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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Companions and Companion Planting…

tractor show signGladys and I are cruising along the Lower Loop Road when we’re aware of some oncoming traffic. Farm machinery, it is—not an unusual sight along Valley roads. As we converge, I see the machine is a very old tractor and as coincidence would have it, I had just pedaled past a new Valley sign promoting the Sky Valley Antique Tractor Show, the Valley’s homage to workhorses of yore and the days of furrows long gone by. I am momentarily confused because this year’s farm extravaganza is yet a month away. Never before have I seen so much rust move so fast and cause such a racket. The machine rattles toward me, slows, and clatters to a stop as I ride into a cloud of exhaust. The driver of the animated pile of rust pokes at a lever or two, pushes one, pulls another. The machine gives a reluctant rattle and cough that echo off the cliffs of High Rock. The sudden quiet stuns. Bert Frohning grins.  His eyes twinkle like the kid who’s just finished a ride on a rattling roller coaster.

Time in the Valley might seem to go by more slowly than in metropolises like Monroe and Duvall, but regardless if you’re on Valley time or Seattle time, time sneaks by whether you like it or not… so memory escapes me if this is Bert’s first or second year of retirement.Time aside, suffice it to say, these days Bert’s a retired gentleman.

(“Retirement.” No matter how you spin it, the word has negative connotations: “Out to pasture,” “rocking chair”… “golf.” However, if you are still one of  the nine to five crowd, not having your mornings dictated by the alarm clock sounds pretty darn good. A word to the wise, though, you nine to fivers: once you’re retired, there are no more Fridays to look forward to.)

“So how goes retirement?” I ask Bert, but before he has a chance to respond, I step on his answer and say, “You’re busier now than ever, right?” There’s that twinkle in the eye again. Bert nods. “I thought so,” I said as I’ve found this to be true of myself.These days Bert Frohning is an “agricultural entrepreneur”; he’s in the vegetable business and in a pretty big way. The Sky Valley Food Bank is the beneficiary of Bert’s new hoop house and an extra acre or two of crops. He’s their hero, the king of cucumbers, the Zoro of zucchini, and the baron of beans. “I’ve dropped off about 2,000 pounds so far,” Bert tells me. In fact Bert’s such a regular supplier he has stretched the food bank’s inventory. “They called the other day,” he laughed, “to tell me, ‘Bert, we can’t use any more cucumbers right now!’”

Not only is the Sky Valley community benefiting from Bert’s farm (and retirement), but he is working on a project that will allow students enrolled in Monroe High School’s Vo-Ag program the opportunity to plant, grow, and harvest vegetable crops from his acreage and distribute them among the local charities. Due to some staffing issues at the high school, the plan is currently on hold.

As the antique tractor drips oil and naps, Bert and I exchange garden notes. Our discussion takes a strange turn and suddenly we’re talking  radishes. But when you’re retired, time is of little consequence; time is an errant soap bubble, an amorphous thing adrift on the wind; time, if you’re retired, leaves you free to discuss radishes at your leisure until you’re ready to move on to turnips, or beets, carrots… grandchildren, or as later it turns out, honeymoon cruises.

“Do you get root maggots in your radishes?” I pose, testing the waters on this subject. “Not since I built the hoop house…for some reason that fly doesn’t like working under cover,” Bert replies. A gardening goal of mine this year is to raise a crop of radishes for pickling (a delectable pickled treat I sampled in a restaurant side dish last winter). Here on the place I have never had a crop of radishes I didn’t have to share with root maggots, so planting a row again this season would be rather akin to what Dr. Samuel Johnson said of a man marrying twice: “It’s the triumph of hope over experience.” Root vegetables, in our garden, with the exception of beets and potatoes—carrots and turnips, in particular—become a smorgasbord for the larvae of the radish fly. “You know,” I inform Bert, “I met a fellow last spring who told me ‘companion planting’ would nip my root maggot dilemma in the bud (a mixed metaphor, I fear?).”

Companion planting—nouveau gardening—you might call it, is a species of organic horticulture that leverages the likes and dislikes of insect garden pests to the gardener’s advantage. Aphid infestations on your vegetable foliage? Nice in theoryPlant nasturtiums as part of the menu and aphids will defer to that entrée instead of your vegetable crop. “Mix your radish seed with dill and cilantro,” the “expert” said, “and your radishes will be plump and weevil-free.” “It just works,” he told me when I asked why cilantro and dill. “You could use carrot seed, too,” he suggested. It was worth a try, I thought: that pickled radish was quite tasty. I mixed three packets of seed: radish, cilantro, and dill, sprinkled them in the furrow, and awaited the results.

And as quickly as that, the results are in (as I mentioned, time just seems to fly by). My experimental eight foot row of companion plantings sprouted quickly and grew well enough. At first it was difficult to tell which plant was which; not until the roots started to bulge could I distinguish radish from cilantro. In short order I realized the entire endeavor was destined for failure. I discovered I had many more companions than radishes. My yield? Radish cropTwo bunches at most (well, maybe two and a half if you include the ones I had to toss because of the major tunneling project the root maggots had going on). And those pickled radishes? My meager crop filled one pint jar and half another. I had to make an emergency trip down the road to Rosario’s stand for one more bunch to make up the difference. As for the root maggots…ready for brinethe little drilling machines moved on down the row and are now keeping company the with the rutabagas, merrily at work making Swiss cheese of them. Maybe a hoop house like Bert’s is the answer, but I’m not about to go through all that fuss for a pickled radish or two.


pickled radishes

I haven’t seen Bert in a while, have yet to tell him about my failed experiment. It’s September, and come to think of it, Bert may be on that Alaska cruise he told me about during our middle of the road conversation. “It’s our honeymoon,” Bert said proudly at the time. “The wife was wondering about the onboard entertainment the cruise offered. I said,  ‘Why do you want to know that? Entertainment? It’s our honeymoon, isn’t it?’”(There’s that twinkle in his eye again).

As Gladys and I roll towards home, my thoughts turn to the honeymoon couple and their attempt to rekindle the fire of romance in a land of grizzly bears, icebergs and calving glaciers. But then again, there are the Northern Lights. After all, they’re fireworks of a sort, aren’t they?

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