~ April 11th, 2012 ~
The unusually mild winter has–rather quickly–turned into a vigorously wet spring. The needs of a gardener–to turn soil, add compost and map out beds—however, are not hampered by such a thing as inclement weather. The 8 O’ Clock chime this morning found me exiting the door to the back garden in my paint-speckled, clay stained ‘work’ jeans, boots, a rain hat–and one of my husbands cast-off Pendletons–squinting up at the overcast sky with a determined glare.
Resolutely, I pulled on the slightly uncooperative gardening gloves. With unfaltering steps I strode towards the strawberry bed and stared into its sunken depths as the drizzling raindrops gained in weight and number. Strawberries–in this part of California–adore a well-drained, spongy bed of mixed matter and clay and reward the owners of such soil with delightful, naturally-delicious treats high in Vitamin C and fiber. However, such a soil as this manages to compact in an alarming fashion over the course of each growing season, thus requiring the gardener to carefully dig up each spidery plant, lay them aside (with rootball intact) and pitch in another foot or so of the previously-described material. Anyone who’s done this particular task knows that during a slight drizzle is the best time to coax these plants from the ground, the soil being neither too dry nor too wet.
After spreading out a small canvas tarp by the strawberry bed, I knelt on a large plastic bag of aged “steer” manure and proceeded to extract and lay out the plants one by one on the tarp. Soon the quasi-neat piles and rows became a mass of black, chunky things topped with green, serrated leaves and a brave white flower poking its petals through here and there.
“The strawberry bed seemed smaller this morning,” I thought, after an hour or so.
Indeed, only half of the plants were dug. The brick borders of the bed appeared to slip farther away even as I watched. It may have been the pitter-patter of large raindrops on my hat, or the soaked spot on my lower back–that wasn’t quite covered by the Pendelton—or the soreness in my muscles that make me suddenly start working faster, but I think it was the Inside that had come meandering into my thoughts. I imagined hot tea with honey–in my particular cup–accompanied by a warm almond cookie on a plate. These, I envisioned, would sit on the small table by my chair in front of the fireplace, near where I keep my knitting. Soft alpaca wool would feel so much nicer to my fingers, I mused, than this slippery, cold clay-infused earth.
All at once, the back door of the house slid open. Turning, I saw my five-year-old little girl looking back at me with an uncertain expression in her blue eyes.
“Why are you pulling up the strawberries, Mommy?” she inquired, looking more alarmed by the second. Nothing quite makes her summer day complete more than a search–under each and every leaf–for the edible gems of the strawberry patch. I told her that I was not, in fact, harming the strawberries, but helping them to grow more berries than ever by giving them “some more dirt.” Five stepped out cautiously with one foot, then retracted it.
“It’s raining!” she exclaimed. This statement was followed by a high peal of delighted laughter as she ran back through the house. “Mommy’s gardening out in the RAIN!”
I heard her voice echo through the halls and smiled. Soon, three puzzled faces joined hers at the back door.
“It’s easier to pull these plants when its sprinkling,” I said, forestalling the inevitable question of ‘why.’
“It’s more than sprinkling, Mom,” my fourteen-year-old pointed out. She made a face when I smiled at her over my shoulder.
“You’re a meteorologist now?” I asked, turning back to my work. “I thought you wanted to be a ballerina?” A snort was all the reply I received, but soon all the children stood next to my growing pile of plants, blinking the raindrops from their eyes.
“Aren’t you going to get sick being out in the rain, Mommy?” My eight-year-old asked me, with a tone of frank concern. For a moment I inwardly cringed at how citified my children are, and how quickly—in their minds–a bit of drizzle is connected with imminent pneumonia. How did the hale and hearty children of the pioneers react when the weather turned slightly damp? I kept these musing to myself.
Instead, I looked out at my children from under the brim of my hat and smiled.
“A little rain isn’t going to harm you if you dress properly,” I informed them. “Why don’t you get on your garden clothes, a hat and a jacket and come out here with me? I could really use a hand.” My children looked at each other and trudged back inside, closing the door after them. I worked on steadily and thought about the cup of tea again; it was joined by a full teapot and several more cookies.
Some minutes later, the back door slid open once again. Glancing over my shoulder I saw all four assembled nearby, clad in the proper garments, looking warily around the wet patio and muddy garden area.
“It’s cold,” Fourteen remarked. I smiled.
