Sunday, March 11, 2012

Winter Warfare

As soon as the temperature rises over 50 degrees, David and I are like a couple of old war horses, smelling battle. We charge into action, armed with string trimmers, nippers, rakes, wheelbarrows, pitchforks and shovels, attacking the overburden of biomass like an invading enemy and digging as if preparing for trench warfare. Yesterday alone I hauled nine wheelbarrow loads of pine needles and assorted twigs and rose prunings out of the front yard and dumped them in the ever-normal pile across the road. Pine needles  decompose at such a rate that the diminishment of the pile just about keeps pace with the new additions, yielding the puzzling phenomenon in which I keep adding to it but it doesn’t get any bigger. Nor does it get any smaller and holds steady at about the size under which you could easily camouflage a Sherman tank.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All that happened in the afternoon. Yesterday morning we were off early, in pursuit of something to plant. It didn’t really matter what. We just needed to put something growing into the ground as a response to the weather. We are as predictable in this regard as the return of the birds in spring. So, we went out for an early breakfast at the local apple orchard where we can get freshly made apple cider along with home made sausage and ranch eggs. After a huge meal that saw us through noon, past teatime and right up to supper without the smallest whimper of hunger, we set out on our quest for plants.

We decided to try the hardware store in Altaville, which necessitates crossing into Calaveras county, or “going across the river,” as we say. To get there we had to drive down into the Stanislaus river canyon, now filled with the huge Melones reservoir. We noted that, because of the dry winter, the bathtub ring around the shores was probably 35 feet wide – not a good sign in these water starved times. Nevertheless, we also passed hillsides covered in California poppies and green grass, albeit very short grass. The sky was blue, with little cotton ball clouds dotting it, and a cool breeze was blowing from the east. And we were on the way to buy plants, so life was good.

When we got to the hardware store we first did a brief tour of the lumber shed, in search of good quality #2  1x12 pine, from which David will build bee hives. Just as we are eager to garden, the bees are clamoring to expand at this time of year and if we don’t add new hive boxes, they’re likely to swarm on one of the first really warm days. Touring a lumber shed isn’t for everyone but in David’s presence it’s like touring a winery and sipping the various offerings. We rooted under tarps and turned over top boards to see the quality of boards underneath, all the while accompanied by the sweet, resinous smell of pine pitch.

Once he was satisfied that his lumber needs could be met readily, we proceeded to the hardware store proper, where I immediately fell in love with a small resin bluebird and David became intrigued with a green bean frencher. We toured the nursery next, avid for veggie starts -- but were told they wouldn’t be in for two more weeks. Not to be disappointed, we chose two grape starts, a Thompson Seedless and a Red Flame, to plant we knew not where. Last time there was a warming in the weather, we bought two grape starts, as well – a Cabernet and a Chardonnay. So we’ve just about covered our grape needs and if they don’t get the veggie starts in soon, we’re going to have to start buying shrubs, in desperation.

So, home we went with our two grapevines, a resin bluebird and minus the frencher, which David decided was not up to his standards of quality, even though I reminded him that it was not something he was going to wear out any time soon. Coming down into the river canyon, we saw that the redbud is beginning to bloom, the buckeyes are just putting out their shockingly bright, parrot green leaves, and the wild grapes that tangle a certain gully have not yet begun to bud out. Indian paintbrush was dotting the road banks like drops of blood but other wildflowers were absent and the iron red soil already looked dry.

Once home, the front yard cleanup began. I hauled away towering wheelbarrow loads of pine needles, while David dug holes for the grapes, which we decided to trellis along the front of the house, and for a rose that’s been living in a 5-gallon can so long that I was beginning to consider our treatment of it rude at best and possibly abusive. It will live at the base of the split rail fence, along which it can extend itself to its heart’s content. In the process of removing forkfuls of pine needles, I discovered an entire cluster of winter iris blooming, which they are wont to do, even under the snow.

While we were laboring and working up a sweat, our neighbor, Martha, stopped by to say that it’s supposed to storm all next week, possibly dumping up to six inches of rain and maybe even some snow. So once again our forward momentum with the gardens will be thwarted. And the little pea starts that David just planted today, after coaxing them into life in an egg carton, under a heat lamp, will probably get pounded flat. It takes more than that, however, to damper our enthusiasm. We’ll ride out the storm by the fire, reading up on cauliflower and dried beans and grape propagation and, come the first day over 50 degrees, we’ll be ready for battle, again.

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