First day of fall

I think today is the first day of fall.  Not officially, not by the calendar. In fact, not even by the other calendar I live by – the academic calendar.

But today is the first day that really feels like fall.  The sky has cleared, the wind has started to blow the leaves from the trees. The temperature has dropped significantly.

The tomatos have mostly played out.  The greens are planted.  It’s the swan song of the gardening season.

When I look back, there were so many things I had wanted to be able to do this season.  So many things I wanted to try, to improve, to experiment with.    But my grandfather’s death sucked the wind out of my sails, and instead, I’ve been trying to keep up, just to keep my spirits and my energy up and get through the season.

It wasn’t the best year of gardening.  It wasn’t the best garden season.  It wasn’t the best season.  It wasn’t the best season of my life.

But it’s the change of seasons now. What will fall bring?

What will the cold of winter drive underground?

What spring forth anew in the warmth of spring?

Once upon a greenhouse

Once upon a time…my great-grandparents and grandfather owned a commercial nursery business in Atlanta.  Of course, I never realized that it was a business, I just thought that my family enjoyed growing things, and other people enjoyed coming over to see the flowers.  My family maintained three greenhouses, all put in place in the late 1940’s, full of every imaginable flower, although it’s the geraniums that fill my memories.

There’s magic in a greenhouse.  There’s light, and beauty, and heat, and perfume that will knock you off your feet.  Walking into a steamy, geranium-filled greenhouse on a cold, dreary January day leaves a lasting glow on your soul.

Twenty years after the death of my great-grandmother, there is only one greenhouse still standing.  A fallen tree destroyed the other two, and my grandfather just was not able to maintain the remaining greenhouse in its former glory during the last years of his life.  But even with it’s broken panes of glass, so lovlingly sealed with the stapled-on bags from potting soil, even with the weeds growing in the corners, and the vents slightly off-center by the ravages of time, I love that greenhouse.

I spent many hours there with my grandfather in the cool damp late weeks of winter, pricking out seedlings and transplanting them, planning the garden for the following season, and listening to his stories of my family, my heritage, and my self.  He could really tell a story that would make you laugh and question at the same time, a natural knack for making you ask, “and then what happened, Grandpa?”

In that greenhouse I learned many things. I learned that it was my great-grandmother who first wanted a greenhouse, and my great-grandfather, Pop,  wanted her to have it out of his love for her.  While my grandpa was away during WWII, Pop converted the chicken house to the first greenhouse, and I imagine that it was a gift intended to help my great-grandmother get over the grief and fear of having two sons away at war.   I learned that the last greenhouse was purchased from the National Greenhouse Company and my grandfather laid the foundation for it in October of 1948.  I learned that my grandpa and Pop built the cemented potting table for her to use because the metal potting tables kept rusting, but that my great-grandmother was a bit shorter than me, so then they had to put a 4X4 into the floor of the potting shed so she could stand on it and reach the table comfortably.

That potting table, built for my great-grandmother, was too low for my grandfather to work at comfortably, and in the end, the potting shed was just too dark for him to see.  He would often take a flat and seedlings and go out into the greenhouse to work under the light of the glass canopy and at the height of the sand-filled tables, where he could still see a bit, and his back didn’t hurt to bend over.

I like the potting shed.  I like the coolness of the earth around me, I like the dampness of the soil when it’s ready for working on the cement potting table.  But as I stand there on my great-grandmother’s 4X4, at the table built out of love for her by her son and her husband, what I love most is the presence of my family, there in the shadows and in the streaming sunlight.  I can feel them all around me, and I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.

The table is just the right height for me.

Today’s garden thoughts

It rained last week. A LOT. In fact, all told the garden got about two inches of rain in four days after a three week dry spell. And while I’m very very thankful for the rain, it did come at a rather tricky time of trying to get the greens planted and ready for the fall u-pick-it business. But nothing can be done about planting until the soil dries out a bit and can be worked. With the high clay content that we have in our garden, trying to work the soil while it’s wet only results in bricks.

As a result, the past few days in the garden I have been doing what things could be accomplished while I wait for the sun and the wind to dry out the earth. Tony helped me to put out stakes for the peppers, and other than that, I’ve weeded.

And weeded.

And weeded some more.

The odd thing about it is that I really enjoy weeding after a rainfall. The work is quick and light, and the weeds, which had seemed so indomitable prior to the rain, are now uprooted easily with a twist and a firm tug. It’s gratifying work to pull the weeds before they have a chance to set seed. You can see the progress as you go down the rows, and, once the row is complete, the peppers stand out proudly and grow much stronger without having to compete with the weeds for nutrients.

Weeding, while still a gardening necessity, is spiritually and aesthetically pleasing to me, and I always fall deeply into contemplation when working alone in the garden, pulling weeds.

Of course, as I mentioned previously, weeding after a soaking rainfall is much more productive than weeding during a dry spell. When the soil is hard and dry, the weeds break off in your hands, while the roots stay below the surface. Most weeds will then just send out runners and rhizomes , and where once there may have been one weed, now there are multiple weeds in its place. Weeding in the dry, hard clay of Georgia is frustrating and futile.

The difference is the rain.

The weeds are the same. The particles of soil are the same. The action of the gardener is the same, but the rain makes the outcome so very different. It is only AFTER the soaking rainfall that the weeds can be pulled easily, and in the act of that pulling, the soil is aerated as effectively as if it were freshly tilled, allowing the plant to grow even stronger.

It’s the rain that makes the difference.