“No, it isn’t,” I replied. “Cold is when your fingertips freeze and turn black.” Fourteen’s eyes widened considerably. My ten-year old boy grinned. “This is just light rain,” I continued, digging up another plant. “Can you take this over to the tarp, and lay it carefully with the others?” Ten did so and Fourteen took the next one. Soon, a mini assembly-line had formed by age, starting with me (Thirty-Four) and Five at the end by the tarp of dis-assembled strawberry plants.
The hail surprised all of us. The precipitation simply changed-in a half-second–from chilly rain to hard little bits of hexagonal ice. The hail pummeled the ground and all working upon it. I was already wet, chilled and dirty, so I kept pulling the plants. The children however—seeing Mommy was not running for cover—began running around the patio with glee, yelling and trying to catch the hail in their muddy hands. Even Fourteen was coaxed out from under the rose trellis (where she’d slipped with stealth unrivaled) to join in the fun. The hail lasted only a few minutes before the sun popped out, blanketing the patio and strawberry plant pile with golden light.
“This is the weirdest day EVER!” Eight said, smiling from ear to ear. I glanced towards the horizon. Ominous gray clouds boiled in the distance and the breeze picked up, ushering more chill into the air despite the sudden sunlight.
“Let’s get these back in the ground quick, shall we?” I suggested, utilizing my most encouraging smile. “Then we can go in, wash, change… and have some tea and almond cookies.”
The word ‘cookies’ holds a great deal of sway among my children. Reviewing numerous cookbooks for the San Francisco Book Review and other publications has not only increased the variety of cookies baked in our small kitchen, but also the quality thereof. Thus, the promise of cookies prompted little hands to move faster. Bags of aged manure were torn open–and the smell ignored–while the black stuff was liberally (and messily) sprinkled about the now-empty strawberry bed.
While I worked this matter in with a pitchfork, the children dragged over three large totes of compost, which we’ve lovingly cultivated over the winter. Consisting of little more than kitchen peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells and shredded cellulose products, the rich, heady material invoked appreciative murmurs from Fourteen as they tipped the totes over into the strawberry bed.
“Wow, Mom… that’s really good soil.”
I grinned and nodded, thinking that she’d probably learned more about the benefits of composting in that one moment then during an entire lecture series on the subject. Soon the good dirt was spread around, almost spilling over the top of the raised bed’s borders.
The hail melted quickly, but the third act was quick to follow. Lighting pierced the dark clouds looming on the horizon. A clap of thunder sounded out, making Five jump.
“Lightning, Mommy!” she said, eyes wide. “We should go in! We gotta make cookies!”
Cookies, apparently, had reached the “mythical power” stage in her mind… able to ward off both the wayward poniards of Zeus and the audible whims of Odin.
“Yes, we should,” I replied. “Let’s get these plants in quick.”
We did get them in ‘quick’. Green leaves once more crowded the bed, looking considerably happier in the aerated, nutrient rich soil. I spent a few minutes power-washing off the piles of trampled mud around the bed before winding up the hose. Tired, and sopping wet, we worked off our muddy shoes by the door, trudged inside and went through a series of short showers before finally attaining the Clean & Dry category.
Stirring up the cookie dough in my kitchen, I noticed Fourteen standing by the back window. She looked out over the garden and the newly dug strawberry bed, the cotton hood of her sweatshirt up over her head. I walked over and stood next to her.
“I was going to ask if we should water,” she began, “But that’s seems to be taken care of.”
I smiled and put my arm around her shoulders.
The gray rain clouds had come at last. No light sprinkling of drizzle, this, but a serious downpour, pounding the roof above us like small drumsticks. The strawberry bed seemed specially happy to see the rain but they were joined in this feeling by the white clouds of Alyssum flowers under the pink tea roses. The star jasmine growing above us on the patio cover seemed to unfurl its leaves like elongated fingers towards the sky.
“I think the strawberries this year will be extra good,” I said. Fourteen smiled, a little.
“They better be,” she replied. “I like strawberries but I don’t like dirt.” I laughed.
“Do you like cookies?”
“Then you can help me roll them out.”
It’s funny how–despite out best efforts–the things we like most just aren’t attainable without effort. Fourteen seemed to realize this novel idea without further words and helped get the cookies into the oven. Finally, after the chill, work, mud, hail, rain, thunder, compost and clean-up I sat by the fire with my tea, cookies and knitting… joined by my little team of future gardeners as the thunder rolled overhead and the rain pelted on the windows.
Outside, the garden sat silent and content, absorbing every drop.