<![CDATA[Herbal Country Doctor  - Tales from the Back Burner]]>Tue, 28 Nov 2017 22:32:31 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Industrial-Strength Gardening]]>Sun, 02 Mar 2014 16:35:02 GMThttp://herbalcountrydoc.com/tales-from-the-back-burner/industrial-strength-gardening For most folks, gardening is a tranquil pastime requiring only a few simple tools: a spade, a rake, a hoe, a hand trowel…perhaps a pitchfork for fluffing up the compost heap. Oh, sure, we gardeners might wrestle a tiller from the shed every spring and rattle around behind it for a few hours, but that’s about the extent of our dependence on mechanical paraphernalia. At least, that’s what I believed until I moved to northern Utah about 40 years ago and learned there are people who have a more…well, a more “industrialized” approach to gardening.

In those days, Lewiston, Utah, was a community of widely-dispersed, hard-working farmers.  They were dairy people, mostly, and they were neighborly to a fault—a personality trait that caught me off-guard at first, but which I eventually learned to appreciate. Our recently purchased modular home (a bequest from the Farmers Home Administration, which was still alive and kicking back then) was erected smack-dab in the middle of the hardiest patch of quackgrass in the northern hemisphere—a situation that played a prominent role in my introduction to Lewiston and its gregarious inhabitants.

Quackgrass, a nefarious relative of turf grass, consists of an endless network of brittle, pointed roots over-arched by a hardy canopy of upright culms and abrasive, bayonet-shaped leaves. I owned precisely six-tenths of an acre of the stuff, much of which would have to be subdued before I could even think of putting in the large garden I envisioned. Believing myself equal to the task, I launched a one-man program of agrarian rehabilitation, armed with a wooden-handled shovel, a Dego hoe and a stout steel rake. I was confident that a couple of weekends of concentrated effort—and possibly a few evenings after work—would see the project to completion. So, early one Saturday morning I donned a pair of leather gloves, set my water bottle by the back door and waded into the knee-high vegetation.

I quickly discovered why quackgrass is called “one of the worst ten weeds in the world.” If I jumped up and down on the shovel’s shoulder three or four times, I could drive its sharpened tip about six inches into the tough, resilient earth. Successively placing the shovel at a right angle to the cut I had just created, I performed the identical operation three more times to create a square as broad as the shovel’s blade. Then, by leaning back on the implement’s handle until it creaked from strain, I could uproot a compact mat of sod, which I grasped with my fingertips, wrested from its bed, and vigorously shook until it was free of soil. The remaining roots and greenery were then tossed toward a slowly growing heap at the garden’s edge. 

I repeated this routine until my shoulders burned. I hacked at the rubbery turf until sweat stung my eyes. I sifted through knots of quill-like rhizomes. I raked and hoed through serpentine masses of tangled, incestuous roots...

A few hours after I’d commenced this ill-conceived project, I straightened to stretch my back and suddenly noticed an old gentleman standing at the verge of the small expanse of soil I had exposed. It appeared my onlooker had been loitering there for a while: his hands were nestled comfortably in the pockets of his overalls, and he was munching contentedly on a stem of grass. Upon catching my eye, he removed the masticated grass from between his teeth, flicked it away, extended a callused hand and—in a soft voice that was nearly carried away on the afternoon breeze—introduced himself.

“I’m Les Weeks. I live down the road a piece.”

Les was a dairyman, as everyone in his family had been since his forebears settled in Cache Valley. On the day we met, he had taken a break from working one of his fields to go to the local hardware store, and when he drove past our house he’d noticed the small cloud of dust I had raised as I toiled in the garden.

Les’ hands were gnarled from years of bucking hay and mending fences, and his back was bent from a lifetime of stooping beneath his cows to tap their swollen udders.  As time passed and I got to know him better, I discovered Les could remember the minute details of a dozen presidential campaigns, and he could accurately relate several decades’ worth of comings-and-goings for most of the families in the area. More importantly, Les had nurtured his family and farm through tough times that had broken many other capable men: tree-cracking winters; parching droughts; diseases; fickle milk prices—Les had survived it all.

For now, though, Les was offering to bail me out. He said he had a tractor. As he waved a knobby hand over my embryonic garden, he said he would be happy to stop by one evening and "turn ‘er under. No trouble at all.” I gingerly poked at the fresh blisters on my palms and, after approximately two seconds of earnest contemplation, accepted Les’ proposal.