When the days are sunny and bright, without rainfall, it’s as though everything is perfect, but moment by moment, in the midst of all that seeming peace and perfection, the earth is getting baked harder and harder. My soul can be like that. Too much ease, too much brilliant sunlight,  and the weeds begin to set in. Laziness, pride, complacency, self-indulgence and envy, all these weeds take hold at the slightest opportunity and flourish, digging in with tiny, powerful roots.  I see them, and can’t help but think, “nah, it’s hard to pull them now. They’ll just break,” before leaving them to grow another day.

But just before the weeds completely overtake me, God always sends the rain. He knows that rain in my life – hardship, sadness, loss, and fear – is often what I need most to soften the hardened clay of my soul. When the rain has finally stopped my momentum, when the rain makes any other task seem impossible, the only task left is to weed.

Sometimes it takes a great deal rain for me to stop and attend to the weeds in my garden, but when I do, the reward is often profound.

I’ve been avoiding this post, because it’s just too hard to write.  Emilie always says, “it’s not real until I write about it”, and maybe that’s why I’ve put it off so long, because I don’t want it to be real.

Three weeks ago today, my grandfather passed away suddenly.

See, when I say that, I can’t seem to follow up on it, because that one sentence says everything to me.

My grandfather passed away.

My grandfather passed away.

It’s so finite.

It still takes my breath away to even think it.

For the rest of the season I’m trying to bring in the harvest and plant in order to help supplement my grandmother’s income, but the truth is that I have to keep going.  As long as I’m in that dirt, on that tractor, in the potting shed, I can still feel my grandfather with me, and I know he sees me there, and I pray he’s proud of me.

April 22 is a very important day for our family!

On this day, in 1954, my grandfather brought home a shiny new Ford NAA tractor that he paid $1800 for. His family thought he was crazy, because he bought it on credit.

Now, to us in this day of astronomical credit card debt for lifestyle purchases, this may not seem like any big deal, but in 1954 it was certainly a big deal for my grandfather, who worked a hard, blue-collar job as a night line-switchman for the railroad.

But this is also one of my grandfather’s proudest tales, the tale he tells me everytime he has a chance, about how we took landscaping work in his daylight off-hours from the railroad so that he could make that tractor pay for itself. And despite the disbelief of his family, he paid it off before the note was due.

He has owned that tractor free-and-clear for 53 years, and it has been his workmate for that many planting seasons.

It still runs beautifully, and although it is no longer beautiful by ordinary physical standards, I find it to be a thing of great beauty, this strong American tractor still working alongside this strong American man.

At the risk of seeming tritely poetic, the NAA is the totem of my grandfather: dependable, rough around the edges, strong but worn. Both the man and his tractor have worked hard to pay off their debts and live independently, and both just keep on working and living.

To honor the NAA that my grandfather loves, I’ll repost some pictures from earlier postings.

Here’s how the tractor looks today:

Granpda on his 1954 NAA Jubilee

Here’s what it looked like new:naa

So, Happy Birthday, NAA! I’m awfully glad that you joined our family those many years ago!

Tomorrow, I will celebrate my 40th Birthday!  Yay! I’m pleased and proud.  No, really, I am!  As my grandfather says, growing older sure beats the alternative.   He also says that any day you wake up on this side of the dirt is a good day.  :- )

Anyway, I’m pleased and proud, but not feeling particularly festive about it.  I am  not feeling like having a party, although I would like to go out to a honkytonk and drink margaritas and dance to country music.  When people ask me what I want for my birthday, the most exciting thing I can think of is gardening  books and new Carhartt workpants for the season.  Maybe a new garden hat would be nice.

Along that vein, Tony gave me  a beautiful Gerber knife for my 40th that will be extremely helpful in the garden!  I love it!  It’s the first really practical knife I’ve ever had and I’ve already put it to good use.

I had hoped that 40 would be more inspiring.  Somewhere in my imagination I had pictured 40 with a trip to Vegas or something more monumental, but in the end, it will probably be a much quieter affair.  Dinner with the folks.  An evening with Tony.

Hopefully I will feel more inspired about the next 48 years than I do about the next 48 hours.  Honestly, I can’t even seem to work up any hoopla at all.

Phooey.  I was hoping to meet my inner wild-child.  Maybe next year…

I am very sad this week.  Tuesday night, Lia failed to come home at her customary time of 10pm.  She is (was?) a cat of routine, and we could always count on her showing up at the front door at 10pm, wanting to come inside for the night. In fact, she had Abby trained to let us know that she was waiting for us.  And even though we told her so many times that the coyotes might get her, she still insisted, in no uncertain terms, on wandering around the property.


I think that she sees (saw?) herself as a cat with the heavy responsibility of keeping our home free from chipmunks and volls, and nearly every day she would bring us some trophy.

I’ve hunted through the woods, called and called, and still there’s no sign of her.  I suppose that there being no sign of her should give me some hope, but she was a small cat and coyotes don’t exactly have delicate table manners.

I tried for years to keep her indoors, and she was an indoor cat until about 6 years old, but she was BY GOLLY going to go outside!  I can’t tell you the number of times we [inadvertently] slammed her head in the door trying to get in and out of the house without letting her dash by us.  I think that her odds were about fifty-fifty that either the coyotes would get her, or we would kill her with the door.  And if we actually succeeded in thwarting her escape….well…we had better not have left any laundry on the floor or she would get even with us…

I haven’t completely given up hope, but two days of no cat-sightings is not very encouraging.

So I keep calling, and praying, and hoping, and bracing myself.