Saturday, May 19, 2012

Signs of the Times

Those wonderful home-grown tomatoes of summer. (c) August 2011, by RLMT
     Eastern Kentucky being what it is, I was raised listening to my elders discuss "the signs". It was in the right sign to plant a certain plant, or to prune something, to castrate or breed animals, or to even trim one's toenails! What these mysterious-sounding signs really are about can be found in any Farmer's Almanac (TM) -- they're the signs of the Zodiac, no less. (Then the moon had to be right, etc., etc.)
     It got pretty complicated sometimes, but it always seemed to work out. In later years, I found out why it was so.
     When Ronnie and I moved into my grandmother's old, empty house, we planned on raising a big garden, come spring. Granny was in the nursing home, but encouraged us; she loved her garden and her home with all its memories. The garden was almost two acres. It was no minor thing to take over what she'd done mostly alone for many, many years -- feed a large extended family and friends from that plot of rich ground. There would be row after row of beans and corn, perhaps 50 or 60 cabbages, about the same number of tomato plants, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, onions, cantaloupe, watermelons, pumpkin, cushaw (a kind of large, bottleneck squash) and anything else Granny could get seed for to try.
     Ronnie and I did the same kind of thing with the garden. I added Romaine lettuce, which I love. The usual sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, radishes and beets, turnips, mixed greens, too. Then we put out sage, sweet basil, borage, garlic, dill, and a host of new items that made a big hit with everyone in general.
     Our next-door neighbors watched us labor in silence. Then one day, Roy sidled up to Dad when he'd stopped by to see if he could lend a hand. "Lordy, Hershell, them young 'uns is gonna starve to death this winter. They've gone and planted ever'thin' in thar in th' wrong signs!" He was truly concerned.
      I saw Dad grinning, but was busy and thought little of it at the time. Later, when Roy had gone back to his own place, Dad came over and told us the story. He laughed; Dad watched the signs on some things, and on others, he'd become skeptical over the years. So he'd simply told our kindly, old-fashioned neighbor that we'd all just have to live and learn, he reckoned. Roy was happy with that, in general.
      We thought it was pretty funny too, and chalked it up to neighborly worry. Nice, in its own way.
As the summer progressed, our garden flourished. The beans were heavy with bloom, the deer hadn't touched them. The rabbits seemed to avoid everything in our garden. The corn was shooting up nicely, small ears forming, when Roy came over. He stood in the edge of our bean patch scratching his head at the masses of small white blooms.
     "How'd you get those to bloom like that? Y'all planted ever'thin' in the wrong signs fer 'em to do this! Lookit ours; they ain't got a blessit bloom on 'em." He was upset.
      "What, yours aren't blooming, Roy?"
     "Nary bloom."
     "Ah. Let me see." I walked over to his bean patch. "Have you planted these in the same place every year?"
     "Yessum, we have. They've growed thar just fine 'til now. I don't know what's happened."
     "That's what's wrong. Here, let me get you something." I went back over to the back porch and handed him a gallon milk jug full of a transparent greenish liquid. "Put this on the beans. Pour it right on the leaves, down the plant -- not just on the roots. If you need more, come and see me again."
      "What the heck is this?" Distrust lay thick on the air.
      "It's a bloom-builder, Roy. It has trace minerals in it. The kind of trace items that get used up when you're planting the same thing in the same spot every year." I kept a straight face.
     "Well, alright then. I'll give it a try, but I don't think it'll help. Somethin's wrong with my bean seed, I think."
     It was very hard for me not to scream, but I didn't. Instead, I stood there, waiting for him to leave so I could go back to work putting a thick layer of newspaper around the bottoms of the tomato plants.
     He started off, then turned back with an odd look on his face, "Ain't them deer and rabbits awful this year? They've plumb et up my lettuce bed."
     "They haven't bothered our stuff, Roy."
He scratched his head again, looking confused. "I dunno why not. They et up the first beans we put out, an' our patch is right next to yours!"
      I grinned wickedly. "Well, I reckon they think it ain't in the right signs to harvest in our patch, bein' as we planted it wrong."
     "Reckon so, " he mumbled as he left.
     If the fellow had bothered to notice, there were tags of old white sheet tied at chest level all around the outside edge of our big garden. Those tags of white, when lifted by the wind, looked like an alarm signal to whitetail deer, so they were wary. And I had let some of the wild greens, something called "Lamb's Quarter" grow in the bean rows. With fertilizer added, the wild stuff was far taller than the bush beans we'd planted. The deer, browsers, ate the tops off that natural food item in their rush to leave the patch -- instead of the beans. They also didn't want to put their heads down low; the alarm signal is a strong suggestion. To add to it, I'd doused the cloth with a liberal supply of cheap cologne bought at a small dollar-store in town, so the place smelled like humans.
      As far as the rabbits, that was even easier. We kept cats in the house, and there was a wide stretch of regrowth trees at the back of the garden, downhill from it. So we simply dumped the used litter in the edge of the woods, in a narrow streak of swampy ground. The run-off took the residue away from the garden, leaving it safe. Rabbits are careful of the smell of cats. The twitching-nosed thieves went to Roy's garden instead of ours.
     We live-trapped the raccoons and occasional opossum out of there, taking them to a wilder place to release, and that was that. It was a banner year for our garden; everyone ate well. We shared our early beans with Roy and his family, and they ended up sharing their late beans with us, so it worked out just fine.
      One never knows what's in the stars for tomorrow. It's kind of fun finding out, though.