02 August 2014

In the garden - in the weeds

Trying to feed ten kids, even in Fowler, Indiana, even in 1970, couldn't have been easy. Why did my parents have so many kids? When I was little, I didn't really think about it - it's just what was. As I got a little older, though, I thought I'd figured out the real reason they had so many of us: they needed us to work the garden.

We lived on the edge of town, on a lot that was quoted alternately at one and a quarter, one and a half, one and three quarters, or a full two acres, depending on who you asked and what they needed to do with it. What didn't seem to change was that a full third of it was garden. Our lot was bisected by a gravel driveway to the south of the house, which came straight back to shed and wrapped around the buckeye tree like a fishook with the point coming to the back door that everybody used. On the other side of the driveway, across the lower, southern half of the lot, was the garden. 

It was a romantic place, in the winter, with its very Hoosier-esque vista of corn stalks sticking up out of the frozen ground, if there wasn't much snow, and with its rabbit hutch set among some dwarf fruit trees.  The garden was bounded by a hedge row of evergreen bushes on its western side that acted as a snow fence so that during every blizzard, or even every passing front with reasonably good accumulation, the prevailing westerly winds would shape the driven snow into fantastic drifts that had a sclera of crust thick enough to support my scrawny frame if I was careful. I would tunnel through the drifts and build forts and name countries and reenact the Renaissance-era European wars I'd read about in our encyclopedias and reference books as Ginger, our German Shepherd-mutt mix, would run through the tunnels and over the top until she fell through, laughing, if you believe that dogs can laugh.  We'd play out there for hours.

The garden in the winter was fun, but beginning in March, the dirty snow would start to melt (and it was dirty - in addition to the snow there were almost always ridges of Benton County topsoil on top of the drifts. It would make my mom angry, actually - "these farmers want to save time in the spring so they disk up their fields in the fall, but what do they think happens?  The wind blows all winter and it gives their good soil to Ohio, is what happens!  The best topsoil in the world and they treat it like dirt. Wait and plow twice in the spring!" and then she'd trail off, shaking her head.  She had strong opinions about it.  When I first heard the expression "pure as the driven snow" in high school, I honestly didn't get it - in my experience, the snow that was the most driven was the dirtiest). And when the snow would recede until there was just dirty, icy patches left in an archipelago in front of the hedgerow, I knew what was coming.   

It began on a day in late March or early April when my dad would come home from the chemical plant where he worked with a lot of plastic sheeting and a barrel of some sort of poison. We kids would spread out the plastic, weigh it down with rocks and soil around its perimeter so no air could escape, and my dad would pump the poison under the plastic into our garden.  This was to "keep the weeds down." And whatever it was, it worked. We'd leave the plastic for a few days, peel it back, rototiller up that beautiful, deep, black, Benton County topsoil, and there wouldn't be a weed to be seen. Of course we'd be eating radishes and turnips and potatoes grown in that soil with whatever toxin my dad had pumped in there, but it made that first month of weeding easier.  Not exactly organic, but it was local, at least - and c'mon, it was the 70s, we were hardier then. 

And really, anything - anything - that made weeding easier was a good thing. That rich, beautiful, Benton County soil was so fertile it would grow anything. We had volunteer (i.e., not planted) everything, everywhere. Blackberry bushes on fence rows that would sprout up from one year to the next; pumpkin plants would sprout up in the yard from the seeds we'd spit out the previous autumn that would keep coming back no matter how many times we'd mow over them; weeds that would sprout up every damn place - in the gravel driveway between the wheel ruts, between the slabs of our pitching front sidewalk, in the tiny space around the marigold plants that we'd planted in front of the statue of Our Blessed Virgin Mother (a/k/a "BVM") in the front yard, in the gravel underneath the fire pit in the driveway where we'd have the occasional cook out - every damn place. Hence the need for herbicide for the garden.  And, to my mind, hence the need for ten kids - eight to weed, eight to harvest.

The plastic would be rolled up and hauled to the dump, the soil would be tilled, the seeds would go in, and the very next morning, it seemed like, the plants would be up.  And once it hit June and you had some nice summer thunderstorms followed by 90'F days of bright sunshine, well, buckle up - the garden was clearly in the driver's seat and we were all just along for the ride. 

