape it, insuring greater ease of pruning from one year to the next. Pruning also keeps the height manageable, prevents the tree from climbing into the heavens like Jack’s beanstalk. On the opposite end of the tree, proper pruning keeps the branches high enough from the ground so they won’t slap your hat from your head when you mow beneath it.

The height issue I addressed when I selected my “Calloway Crab M-7.” The “M-7” designation means my tree has been grafted onto a semi-dwarf rootstock which when pruning time rolls around means I won’t have to rent a bucket lift to prune the topmost branches. Dwarf fruit trees, depending on pruning styles, vary in height from 6-10 feet; semi-dwarves from 16 to 20. According to One Green World, from which I purchased my tree, the Calloway will be in the 6’ to 10’ range. Fine with me: a twenty foot crabapple would most certainly exhaust my pickling powers. For better maintenance and containment, I recommend the prospective backyard orchardist select dwarf rootstock whenever possible.

FYI: pruning of fruit trees begins at planting time. Once my Calloway Crabapple was firmly seated in the ground, I made my first pruning cut by snipping eight inches from the tip of the tree. snipping the tipLopping off the terminal tip of the new sapling accomplishes two things: the tree’s energy is diverted to the roots, encouraging root development, thus establishing a strong root system; nipping the terminal tip will force side branching, the point at which the gardener can begin shaping his tree. Off with its head: eight inches… cut just above a fat bud. It is advisable to stake the tree, too—especially here in our windy Valley. Once the tree establishes a sturdy root system and a straight trunk, the stake can be removed.

A well-shaped tree produces higher quality fruit and makes the task of pruning much easier. a well-shaped fruit treeThe end result is to create a tree that has only three or four “leaders,” the main limbs that branch from the trunk. Depending on the side branches, it may take a few pruning seasons to achieve this end. Patience is the key here. Because the shaping  takes place over a few years, don’t prune a young tree too heavily. To open up the tree’s center, it may be necessary to “spread” the branches. A piece of lath notched at both ends and cut to size serves this purpose well. Larger limbs can be pulled into the desired position by wiring the bent limb to a sturdy stake, forcing it away from the center of the tree. spreader in place(Man’s the master here, right?) A note of caution: bare wire around a branch will girdle it; thread the wire through a section of nylon tubing or old garden hose and position this buffer at the tension point around the limb.

As with any job, proper tools make it easier. Most pruning tasks can be accomplished with a long handled pair of loppers (the long handles allow for greater leverage to cut larger branches), a  pruning pole for a higher reach, a pruning saw, also on a long handle, and a sturdy hand-held saw. pruning toolsOh…and a three-point orchard ladder for those tippy-top branches you’ve given free rein by skipping a couple years of pruning (shame on you!) These tools should be sufficient if pruning is done regularly. Reserve chainsaw work for rotting or diseased leaders—or if you’ve been out of town for a dozen years and left your trees to fend for themselves.What a mess...

When it comes time for you and your tree to square off (you still have time but don’t wait much longer; the sap is starting to flow), consider following these steps: cut or snap off barehanded those frisky water sprouts (in orchardist parlance “suckers”) that bristle up the back of big limbs and leaders during the growing season. If these are lopped off, two more will appear in their place next season, so snapping them off is best if possible. After a half dozen years a node will develop and the suckers sprout from it like hairs from a mole. At this point, remove the node with a saw to avoid having to snip numerous individual suckers every season.bristling branch node

If you have large cuts to make—rotten or diseased leaders, thick limbs—make them next. Drooping limbs can be stiffened up by cutting them back (be sure to cut just ahead of a bud, especially if it’s a fruiting bud). Do the same with the vertical branches. Doing this will slow upward growth while at the same time promoting side branching and more fruiting wood. To allow more sunlight to reach the fruit, branches that overlie each other should either be cut back or one of the two cut off entirely. Over time these “crossover” limbs create a small jungle and will turn your tree into an unruly customer and come picking time create a barrier between you and your harvest. crossover limbs

After you have pruned your way around the tree, take a few steps back and check your work. Walk the perimeter for another perspective. I guarantee you’ll head back into the fray to snip another branch or two, do a bit more twig tweaking. If you have doubts whether to cut a branch or leave it, let it  rest until next year. The tree’s not going anywhere, after all, and if the branch needs to be removed, one more year will make it that more obvious. Pruning is not a a precise art. There comes a point, however, when you need to lay down your weapons and just walk away.

