Toronto Star column – published September 28, 2013
“Man is rich in proportion to the things that he can afford to live without.” H D Thoreau
A personal reflection on my experience in my garden this month.
September is winding down and no doubt you are thinking, “Where did it go?” I know that I am. I have had a record tomato crop, picking 2 or 3 bushels of them some days from my 200 abundant plants. I can’t say why this is so but I was more diligent than ever at applying Bordo copper spray every two weeks. This seemed to keep the dreaded blight – both the ‘early’ and ‘late’ varieties – at bay.
I have a deal with my buddy Ted, at Mother’s Deli in Unionville (http://www.mothersdeliandbakery.com/), where I give him my excess tomato crop and he makes sauce with it. He sells the sauce for $6 per ½ litre jar to locals and has trouble keeping up. This year the waiting list was so long by the end of summer that his production never matched the demand. More commercial enterprises should have such a problem. Except that this endeavour is not really a commercial one as we donate the net proceeds (after paying for the new preserving jars) to the local food bank. This is our mutual idea of ‘fun’. And it answers the question that everyone asks, “Why do you grow 200 tomato plants when there are only 3 of you at home?”
The apples are a similar story. After last years fiasco the trees decided that this was going to be a command performance. God bless them. One Cortland apple tree – the smallest in this particular row- was so overburdened with fruit that its lower branches hung down to the ground as if weeping. “Pick some damn apples, you moron!” it seemed to be screaming every time I walked past it. Hard to explain to a tree that the fruit is not much good to me without it ripening first. Pick them I did, eventually. And Mary made the best apple sauce with them.
By the way, my theory on the abundant crop this year is this: when the frost of late April killed the blossoms last year and the Ontario apple crop suffered with a reduction of 80 to 90% drop in production the trees had a meeting. They decided that if they were to perpetuate they had better make fruit, as an apple is the food source of ripe apple seeds and the seeds are the beginning of a new generation of apple trees. This is how apple trees think. So this spring they bloomed to beat the band and as luck would have it there was no killing frost. The pollinators did their job and as a result you can walk into most any pick-your-own apple orchard right now and they will greet you with open bushel baskets for you to fill in no time. Last year your visit was likely met with a groan. What, after all, were they going to do with customers when they had no produce hanging from the trees?
The hummingbird season has been another success. Like Snoopy and the Red Baron they have arrived in such numbers in late August that they have been having dog fights over my giant rudbeckias. Together they fly, beak to beak, high into the sky only to part at 30 or 40 feet, one chasing the other around the yard. They spar over territory, aggressive little creatures that they are. Like 6-year old school boys arguing over who should get the ball next.
Of all of the bird activity around our garden I enjoy the hummingbirds best of all. But the songs of the warblers, wrens, and chickadees can’t be missed. If you need a reason to be in the garden, this is it. Take your cup of coffee with you and just sit and look, alone. Give yourself five minutes and I guarantee that you will see things that previously went unobserved. Maybe nothing that rocks your world, but you never know. The battling hummingbirds are a powerful memory, especially when you conjure it up in your mind during the first big snow fall this winter. Yes, this IS the same country where hummingbirds visit. On that day you can imagine what they are doing at that moment somewhere in Costa Rica, maybe sipping a margarita. They may have a smaller brain than us but who is smarter?
I have 12 feeding stations around the garden, each is my insurance policy to attract a different variety of birds as each has something different featured in it. The ‘big one’ which is ‘squirrel proof’ is full of black oil sunflower seeds, which the squirrels love. They are pretty good at getting their fair share of it too. Every time I see a black fluffy tail hanging down from the feeding platform I spray some oil on the baffle and enjoy watching them slide down it in their attempts to reach the seed. This works for a week or two at best, when the baffle becomes oil-less and squirrels are once again able to get a purchase with their mucky paws on the baffle.
My ‘marche’ for birds includes my own blend of nyjer seed and husked sunflower seed for the finch, whole peanuts on the shell for the blue jays (salt free), peanuts out of the shell for the downy woodpeckers and grackles (can’t believe that I admit that grackle thing), and my own blend of Bird Feast bird seed for everyone else. I even have a blend that includes dried cranberries and sweet walnut chunks which, when the pantry is bare, I serve to my buddies when they come over to watch the game (kidding).
All of this it to say that I justify my investment in bird food by telling myself that this is in lieu of a cigarette habit. I believe that it is healthier in the long run too. While this may be a simple rationale for an expensive hobby, I never did say that sanity was a strong point.
I am careful to keep the feeders loaded up this time of year as wild birds that overwinter here are staking their ground through the autumn months. If they find what they like at my place, then they are more inclined to make this their winter home than elsewhere. This is my theory anyway.
As I contemplate the weeks ahead, I look forward to Thanksgiving and give thanks for the wealth in my garden. There are days this time of year when it is all I really need.
Question of the Week
Q/ What was the name of the ‘mystery flower’ in your September e-newsletter contest?
A/ The flower is a begonia. I will post the winner’s name in the October issue of Gardening with Mark. www.markcullen.com