On a summer morning the last thing you wanted to hear - the thing that would make your stomach drop and your heart fill with dread - was: "[first name, middle name], go weed the garden." There went your morning, or sometimes, your day.  The garden was big, and as you stepped out of the back door in your gardening clothes (your oldest hand me down t-shirt, cutoffs, no shoes) and turned south to face it, it got bigger.  The closer you got to it as you walked from the back door, past the beckoning tire swing, across the sharp gravel of the driveway and through the gate, the more it grew. To a five year old, by the time I'd reach it, it felt the size of Center Township. 

There was some strategy involved.  If it had been dry recently, well, you could get a hoe and work the dirt between the rows, cutting down the weeds at the soil line. In one way, hoeing wasn't too bad - you could see where you were going and where you had been, and you had the satisfaction of a clean row behind you as you moved - but that satisfaction was incomplete.  It was tempered by knowing with a certainty that you were only delaying the inevitable. It might look good from afar - from mom's usual vantage point at the kitchen window over the sink, for example, or from the road - but those roots were still there, waiting for the next rain.  Or the next bit of dew. Or for you to turn your back. Really, that's all it seemed to take before they'd sprout again.

Hoeing wasn't a solution, it was a stop gap. If we were having company and it'd been dry, then hoeing would do for the short term, but that was it. Once Father Froehlich or Monsignor Klein or some company from town left, we knew we'd have to get back out there and really weed.

It was best to weed the garden after a good, long, soaking rain, when the soil was maybe a little looser and the weed might come out with at least some of the root, but if it was dry you still had to get out there and do what you could. And what you could was usually grabbing the plant as low as possible, as close to the soil line as you could, gently rocking it back and forth at first, and applying gentle pressure, pulling.  Usually one of two things happened: the plant would start to give way, giving you hope, until you heard that distinct "pop" and you knew the root had held on to torment you another day, or your hand would slip up the weed, stripping off all of the leaves on the way up, leaving a naked and forlorn-looking but resolutely standing stem.  It would look ridiculous, and early in the spring a little forlorn, but you learned.  By June and July, you knew that stem would probably weather the summer if you left it, so you wrapped it once around your palm and you pulled, and then you'd hear the root "pop". And you knew it would be back.  Oh, yeah, it would be back. 

If we were weeding vs. hoeing we'd throw the weeds into a bucket and dump them on the compost pile, where they'd sprout but harmlessly, until they seeded.  Once a weed seeded, it was like a four alarm fire - mom would point out that those seeds would get blown somewhere and take root somewhere and we had to cut them down.  Or burn them (my favorite, as that required gasoline since the leaves were green and wouldn't burn without it and since I was a budding pyro). 

I liked the way the garden looked after we'd weeded it, and that was the point, really.  We harvested everything by hand so it wasn't as though weeds were going to hold down our yield by gumming up machines - they weren't.  It wasn't so dry in Benton County or the soil so leached that the weeds were robbing nutrients from the vegetables - they weren't. It was just that, well, it just looked bad.  We lived on the main blacktop- the only point of entry - into Fowler from the south. People we went to church with lived down the road from us, and the county highway department and the town dump was there, so people would drive by and see it.  And there was no way, never, that our garden would be allowed to look like it wasn't well loved.  In Benton County there was no culture around the yard looking particularly nice - I don't even remember watering the yard during those rare dry summers - but the garden was expected to be at an entirely different level of presentability.  It was house pride, I guess, just manifested differently: in a rural community people gossip about others' gardens. And perhaps particularly because things were tight for us, it was never, ever permissible for things to look at all unkempt.

Even then I liked things tidy, and I liked the way a row looked when you got to the end and glanced up to see where you'd been.  With weeding, at least, you had that sense of accomplishment.  You could tell where you'd been. You could stand back at the end of a row and think, "Nice. I did that."

As opposed to, say, when you stood at the end of a row of riotous green after having been told to "Go pick the beans."  No sense of accomplishment there, just a sense of futility.  Endless, Escherian, futility. If ancient Greek culture had flourished on the prairie just northwest of the Wabash River, Sisyphus would not have been pushing a rock up a mountainside - he'd've been working an interminable row of beans.