Perhaps you’ll never be a master gardener, a grandmaster at chess, a master chef or even a master of ceremonies. But when it comes to that fruit tree of yours, you can certainly show it who’s the master of the place.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pizza Night in the Valley…

oven readyWinter is the time of discontent. Daylight is short; darkness long. Nostril pinching cold on clear days (what few there are); fear of frozen pipes at night. Even during a “one snowman winter”when snowflakes double up on the roads, the entire world screeches to a halt. And when the cold gives way to the river of air known as The Pineapple Express, downspouts gush; gutters brim and overflow. Short pants and T-shirts are mothballed; bulky layers of sweats prevail. As if all this weren’t discontent enough, Papa Murphy’s “Ten Dollar Tuesdays”go on winter furlough. At times like this, you step up, you find that inner strength and reserve, you draw on resources you never knew you had, you toughen up,…you make your own pizza.

Our new pizza frontier began last summer at my brother Keith’s place on the banks of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. Keith, twenty years my junior and the youngest sibling in the family, taught this old dog a trick or two about grilling not steak, not brats, not chicken, nor burgers or hotdogs, but pizza, pizza constructed on a sourdough crust foundation.

Sourdough. Ours is a sourdough family, a sourdough lineage traced to Alaska where Granddad Mike, riding on the coattails of the Klondike gold rush of 1889, ran a roadhouse and a freight business. In a land of ice and snow, yeast shivered during the bread making process and prospectors turned to sourdough to get a rise out of their bread, biscuits, and hotcakes. Sourdough manufacture requires a “starter,” a fermented mixture that adds the “rise” to the baking dough. Seasoned prospectors, miners, longtime Alaskans were known as “sourdoughs” (newcomers were branded “Cheechakos) because of their universal use of sourdough. Story has it sourdough prospectors made their biscuits by pouring their starter into a fifty pound sack of flour, mixing the liquid starter to the top layer of dry flour and then forming their biscuits from the dough. Those old time bakers literally doughed their way to the bottom of the flour sack.

When Granddad emigrated from Alaska to Seattle, the sourdough starter emigrated to“The States”with him. I remember the hearty breakfasts in my grandparents’ big two story house in Seattle where he served us up a main course of sourdough hotcakes, hot from the frying pan, edges crispy, crusted from the sizzling bacon fat. There were seven or eight of us around the big dining room table and as soon as our plates emptied, they were heaped again--almost as if the hotcakes sprung from the plates themselves. If it looked like our eating was starting to slacken, we were encouraged to “eat up, eat up” to the point we children felt genuine hotcake intimidation. Only after we nearly foundered, sat dazed and glassy-eyed, did Granddad untie his apron and join us at the table.

At one time I thought the starters in our respective households were all direct descendants of that original starter from The Land of the Midnight Sun; however, my brother Kevin, the official keeper of the “Sourdough Crock,”believes this to be apocryphal. Regardless, Kevin’s “Grail Crock” has been maintained the longest. If not used or worked regularly, the starter will go flat and the “sour” will die. For years in our household Wednesday night would be “breakfast for dinner”and sourdough pancakes were the main course. One year, for whatever reason, the routine came under fire and as a consequence, the starter languished and died. At the family Christmas reunion Brother Kevin brought a replacement starter. But the tradition was doomed, and after a few weeks of inattention the starter deflated and had to be taken off life support. Upon request, Brother would supply yet another starter, no questions asked, from the “sacred crock.”

