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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Maxing out the Garden...

For years I've thought about growing one of those huge pumpkins, had visions of it ballooning up in the pumpkin patch like a harvest moon. So why haven't I? One reason: I don't own a tractor with a bucket loader, would have no way to harvest the thing. After all, record breaking pumpkins can easily top half a ton. (This year's record: 2,145.5 pounds grown by a gardener in Wisconsin.) Every year the season's winner tops the previous by two or three hundred pounds, it seems. This year to impress the grandson, I  thought I'd give it a try. I could always remove the behemoth from the garden in chunks if I had to, take an ax to it, slice it up like I was flensing slabs of blubber off a whale.

I planted two varieties: Atlantic Dill and Big Max. As a backup, just in case the big gourds failed to produce, I planted my old standby variety: Connecticut Field which year after year always yields a crop for Halloween.There is a science to raising record breaking "tonnage" pumpkins, techniques like spritzing the vines with milk, erecting shades over the fruit to protect it from the weather, and before the gourd is too big to handle, placing it on a solid base so it won't sink into the soil. All competitors, however, seem to agree on one point: all fruit should be removed from the vine except for one, that special gourd into which you channel all your gardening karma, your hopes, your dreams of pumpkin glory, that one truly fat boy that will not only tip the scales but hopefully break them. As I'm just your ordinary gardener, no scientist or horticultural genius--and no owner of a front end loader--I set my sights on a less lofty goal: a pumpkin the grandson would exclaim, "Oh! Wow!"when he saw it.

Not long into the growing season a Big Max showed promise, and I set about lopping off all subsequent fruit from the vine. It wasn't long until the pumpkin showed above the leaves, squatting in the patch like an orange boulder left behind by a receding glacier. At season's end I had the largest pumpkin I had ever grown on the place. I had no means to weigh it, could hardly budge the thing, but I compared mine to those on sale at Fred Meyer's, plump teasers scattered around and about the mountain of pumpkins guarding the east entrance. My Max must surely tip the scales in the 140-150 pound range which explains why I had a devil of a time rolling it into the wheelbarrow and transporting it to the deck where its fate has yet to be determined.

This time of year pumpkin flavors everything. And pumpkin pie season is fast approaching. I wonder how many potential pumpkin pies my grandson Atticus is sitting on?
Pumpkin lattes? Pumpkin bread? Pumpkin cookies? Pumpkin soup? Baked pumpkin seeds seasoned with garlic salt? Yes, its one big pumpkin, but considering the world's largest pumpkin pie weighed 3,699 pounds, was twenty feet in diameter (9/25/2010 at the New Bremen Pumpkinfest, New Bremen, Ohio), I doubt my Big Max would supply one thin slice, hardly a mouthful.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


two halves don't make a wholeGrandpa Mike’s term for “muskmelon,” (“cantaloupe” to melon lovers). English was not Grandpa’s mother tongue so I’m not sure if his native Hungarian made “musk” into “mush,” but I do know the fruit he brought home from “the A &P” always had a mushy texture. Grandpa Mike not only was a fancier of melons, but a bargain hunter as well, and the casaba, honeydew, or cantaloupe he purchased were always just a half dozen hours away from the compost heap. If the stem end of the melon lacked a mold blossom, the fruit was not likely to end up in Grandpa’s shopping cart. Come to think of it, perhaps Grandpa Mike actually meant “mush”melon: that was pretty much the melon’s condition when he lifted it from the shopping bag.

The experienced Pacific Northwest gardener knows melon cultivation is a fruitless (excuse the pun) enterprise; our short growing seasons aren’t melon friendly.To set fruit, melon vines require warm nights, considerable sunshine and soil heat. A  greenhouse environment might uncork a few melons but no such luck in the northwest garden proper. A season or two ago in a sunlight friendly section of the garden I set out a half dozen cantaloupe plants in green plastic mulch. The result? Plenty of healthy vines and a sizeable bouquet of pale yellow, star-like blossoms, but even with an abundance of honeybee pollinators, not a single flower set fruit. Imagine my surprise then this summer to find a softball-sized cantaloupe squatting beneath our garden wagon, a twofold surprise: first, that one grew to maturity here; second, that I harvested a melon at all… because I never planted a single seed.

The south side of our house is an excellent place for heat-loving vegetables and to take advantage of the southern exposure, I’ve placed four whisky barrel halves for planters. I’ve grown corn, okra, tomatoes and eggplant successfully (the okra? I might be stretching things a bit, but I did harvest enough pods to make one meal of Shreveport gumbo). Eggplant grows very well in my sunshiny south location, and each summer I’ve reserved a pair of eggplants for each of the first two barrels; however, if I didn’t amend the soil from my compost heap each spring, this post would never have been written. Soon after I transplanted my eggplant pair in the first barrel, I noticed some alien plant making itself at home between the eggplants. Its signature pair of oval-shaped primary leaves signaled some variety of squash: zucchini maybe, or pumpkin. My curiosity piqued, I decided not to yank the “weed,” but give it a chance to reveal its identity. Besides, the eggplant didn’t seem to mind the company. 

A month went by before I saw the first telltale blossom, pale yellow, star-like. Too pale for a cucumber blossom; too small for squash or pumpkin…some sort of melon certainly, but I wasn’t sure if the vine was watermelon or a “mushie.” The vine made itself at home, twining around the eggplants, threading  itself among the collards (none of which I planted either), trailing down the barrel staves and creeping onto the driveway--at which point I frequently had to redirect its forward progress.

