Back before the modern wonders of refrigeration and the railroad, people were more reliant upon personal and local stores of foodstuffs from the previous year's harvests than they are today. In 19th-century Ireland, whose peasantry were largely dependent upon the potato, the springtime was refered to as "The hungry season." The showers of April and the flowers of May was a time for much labor, but it was not until June that the first nourishing abundance ripened in the garden.
One of the first truly nourishing crops to mature in the late spring is the pea. High in protiens and nutrients, many rows of peas sown as soon as the soil is workable in March will bloom in May and fill pods full of sweet, succulent peas by the first week of June. The window in which to pick peas in this condition is only a day or so long: a pod will be oblong and immature one day, round and full the next day and past optimum sweetness two days after that. After this time, one might as well let the pods dry and harvest the peas for storage purposes.
When I last wrote in May, my pea shoots had a lot of white flowers and immature pods. It was still a bit cool and I had sown rows of beans, and okra which I watered a couple of times as it was a bit dry. I then left for a three day weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during which time I had a lovely dinner with JessicaJ who let me overnight in her living room. That morning the weather turned stormy and then hot and sweltering for the remainder of the weekend, where I was enjoying a Roller Derby tournament.
When I returned, the first pea pods were round and bulging and yielded heavily thereafter for about a period of ten days. I like to pull some green onions with the peas and make stir fry with mine. My wife just eats them raw. The broccoli also made their first blooms at this point, although the yields were pitiful only contributing an accent to the stir fry.
The arrival of hot wet weather also resulted in a very uniform and healthy emergence of the beas and okra that I had sown the previous week. Raspberry and strawberry flowers were starting to yield immature fruit. And of course, as I had been away, the weeds flourished in a riot. And yet, one of the primary players upon the Midwestern June stage was curiously absent in spite of the flooding rains of spring.
There are as of yet no floodwater mosquitoes.
Of mosquitoes in North Eastern Illinois, there seem to be two types. There are the large ones with brightly banded legs which emerge early, persist in moderate numbers throughout the year and only are a nuisance early in the morning and again late in the evening. Then there are the little ones which emerge all at once in wet years after a spell of hot weather: aggressive and hard biters who harass in great swarms in both shade sun no matter what the time of day. Not being a student of entomology
, I simply refer to the latter as the "floodwater mosquito," the emergence of which has caused me in years past to abandon the garden to the weeds.
Perhaps it was too cool for them to hatch, or perhaps the local mosquito abatement district is having a particularly successful year. Whatever the reason, I have been able to weed the gardens in mid-June unmolested by these obnoxiously whining and biting harriers. Their absence has had a rather transformative effect upon me. I have slowed down and on my hands and knees and gotten intimate with the garden, plant by plant.
The first objects of my weeding are those with deep taproots: prickly lettuce, Canada thistle, dandelions and other upright weeds. Crawling around and pulling the roots from the moist soil lends a certain focus of mind and slows the mental chatter down. I find it very therapeutic, getting down to a certain level of intimacy with the plants and the soil and with all of the insects dwelling there. To an extent, I loose my self as I, for a little while, become a little closer to a deeper understanding: All of truths of life can be found in just a thousand square feet of soil.
I have my crop plants and weeds in the garden but I also have cover crops, more wild than cultivated, which are assisting me this year. The hairy vetch which re-seeded in many places in the garden has run riotously across the ground and climbed up the isolated stands of rye, plant cages and anything else upright. In this aspect, the vetch is also a weed but I have been using it to my advantage. I have been gently breaking the grasping tendrils and coaxing the meandering vines between the crop rows and off of the north and south faces of the plant cages. It is thickest now in one of the dying triple rows of peas, around the pepper cages and in the onion beds. This last poses the greatest dilemma.
Onion plants are very delicate and have shallow roots which require hand weeding. The grasping vetch is both a curse in the onion bed and a blessing now that the focus of my weeding shifts from upright weeds to crawling and creeping weeds and grasses. These latter plants want to grow radialy from a central root and re-root at intervals along the ground. Pulling such plants by hand can be inefficient as the plant may break from the roots which will readily and quickly regrow.
The vetch would prefer to grow upwards upon an upright plant, but deprived of this, will grow along the ground and create a smothering canopy under which other creeping weeds must compete. These now are at a disadvantage, deprived of the ability to re-root at intervals and must instead grow spindly and struggly to compete with the vetch for sunlight. In such a bed, creeping weeds can be pulled easily, but the effort requires painstaking patience as both weeds and vetch grasp against the fragile onions.
In other places, I find that these creeping weeds and grasses have established themselves and flowered. In some neglected spots away from crops have gone to seed. In these places, I employ judicious use of either my stirrup hoe or my flame weeder. Even if I am not killing the weeds' rootstock, the flame weeder dispatches any seed with a satisfying crackle.
Grasses also have become a problem in the Strawberry garden seemingly overnight. The use of landscaping fabric has made weed control very simple here, but in each hole that I made for a strawberry plant, there are now a variety of grasses which are competing with the crop. Fortunately, the strawberry roots are deep and the grass roots, although aggressive, are shallow and have not yet grown unmanageable. It takes a while to pull them all by hand, but every mass of grass has now been cleared before their runners started to grow. Despite my efforts to prune this year's flowers from the strawberry plants, I missed quite a few and now have been enjoying fresh strawberries in my morning muesli and kefir. I have started to also harvest raspberries from the few older canes as well.
There is a bit of a pause in the garden now, as the length of daylight peaks and subtle changing of the guard
takes place. Those plants whose growth heralded the ending of winter and the coming of mild spring have flowered and are now going to seed, subsiding. The rye heads are full of mature seed and are now fading to pale straw. The vetch flowers in purple and white little rows which then turn into little pods. How similar they are to the peas.
The heat of summer is now plentiful and vegetable plants of summer are now thriving in earnest: beans, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers with yellow little flowers and summer squash too. The pepper plants have even started to grow and the eggplants, well, despite getting ransacked by flea beetles are growing some as well. Potato plants are a foot tall and, once I get over this summer cold i have, I need to hill the earth up around them to increase the harvest.
The yard has traded in the purple and white of the violets in favor for the round tufts of white clover and with them the honey bees make themselves plentiful. Orange daylilies, purple clematis and pale pink hollyhocks now flower alongside the house.
Having observed the Summer solstice and the passing of spring into summer with good cheer, I find it noteworthy that I have been gardening continuously for nearly twenty years and yet I only feel now like I am gaining some sort of deeper understanding of it. I am learning a deeper appreciation to slow down, to get down into the dirt. It of course helps that there are have been an abundance days both pleasantly cool and mosquito free, but there is just this deeper attraction to and understanding of gardening this year. I walk in the garden and when I see work to be done, I get down into it, deep into it, and I do the work until I stop doing the work and then I appreciate the results of my efforts. The watering, the weeding, and the harvesting that is performed is somehow incidental.