AgriCulture: Chasing a Dream

Hi All, Mark here. I loved the look of agriculture long before I ever had a farm. Yesterday I was struck by the geometric artistry of long rows of corn, lined up like so many soldiers in formation, undulating over a hill nearby. It recalled to my mind other images filed away in my album of landscape “greatest hits”: potato fields I would bike past some thirty five years ago, all in white or purple bloom, gently sloping toward the ocean on the East End of Long Island; endless rows of perfect sunflowers along the roads of Thrace, injecting a bright vital energy into an otherwise dull flat landscape. These scenes are painted on a wide canvas, planted by machine, and using plants that have been developed to replicate each other as exactly as possible. I don’t know whether pesticides, herbicides or insecticides are used to keep the spaces between the planted rows weed-free and bare. Nonetheless, the plants that compose the tableau are magnificent living things and the visual effect of their uniform arrangement appeals to me in much the same way that a Busby Berkeley production number does. From the chaos of living organisms, a sense of order and harmony achieved. The closest my farm comes to the tableaux I find so appealing is the pasture. The pasture is not comprised of just one type of plant. A variety of grasses, grains, clovers, and legumes all mix chaotically. They are, however, chewed down to the visual uniformity of a carpet by the sheep and cows that graze there. It’s the same sort of order we achieve in the yard by mowing the grass. The view of pasture with the woods behind looks planned, ordered, and beautiful. This is so even though the margin between pasture and woodland is shifting, contested territory and the woodland itself is also a chaotic mix of whatever can opportunistically seed itself and enter into a sort of jostling coexistence, or even symbiosis, with the trees, bushes and undergrowth already there. From a distance, even the chaos of the woodland fades into a pleasing uniformity. It’s a kind of visual order I would love to see everywhere, but which I’ve only partially achieved in the areas like the vegetable garden where the results are reliant on my personal efforts. You may remember that one of my major goals for this season was to reconfigure the vegetable garden according to a more Cartesian, rational plan that Eric and I developed together. The plan involved new boundaries, new fencing to keep out groundhogs and rabbits, and replacing most of the existing circular planting beds with new rectangular beds. It required digging up a whole lot of sod and removing enormous stands of mugwort and other weeds I had allowed to invade in fallow areas in the past couple of years. It was a far more ambitious undertaking than I had anticipated. By some measures, we’ve made great strides. The fencing has been almost entirely finished and for the past several weeks has succeeded in keeping out groundhogs and all but one pesky rabbit. Plants like Swiss chard, broccoli and parsley that didn’t survive the critters’ gnawing last year have been doing well this year. Of the 24 planting beds we planned for the main garden, 18 have been created and planted. Where about 20 tomato plants struggled last year in the tomato patch, this year there are over 75, and half a dozen tomatillos as well. The little orange sungold tomatoes are already coming in regularly, and I harvested the first ripe Black Krim last week. My summer counteroffensive against the mugwort, however, bears some resemblance to the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Donbas. I am making some discernible progress and will ultimately emerge victorious, but the weed is entrenched. Mugwort has been eliminated from more than 75% of the tomato patch and the north end of the vegetable garden proper, but in the main garden the southwest corner, and the east side between the pumpkins and the zucchini are all still in enemy hands. Even from a distance, aggressive patches of mugwort stand as a rebuke to the landscaped look I so desperately wanted to achieve this year.Eric thinks my commitment to doing it all by hand is what stands between me and achieving my garden goals. He is right. I have no good response for this. I apparently crave the Sisyphian challenge, and must grasp at a small measure of vindication by appreciating each tiny patch of order I create. And eating the results. Last Sunday, along with the first Black Krim tomato, I brought in the first impossibly shiny yellow Golden Rod zucchinis, and the first cucumbers (both standard Marketmore slicing cucumber and suhyo long, a Chinese variety with a bumpy skin and a curvy growth habit). We are harvesting blackberries in great profusion. In gratitude to macho Matt, who installed a new mailbox and fixed a gate affected by the recent storms during a recent visit, I was able to make the kind of vegetarian meal he prefers largely from the garden: Swiss chard leaves stuffed with a rice mixture that included our own turnips and herbs, braised chard stems, a Turkish salad of chopped tomato, suhyo cucumber and onion, and cacik, the cucumber, yoghurt and mint dish. It’s not yet the summer harvest of my dreams, but it’s by a large margin better than last year. I’ve been plagued by dreams this week of actions uncompleted — last night it was trying unsuccessfully to reach a hardware store before it closed, the night before it was having my plate cleared before I could finish eating a poppy seed muffin. I can’t help but think these are in part displaced fears about whether I will ever close the gap between my ambitions and actualization in the garden. But, I tell myself, the season is not over. There are six more beds I can dig, fall vegetables like collard greens, daikon radish and spinach to plant. And by next year, I tell myself, we will surely have the vegetable garden we’ve been dreaming of.


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