Garden Surprise

One of things I love about having two kids who are getting older (one is almost 20 the other is almost 14) is that, as their different strengths emerge, I am ending up with two very different and wonderful partners in crime.

Thing1 one is my builder. I contract more and more construction projects out to him these days.

Thing2 is my idea man, my co-dreamer. When I have an idea for a backyard project that might make Thing1 or the Big Guy gasp in horror, Thing2 is ready to hop on that flight of ideas with me which that’s how I ended up with today’s menu specialty, Garden Surprise.

Last summer the two of us were shopping and stopped at the food court for mango smoothies. We both decided they were so good we had to have seconds, and just before total brain freeze started to take hold we uttered, at the same time, “we should get a blender so we can make our own.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. There should’ve been a responsible adult there to put the kibosh on this idea, but five minutes later we were headed over to the kitchen store to pick out a blender. We bought a bunch of frozen fruit at the grocery store and did a little experimenting. Almost as soon as we stocked the freezer and perfected a few blends, however, cold weather set in, and the blender didn’t see much action for the next nine months.

We’ve had a few barnburners recently, and the frozen fruit and blender have re-emerged but with a twist this year. The last few days, as the garden really starts to produce, I’ve developed a new recipe, Garden Surprise, which consists of water, protein powder, a little bit of frozen fruit or banana, and anything that happens to be ready to pick. It’s yielding wildly different drinks from day to day–today included kale and cilantro and peas, but, just as i’ve learned from my two very different boys, sometimes the things that take you most by surprise also offer the most joy.

Exposed to Nature

When we first build the crazy cave we call our home, we had a zillion things on our wish list. Solar panels. A wind tower. Tinted concrete for the flooring to maximize our solar gain. An outdoor shower. A garden. We ended up with the solar panels and the garden, but, by the time we moved in, our finances had whittled our wish list down to a stump.

To be sure, the outdoor shower is nothing new around our house. The Big Guy has a well-publicized history of taking advantage of a summer rainstorm to rinse off the sweat from a day of working around the house. As Covid-19 has sharpened our focus on home improvement, however, the idea of semi-permanent place to hose off garden dirt and sweat before traipsing through the house started to take shape again.

Over the years, little shoots have emerged around that stump. We’ve painted and connected to the grid. We’ve moved a door and rearranged rooms. We’ve had chickens and a host of pets and mice. And, this summer, we added an outdoor shower.

My folks installed an outdoor shower at their place years ago to minimize tracking in sand, so our family is no stranger to sudsing off under the sun. We’ve watched as their privacy enclosure has evolved and the family has adopted a policy of not looking out ‘that’ window when crowds of grandkids returned from the beach.

We’ve had a few scorchers this last week, and every day of labor in the garden ends with a quick jump in the frigid river, followed by a rinse in the shower. Our privacy protocol and enclosure is still evolving, so I let the boys go first and, once they were inside, I stepped on the wooden shower pad. The shower is attached to a hose and is invigorating as you’d expect, but it was warmer than the river, so I took my time cleaning up.

I shampooed and chatted with the chickens as they scratched the nearby weeds. I kept a watchful eye on the forest just incase a peeping YogiBear might be out there and then giggled as I rinsed. turned off the water and enjoyed getting a little exposed to nature.

But seriously, our enclosure needs to evolve and quick.

The Chickens and The Eggs

By the time I got back from the garden with my daily blueberry harvest, something had discovered the wild black raspberries by the woodshed, stripping the lower canes of every last bit of treasure. I picked the last half cup of berries by the shed and then did a quick lap around the yard for an informal inventory. At every point, the lower canes had been henpecked out of their bounty. I had almost completed the lap when I bumped int the culprits and an age old question – which comes first, the chickens or the eggs?

We don’t cultivate black raspberries or blackberries. They cultivate themselves — usually in the most invconvenient spots – but we do try to harvest enough for a small batch of jam or berry pancakes each year. They’re one of a few crops we don’t have to work for.

Eggs are the other crop we do very little to nurture. New chicks get a starter feed and, as soon as they’re old enough, a coop on the range. Advocates of letting chickens be chickens, we’ve been letting the Ladies of the Coop dictate what they want to eat, and, until the berries ripened, that worked out pretty well. They seemed to go mostly for bugs and weeds and, aside from “aerating” the carrot bed a little too enthusiastically, left most of the garden plants alone.

Letting chicks be chicks has, historically, given us delicious eggs with rich dark yolks. Blackberries are just starting to form and ripen. I suspect the Ladies of the Coop will be aiming for that crop as well. Part of me wants to try to fence off the canes to save it for the humans. The other part of me is coming to terms with the fact that getting great eggs may mean letting the chickens come first. 

Salad Days

The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.

I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.

Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.

I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.

Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.

Chickens in the Jungle

Joan Jett here is on her second walk about on the jungle on the side of our house. Seeing the other girls are on their second day of exploring the wonders of free ranging. We have to wait until the cats are in the house–the chickens are quite big enough to disinterest the cats, who are basically bullies.

The americana’s all have names. Fluffy is still Fluffy because of her lovely Maine. Joan Jett has a shocker black feathers at the top of her head and is quite the troublemaker. I was going to name the last one Goldie because of her feathers, but the Big Guy insisted on Golda, Keeping with the tradition of naming the checks after bad ass females.

They’ll scratch and explore for a while and then, hopefully, wander back to their tractor as I did yesterday for an afternoon nap after all their exercise.

It’s funny to watch chickens when they’re allowed to be chickens. The pecking order isn’t solid. They like to cuddle. Some of them like to those in the sun while others can’t stop preening. we’re trying to walk the fine line between protecting our chickens and keeping them from being chickens.