As the summer moved forward—the vine was flowering heavily now—I checked the blossoms. Both male and female bloomed along the vine, but as in my former attempts, nothing set; the flowers withered, dropped off. The eggplant set and we had our first eggplant casserole of the season but not so much as a nubbin of a melon anywhere. Sometime late in August I stopped checking. A couple weeks later I yanked out the vine and to my surprise, bumping along at the end of it was the softball-sized melon. Though it was not even large enough to be a “personal melon”—as the produce folks in the grocery stores call them--I stripped it from the vine, and set it aside by its eggplant buddies. A week or so later, more out of curiosity than anticipation, I took the thing to the kitchen and sliced it in half.

Excepting its doll house size, the inside of this little cutie was melon perfect: the seed mass full of mature seeds, the flesh soft, salmon colored, and sweetly flavored. Half the melon satisfied my fruit requirement for each breakfast. I savored one half per meal, one spoonful at a time. Six mouthfuls each—I counted them.bite size melon (2)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Meeting at Bridge 155

Ginger M., Dave Somers, Kevin OlsonSuppose you wake up one morning or come home from work, say, and find your lawn staked out almost to your front doorstep? Those orange stakes signal your life is about to change. That’s the predicament in which Kevin Olson and Vicky Olson found themselves this past week. I posted about the Olsons’ situation after a chance meeting with Kevin in the produce section of Fred Meyers (“Upgrades Planned for Tualco Valley Speedway,” 7/18) when he told me about the County’s intent to replace Bridge 155 over Riley Slough. Until last week the County’s project was just a concept on twenty-seven pages of paper with cost projections, timelines, numbers and measurements, facts themselves worthy of concern for the Olsons.encroachment But seeing those garish orange stakes, the physical manifestation of encroachment on life and property, really bring home the stark facts of the matter. I know: we’ve had stakes near and on our property, and they’re wooden slivers that fester your peace of mind.

I’m standing by the Olsons’ home on the north side of Bridge 155  on the upper Loop Road. County district five councilman and Council Chair Dave Somers has set aside time to meet with Kevin to discuss the County’s proposed bridge replacement project. Kevin has invited The Ripple to attend the meeting.

It’s an Indian summer day: blue sky, shafts of morning sunlight filter through the maple trees across the road. Except for an occasional vehicle passing by, the quiet of Riley Slough soothes. Kevin’s rustic cottage complements the pastoral setting, plank siding, unpainted, the place nearly picture puzzle perfect. Whenever Gladys and I roll by, the coziness of this little cottage nestled on the bank of Riley Slough impresses us. Primroses in the window boxes announce spring; colorful hanging baskets accent the summer; the lawns always kempt and well-tended.A homey touch And so out of place now are those threatening day-glo orange stakes and surveyor’s figures splashed on the cement drive in front of the barn.

Councilman Somers, escorted by property owner Ginger Mullendore, strolls up the road to meet us...a half hour late…bad accident on Highway 2. Dave is soft-spoken, a good listener.Surveyor graffiti The fact he’s not wearing a tie and arrives on foot instead of rolling up in an “XMT” County vehicle puts us at ease. Dave is here to address a constituent’s concern, to assess the issue up close and personal. The meeting, necessarily, is one-sided: Somers is here to listen, gather information, and see what he can—if anything-- do to help. Kevin has done his research, asks pertinent questions he’d like answered, issues he’d like explained. Of paramount concern is the County’s right-of-way. Kevin believes it’s twenty feet from centerline; County claims thirty feet. Dave says rights-of-way vary, from twenty to thirty feet depending on the locale. He’ll check it out and asks if the County has contacted Ginger about buying the property the project would claim (they haven’t). new right-of-wayNext question: average daily traffic (ADT). Kevin claims the ADT figures are too high, would like to know where the counters were placed and the dates. If the bridge replacement was safety driven, The Ripple wanted to know if structure integrity was the County’s concern or was it the issue of a blind corner at the north bridge approach? (Seems a misuse of funds If the latter is the case: only one accident has occurred in the vicinity, back in 2007…and that incident south of the bridge.) Somers shared that the County is moving forward to replace its wooden bridges (#155 was built in the 1930’s). Kevin asks a funding question: to qualify for Federal funding (the current administration has allocated funds for states to repair/replace failing highway infrastructure) are there certain parameters to which states must adhere before federal funding is forthcoming? In cases involving federal funds, Somers believed states and counties had to share project costs and match funding. The price of the project? 4.4 million dollars. I tell Dave if St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City could be renovated for 3 million, it seems that Bridge 155 could be totally refurbished for far less than the 4 million price tag of a replacement—and the Olsons could keep their cottage and not have their lives turned upside down.

We pointed to the “Salmon Crossing” sign at the south end of the bridge, another point Kevin discussed with the County engineers. Their response: “Oh, we mitigate those issues all the time.” If County engineers are so adept at mitigation, we wondered, why couldn’t they “mitigate” the new bridge corridor to the east instead of the west? That way no homes or structures would be impacted by the project.Sufficient for the Valley Or repair the undercarriage of #155, which, by the way, engineers have determined currently can support forty tons safely. (Furthermore, The Ripple asks, if the County is so concerned about safety along the Tualco Road corridor, why don’t they “mitigate” the sharp curves at and east of Swiss Hall; both corners are debris fields because of frequent accidents on those two corners…and how about mitigating the excessive speed along the aptly named Tualco Valley Speedway?)new bridge approach

So for now we wait for feedback from Councilman Somers. But those stakes in Kevin’s front yard mean the bridge project is on the move; those stakes at this juncture mean the Olson family will be forced to relocate in the near future; those stakes mean adding an additional quarter mile of straightaway which will most certainly do nothing to “mitigate” speeding along that stretch of Tualco. I think about the elderly lady in Ballard who refused to sell her little house to developers…but she was dealing with the private sector, not a government agency with eminent domain their trump card. Understandably so, Kevin is mounting a petition drive to protest the project. Gladys and I most certainly will sign…but meanwhile we wait….