A surge of nostalgia three or four years ago resolved the Wednesday night sourdough “breakfast” stalemate, prompting a Sunday breakfast compromise our household has sustained ever since. So with a vital starter now at hand, we decided to make the most of it, thus our sourdough pizza crust.

Any sort of sourdough baking requires at least a twenty-four hour prep: the batter infused with starter must be allowed to “work” for that duration, to allow the mixture to “sour up, if you will. The sourdough cook needs to prepare enough batter for the meal plus a surplus to set aside to “start” the next baking project.

Aside from having to plan ahead a bit, the pizza dough is easy to make. A cup and a half of starter and an equal amount of flour are the main ingredients. I set aside a couple tablespoons of water in case the dough needs thinning. Once the dough reaches the correct consistency, two tablespoons of olive oil (note: is there such a thing as “olive oil” these days; isn’t it all “extra virgin” olive oil? ) and knead this into the dough. The oil gives the dough its wonderful elasticity and allows it to be rolled and formed with ease. Next I knead the dough by stretching and folding it back together by hand. For about ten minutes I walk around the house kneading (and exercising) as I go. Before carpal tunnel syndrome sets in, I form a ball and divide it in half with a pastry cutter. Each half will yield a “large” size pizza crust. The halves, rounded, are placed in two oil-lined bowls and covered to prevent their drying out. This second prep step should be done three or four hours before mealtime to allow the dough sufficient time to rise a bit.

Now comes the fun part: building your personal pizza, customizing it, creating a gustatory work of art…. This stage would be a great activity for the kiddos, guaranteed fun, time to allow the t.v. or video games to cool, let the smoke clear a bit. (The little helpers may need some assistance rolling and rounding the crust; I have problems with this step myself, but if round turns out to be a bit oval, it’s no disaster.) While the dough is on the rise, you have plenty of time to prepare the potpourri My wife likes straight vegetarian; I, however, like to include some animal protein with the vegetable selections for some omnivorous balance: diced chicken, turkey pepperoni, sausage…once I sprinkled a handful of shrimp around to give my masterpiece a seafood flair.

After the crusts are rolled and shaped, pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. This allows just enough time for the crusts to rise a bit more. Gently slide the crust onto a sheet of parchment paper. For the construction phase the parchment paper facilitates loading the pizza on the pre-heated stone and the baked crust slides easily from the paper onto a pan or cutting board once it’s cooked. Lightly brush the dough with olive oil to prevent the ingredients from soaking into the crust. For our red sauce foundation, we slather on homemade tomato sauce, half a pint per crust, layer on tomato slices and then the potpourri of ingredients piled on at random and top them off with slabs of mozzarella cheese.

Fourteen minutes later the sourdough pizza, toppings infused and oozing with mozzarella, is removed from the kiln and eased from the stone, readying it for pizza # two.His pizza








Her pizza








So take heed, Papa Murphy’s: two can play at this pizza game. Take a look at this winner…and on sourdough crust, no less….

serve it up

(“What here shall miss,” “will strive to mend.”)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Grounds for your Garden…Giving Back to the Soil…

grounds for the ground

My garden provides. I try to give back…. Here in the Tualco Valley we are blessed with a wonderful, thick layer of topsoil, thanks, I suppose, to the fact our Valley is a flood plain. Bottom land, they call it, soil that’s been deposited over time by flood action and consequent silting…a tradeoff, I guess, for the thirty days of the year we Valley folk have to worry about similar silt deposits on our carpets and flood waters wicking up our drywalls.

