Kate and I inherited numerous things from our late mother, A. Carman Clark. In addition to getting her writing fascination with language genes, we also acquired her sense of culinary adventure and her love of gardening. This latter one wasn’t apparent when we were kids. Growing up on Sennebec Hill farm involved chores at an early age. That was as much out of necessity as it was a way to help us learn to be responsible. Money was scarce and we really did rely on what we grew to help get through lean times. One of my strongest memories from my pre-teen years was the bean factory. We’d invite friends over and sit around the kitchen table. Big containers of green beans were hauled in from the garden and washed. The first in line snapped the ends before passing them on to the snapper who broke them into bite-sized pieces before handing them to the jar filler. They went on to the water pourer and then the lidder. Mom had a big aluminum pressure cooker that could hold seven or eight quart jars per batch. We had a small pantry in the cellar. Thanks to activities like the bean factory, its shelves were usually filled to capacity by the end of September.
I was also responsible for helping weed the garden, a chore I resisted as often as possible. I really didn’t like weeding and got in trouble more than once for shirking my duties. In addition to the big vegetable garden, there was a rhubarb patch across the road, asparagus at the foot of the hill behind the house and flower gardens all over the property. Love of flowers was passed from generation to generation. Our grandmother, Della Look Clark, had a huge flower garden running parallel to her house in West New Portland, complimented by a small rock garden by the barn. When we were kids, Kate and I would visit her after school ended, sleeping on her screened-in porch and watching cars pass by, intermingled with fireflies dancing above the garden. She had a rose trellis bisecting the it and she was always happy to tell us about various flowers that caught our fancy.
I was essentially gardenless (save for a certain herb that shall remain nameless that grew incredibly well on ancient manure piles while I was in college), from age eighteen until Beth and I bought our first home in Chelsea. We moved in too late to have any gardens that first year, but I started sifting the disaster masquerading as soil behind the house as soon as we moved in, intent on getting at least a little space ready for the following year. We lived in that house for 25 or so years and gradually turned the disaster into a pretty decent garden that included rhubarb, a couple really nice grape arbors with built in seating, a dozen or so fruit trees and even a couple butternut trees. Keeping the veggies safe was always challenging. I learned that shooting woodchucks from your bedroom window with a 12 gauge shotgun and not using ear plugs wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I learned to collect hair clippings from local barbers if I wanted to save my corn from predatory raccoons, that netting was mandatory if I wanted any cherries from my North Star tree and that one could eat 600+ plums from a Stanley plum tree with minimal ill effects. There were regrets when we sold that place and moved to Hartland.
We lucked out when we bought our big yellow Victorian. We only have an acre vs the six plus we owned in Chelsea, but it’s one of the coolest acres around. There are 16 apple trees, two pear trees, two plum trees, two peach trees, four grape vines, eight rhubarb and over 40 red and yellow everbearing raspberry plants. We built a raised bed flower garden and had Kathy Kimball, one of the library trustees who has a degree in horticulture, design the plant layout. Side gardens, a couple shade beds along with a peony bed, several rhododendrons, a couple clematis, a Dutchman’s Pipe and two lots of pachysandra under the back deck add more variety and color. Added this year were a Juneberry and a shadbush as well as some ground ginger.
There was no vegetable garden when we bought the property, but the owner agreed to let me start one before closing. This year’s plants are a mix of old standards and some experimental stuff. Black cherry tomatoes as well as a jar of mystery bean seeds scavenged from my late father-in-law’s woodworking room are in and flourishing along with cukes, two other kinds of tomatoes, a hundred or so squash plants (there’s no such thing as too much squash in our family), golden beets, broccoli, kale and cauliflower, red cabbage, peas and carrots in a small raised bed filled with sifted soil.
It didn’t take the annual invasion of woodchucks long to find my set plants. They wiped out almost two rows before I found their burrows and nuked them after dark with a couple Revenge rodent bombs. I’m no fan of pesticides, favoring rotenone if I need to deter things like squash beetles. We’ve seen new pests become a problem in recent years, something I strongly suspect is connected to global warming. Japanese beetles didn’t exist when I was a kid, but like wild turkeys, they’re in abundance here in Hartland. The standing joke about trapping them is as follows: “You’re just gonna invite the neighbor’s crop into your back yard.” After emptying sacks of them caught under pheromone strips for several years and seeing not the slightest dent in their numbers, I’m convinced there’s more truth to the joke than meets the eye. I’ve tried inoculating stretches where they are particularly abundant with milky spore, but am not convinced that has any appreciable effect. I do, however get a perverse satisfaction out of taking an after-supper stroll past the raspberries, grapes and wild blackberries, knocking as many of the little buggers into a mix of water and bug killer as I can. My record for an evening is 487.
The other invasive creatures are evil looking ants that have built underground nests all over our back yard. I have nothing against ants in general, but these have already killed one apple tree and threaten several more. I researched natural ant remedies and found two I’m about to try. Baby powder with talc seems to mess up their digestive system, but oddly enough plain old cornmeal works even better. They carry it back and feed the queen. Ants can’t digest it, so in short order the colony collapses with no ill effects to the immediate environment. I’ll report back on the efficacy of this in a month or so.
Back to the title of this post. Mom’s first and only work of fiction was called The Maine Mulch Murder and was published by Larcom Press. She was working on a sequel, The Corpse In The Compost when she had a stroke. Kate and I hope to edit and get that one published down the road. While my outlook on weeds had changed since I was a kid and I enjoy the zen-like way weeding allows me to think creatively, it still is time consuming when you have a big garden. Mom used to collect outdated phone books from everyone in Union and used them, along with discarded school workbooks, as a mulch barrier around the edge of her garden. It held even the most aggressive weeds at bay and produced generation after generation of highly literate worms. Here in Hartland, I use a modified version of her weed blockade. As soon as the set plants are in and the rows of corn, beets, beans, etc. have started to shoot up, I lay down double sheets of newspaper and cover them with fresh grass clippings. It takes a couple mowings and a few hours to complete the project, but for the remainder of the growing season, our need to weed is almost zero. Not only does this combination hold heat and moisture, it decomposes nicely and is ready to be tilled in after everything is harvested.
Despite fairly unfriendly weather so far in the 2013 growing season, everything, save a row of beans that rotted at the dirt line because of excess moisture, is doing extremely well. The apple crop, after a terrible 2012, looks like I might get to try the cider press Beth and the girls bought me for Christmas two years ago.