Returning from work two days later, I was astounded by the scene unfolding in my back yard. In my mind’s eye, I had seen the elderly farmer puttering around my property atop a vintage Farmall or something of similar genre. But there he was, comfortably perched in the cab of a monstrous, shiny Massey Ferguson, plowing my garden, rolling it over in massive, curled waves. It was an awesome and vaguely frightening thing to behold.

After a half dozen passes through the grassy field, Les rumbled up to where I stood and opened his window. A few bars of country-western music escaped from his air-conditioned cubicle and mingled comfortably with the aroma of silage wafting in from nearby farms. Lifting his voice over the noise of the tractor’s engine, Les offered to “go hook up the disc and smooth 'er down some."

I may have been intimidated by all that machinery idling there in my yard, for a rational man would have simply nodded and accepted all the help he could get. Instead, I expressed my genuine gratitude and lamely explained that I at least wanted to do some of the work. Les raised his eyebrows, shook his head, touched two fingers to the bill of his sweat-rimed baseball cap, herded his tractor back onto the road and pointed it homeward. I reached for the shovel I’d left leaning beside the back door and turned toward the garden.

Hell hath no fury like quackgrass un-churned. Every day for weeks I came home from work, changed my clothes and plodded out to the millstone that was "the GARDEN."  Had there been a world market for quackgrass roots, I could have cornered it.  Despite Les’ preparatory work, I broke two shovels; I retired the rake when it looked like it needed the attention of an orthodontist; I wore the hoe to a nubbin. As I crawled into bed each night, my sole comfort came from the knowledge that I was one day closer to getting some seeds in the ground. Eventually, the area was level and clean.

A few days later I was out in the garden, leaning on the handle of a new rake and pondering what I’d plant where, when another neighbor stopped to visit. 

If there are gods who watch over gardeners, they must be a capricious lot.

Like me, Tony Hall was a nine-to-five type.  I already knew he was a manager at the local bank, and I knew he and his family lived in a relatively new home just down the street from our house. What I didn't know was that Mr. Anthony Hall was a closet farmer.

As we stood in the cool of the morning, gazing over my incipient garden, Tony remarked that I must have been working hard.  I shrugged and told him I couldn't have done it without help, and I related the tale of Les Weeks and his tractor. Tony said he knew Les well and added that it was customary for people in the community to turn out to help their neighbors. Then he grew pensive, as though he was about to utter something profound but wasn’t quite sure how it would be received. Suddenly, he asked if I wanted a load of "liquid sunshine" for my fledgling farm.

I must have looked puzzled. Tony explained: "I can get you a load of cow manure to fertilize your garden."

"That would be great!" I replied, wondering why Tony had been hesitant to make the suggestion. A few pickup-truck loads of organic fertilizer would be just the thing to get that first planting of vegetables off to a healthy start. After decades of supporting its canopy of quackgrass, the soil in the garden was undoubtedly depleted of important nutrients. Yes, indeed, once I had some manure mixed into the dirt, all that remained would be the sowing, the cultivating and the harvesting…which would be like therapy when compared to the backbreaking effort that had gone before. My mouth almost watered at the thought of the peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, greens and melons that would soon be bursting from the dark humus of my little truck farm.

I should have known better.

I soon learned that Tony's definition of a load of fertilizer differed substantially from mine.  The evening after our meeting, I arrived home to find the banker cum farmer crouched on the seat of a manure spreader that he had backed alongside my garden. I had seen these ungainly devices before, crawling slowly back and forth on the plowed fields around Lewiston, spreading their contents in preparation for the next season’s planting. Now one of the infernal contraptions was parked in my yard, its spinning auger busily discharging its noisome cargo.

Great arcs and spires of greenish-brown dung, delicately backlit by the setting sun, sprayed upward and outward before settling, in muted plops and splats, onto the innocent earth. Tony, besmeared and goggled, grinned through the fecal haze, his shining teeth a cheerful counterpoint to his stained face. I stood dumbfounded and downwind, transfixed by the aura of sunshine, stink and airborne offal.

Shortly thereafter, his task completed, Tony clambered from his machine and ambled over to where I waited. He removed one of his gloves and shook my hand. (I scarcely noticed that the glove and the proffered hand were similarly dung-spackled.) He happily asked me if I wanted another load.

"Plenty more where that came from," he assured me.

Eying the magnificent heap of manure already beginning to steam in the gloaming, I thanked Tony effusively and declined his offer. As Tony and his malodorous chariot disappeared into the twilight, I reached shakily for the shiny new shovel I had propped beside the back door...