Even though I’m no agronomist, after thirty-seven years of backyard vegetable gardening, I’m well aware of what lies beneath my feet when I walk around my garden. Under a layer of dark, heavy topsoil lies a substratum of light, sandy loam, a fact that’s reaffirmed every time I dig holes to set my bean poles. loam subsoilAt one time my garden was most certainly stream bed and over time, flood action laid down the layer of loam. What is curious about this topsoil/loam combination is that it varies from one part of the garden to another. The east portion measures nearly fourteen inches of topsoil covering the loam; however, some thirty paces west, the topsoil is thinner with only four to six inches of the dark, heavier soil overlaying the lighter colored loam. The annual vegetable garden makes demands on the soil’s nutrients, and whenever possible I do what I can to amend the garden plot. For thirty-seven years I’ve been trying to build the depth of that thinner topsoil layer in this stretch of garden. topsoil, loam layering

My Granddad Mike had a small vegetable garden in his backyard. I remember a few scrawny tomato vines from which dangled a half dozen or so anemic tomatoes. A row of beets, a few spindly fronds of carrot tops. Might have been a potato plant or two (Granddad, like most folks from the Old Country, was partial to root vegetables), but memory is a bit fuzzy on this. What I do recall, however, is Granddad’s garden always smelled like coffee. Yes, his little garden plot was also the repository for the daily coffee grounds—coffee grounds and eggshells—Granddad’s way of giving back to the soil, a guarantee of a few more pale tomatoes and golf ball-sized beets.

Thanks to the folks at our local Starbucks I, too, catch the whiff of coffee in the off season whenever I pass my pepper and tomato patches. Each time I happen by the mound of dormant rhubarb, I have the urge to order a Grande Americano (just a little room, please), as well. Two of our local Starbucks take the time from their daily grind to package the shop’s daily grounds and offer them free to local gardeners. I always look for the plump, silver bags in the “free” bins and snatch one up whenever I spy it. The sticker sealing each bag includes information helpful to the backyard gardener. The liberal rainfall in the Pacific Northwest tends to leach our soils, budging their PH toward the acidic gradient—good for the cultivation of the berries for which our Valley is renowned. With coffee grounds, as the Starbuck’s label states, most of the acid is removed during the brewing process, rendering the grounds you broadcast on the garden high in nitrogen with a PH of 6.9, nearly neutral, good for the vegetable crop, less so if you have a berry patch.grounds facts

For those who wish their gardens to be decaffeinated or don’t have access to Starbuck’s free offerings, there are other ways to give back to your garden. Here are a few suggestions:

Green manure: plant a fall cover crop that’s turned into the soil in the spring. There are several types of crops that serve the purpose: clovers and vetch are nitrogen-rich additives. Winter rye, which I plant in October, works well in our Valley.chickweed Planting rye  is also an excellent way to control weeds in the garden. If your garden is a carpet of chickweed come spring, winter rye will solve your problem. The sections of my garden I leave as winter forage for birds are at present one mass of chickweed; the plot of rye I planted is chickweed free. Fall rye cover cropGrass clippings: layering the soil between vegetable rows and plants with summer lawn clippings not only serves as weed control but also adds nutrients to the soil. Grass clippings heaped in piles do not compost well, but clipped grass layered two to three inches thick between rows (I especially like to use them around my tomato plants) not only helps retain soil moisture during dry spells but also inhibits weed growth while at the same time giving back to the soil. The thin layers of clippings readily compost over the winter and are easily tilled under in the spring. (Tip: those piles of old newspapers you chuck in the recycle bin? Recycle them back to the soil instead; use those want ads and legal notices as a “floor” for those grass clippings.)

