Life cycles

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian, September 2008.

In June a black swallowtail butterfly laid a single egg in the windowbox of parsley on our front porch. Several days later an almost microscopic caterpillar emerged and did what caterpillars famously do. When it left its patch of parsley to become a chrysalis we couldn’t find it in the tangled mess that a seller’s agent would call shrubbery, and we hoped for the best. The miracle of a butterfly is a cliché, but it’s a miracle my daughter, who is four, hadn’t yet witnessed, and she gave me daily — if not hourly — updates on the caterpillar’s progress. And, really, it’s a miracle that never grows old. When the aptly named “Parsley” went off into the wide world we were all a little disappointed that we wouldn’t see her emerge as a butterfly. Continue reading “Life cycles”

On grass

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian, July/August 2008.

My back yard has never been in danger of winning any awards from glossy design magazines. Plantain rules a few patches where I let the ducks graze too freely. The old garden bed the dogs use for naps is grown up in weeds that are fascinating in their diversity and virulence but neither productive nor conventionally attractive. And one corner is littered with the detritus of a series of projects and incidents, planned and unplanned, that beset us last year. Continue reading “On grass”

On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up. Continue reading “On growing potatoes”

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again. Continue reading “Beet greens”

Wildflowers

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.

In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.

I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.

This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look. Continue reading “Wildflowers”