Leaf mulch: when the big maple tree in our backyard sheds its fall glory, I rake up the leaves and heap them on top of the dahlia hills for frost protection.dahlia bed In the spring after danger of frost has passed, I rake the mulch from the dahlias, scatter it over the thin topsoil portions of the garden, and turn it under. The raised bed of asparagus I also layer with leaves for frost protection and winter weed control. The fact the leaf mulch leaches nutrients into the soil is evident by the vermiculture that flourishes beneath the leaves. Earthworms forage beneath the mulch, help to decompose it, supplementing and aerating the soil in the process.earthworms and leaf mulch

Composting: even patio or container gardeners can supplement their raised beds, pots, or barrel halves with composted vegetative material. We keep a compost bucket handy for degradable (non-woody) vegetable matter, and when it brims, the contents are dumped on our compost heap out back. Periodic turning of the pile accelerates the transformation of raw material into a rich compost one can spread over the garden or mound around berry canes and the trunks of fruit trees. This shifting about of compostable materials is an efficient form of recycling and precludes the use of chemical fertilizers thus keeping your garden as organic as possible.

I live in a Valley which hosts large herds of dairy cows and fortunately have access to their “by product.” Because others don’t have that opportunity, I haven’t mentioned this other valuable resource for the backyard gardener. An old pioneer friend of mine, an avid gardener, once told me she attributed her successful gardens to  her following the directives of the Farmers’ Almanac (“…root vegetables by the dark of the moon” and such). I believe, however, the fact that each spring she also tilled into her garden a truckload of “winter accretion” from a local cattle feedlot was in greater part responsible for her success as a gardener (she’d never admit to this, though).

Maybe you don’t have a dairy farm for a neighbor; perhaps there’s no feedlot just over the hill, but you can still amend your garden soil. For example, if you’ve leisurely sipped a cup of coffee while reading this post, be sure to save the grounds and broadcast them on your garden.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Need a Lift?…From the Archives…

A sunny  winter day                 It’s a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed Ford,

                Slowin’ down to take a look at me….

                                                           The Eagles

Perhaps it wasn’t quite a March lion of a wind, more tom cat-ish, maybe, but blustery enough for me to leave balky Gladys at home in the garage and strike out on foot. I was just getting up to speed when a green Subaru from somewhere up High Rock slowly eased out onto the highway and headed toward town. Instead of quickly accelerating, which is highly advisable on 203, the little car rolled along the opposite shoulder. When I glanced over, the driver shouted across the road: “Do you need a lift?” The first thought that came to mind was: “No, but I could use a wheelchair.” What I replied, however, was: “No, just the exercise. But thanks.” The driver smiled, nodded and sped away. That left me thinking how unusual it is these days in the hustle and bustle of every day life with everyone in such a hurry to get somewhere that one would take the time to stop and extend the courtesy of a ride. I wasn’t even carrying a gas can!

Once upon a time we were a one vehicle family, a rarity these days, I’m sure. The wife and I shuttled each other around in a red 1970 VW beetle. On the way to my job I would drop her off at hers, pick her up in the afternoons, and we would ride home together. Summers for a few years called for some creative transportation. I had a few hoops to jump through to shed my “provisional” teaching certificate and acquire the “standard” certification. This meant that a few summers I had to attend a session of classes at my Alma Mater, Central Washington State College (“SWEECY” as it was known in its pre-university days). A rookie teacher had only so many years to complete his “fifth year,” so the pressure was on. Besides, I was frantic to stay at least a half step ahead of the sophomores. Transportation was a problem: my wife had her job and therefore needed the car. For a summer or two we would make the trip to Ellensburg on a Sunday and she would drive home alone, return the following Friday to retrieve me. I believe there would be two week periods during the six weeks of classes when we were out of each other’s hair.

One summer I was able to get a ride to and from North Bend with my roommate. My wife would drive me to the Mar-T Café Monday mornings and collect me there Fridays after she finished work. Two or three hours to kill in North Bend soon became tiresome; I was starting to hear the same truckers’ stories twice at the Mar-T. “Why not hitchhike to Monroe on Fridays?” I thought, instead of sitting at the Mar-T until my school clothes smelled of chicken fried steak. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And there was precedent for such an adventure.

“June 8, 1972,” I wrote at the top of the little spiral-bound notepad that was to chronicle my hitchhiking debut, “Left Monroe at 9:20 a.m.” Earlier that morning I had provisioned a little day pack with snacks, filled a boda bag with some May wine (vintage a month earlier, same year, hitchhiking on the cheap), and got my first ride…my wife drove me to town on her way to work. My destination?  My hometown in Eastern Washington, 175 miles away. What follows are a few entries taken from my scrawled journal recording the adventure:

First ride 10:20, Jerry Baker, a logger, strong views on environmentalists vs. logging. Stopped for coffee in Gold Bar. Ride from GB to 3 miles e. of Index. Time 11:10. 11:50—Got ride with long-haired type to summit of Stevens. Started hiking down 12:20. 12:50, guy in panel with two other hitchhikers. Heading for Leavenworth. Arrived 1:45. Picked up at 1:55 to Y-Café by two hot rodding kids. Picked up by Al McIlhenney 2:10 at Y-Café, heading for home. (He’s going to Okanogan.) Al will be a junior at the UW next year, a business major attending on a football scholarship. He’s a redshirt linebacker for the Huskies (likes Coach Jim Owens. It’s Rose Bowl ‘72, he hopes (football scholarship pays tuition and books, plus $117 a month room and board.) Has a summer job with Wash. State Ferries, a deckhand on the Winslow Ferry. Arrived in Brewster at 3:20. I paid him $2 [What a cheapskate, you say? Remember, two dollars those days would fill half a tank] for the ride and wished him luck. One more ride to the ranch with the boss’s daughter. I arrived at 4:20 with blisters on both feet. And my final entry: ‘A very worthwhile & enjoyable experience (a bit apprehensive at times).’

So with that initial “worthwhile and enjoyable experience” in my hitchhiking repertoire, I decided to hop down off that counter stool, leave the Mar-T and the p.m. coffee drinkers to their gossip. This, mind you, I did on a whim; mobile and cell phones were years away, and I had no way of communicating my rash vagabondage to my wife, nor did I know when she got off work, whether early or late. My plan was to tell the good Samaritan who offered me a lift to keep an eye out for a red VW beetle in the oncoming lane, flash his lights at it, wave, do anything necessary short of running her off the road to get her to stop. At the time I  believed I’d most likely make the fifty minute journey home before she left.  How surprised she’d be to find me at home when she arrived from work.

That was over forty years ago and much of that adventure is lost in the mists of time. I can’t recall having to flag down a little red VW bug, so I must have arrived home before she did. Of the drivers who offered me a ride I only remember two. The first one was some teenage kid driving what he  most likely thought was a hotrod, but what I recall as a hunk of speeding scrap metal. Even now if I close my eyes, I can see the hole in the floorboard by the chrome gearshift and the pavement blurring by, the startling number of times the pavement shifted back and forth from black to yellow, so many times in fact, I began to wish I had spent less time watching Sunday football and more time in church. When the kid let me out in Carnation, I was so weak kneed I could hardly stand; it was a bona fide “kiss the ground” moment.

My second ride brought relief bordering on delight. Whatever vehicle it was that slowed and stopped, I’ve forgotten. Not so its driver whom I recall with pleasure even as I write this: a young lady, early twenties, I’d say, slightly younger than this hitchhiker then. I remember her as slight in stature--five foot two, maybe--a perky young thing with short, curly black hair. She was wearing a light summer dress, frock-like, that rested lightly just above her knees. A light yellow fabric, I recall, warm like that summer evening. A floral print…pastels? And an easiness about her that soon made me forget the previous perilous ride. I don’t remember how far we’d driven, a few miles I guess, before I posed the question I’d wanted to ask ever since I had blurted “Thanks,” and hopped in. “Aren’t you afraid of giving rides to strangers, especially men?” She turned, shot me a rather quizzical look, and said, “Not really. I’m on my way to visit my probation officer and he’s expecting me.” How does one respond to that kind of information? All I could think to say was “Oh!”