Nov 9, 2020
Garlic patch becomes a place of pride, fellowship

Late fall greetings to you dear grower. Hoping this postcard finds you well – likely cold and wet – but at least going home to a warm house filled with love, a change of clothes and tasty food on the table.

In my last column I recounted the record of the USDA, as reflected in that organization’s published statistics and as lived by many Black farmers. I would have liked to further investigate that matter, but that is not in the spirit of this magazine. In the present time our politics has become volatile, so that when a slight glint of tension reflects from a topic, people tend to rush in to share their opinion like a hammer, or retreat – seeking an escape from the sharp arguments that permeate our politics and national conversation. That’s too bad.

I have focused my own growing skills this season on my lakeside garlic patch. I must say, a bit sheepishly, that there is much to enjoy in producing food on a smaller scale. I have been able to try techniques that I could not were I using machinery. I have also been able to observe much more keenly the results of my actions. I learned that earthworms love mulch: in the spring straw covered the patch, and pulling back the mulch was like opening a curtain on a bustling scene of soil-life – earthworms would recoil from the sunlight and pull deeper into their dark tunnels, many-legged insects would scurry away and bright white garlic roots wove their way right along the surface of the soil in the cool shade of the mulch.

But it turned out that my garlic patch, in a neighbor’s backyard, sits in the path of a former wetlands that drained into Lake Michigan. This means that the soil is sandy yet rich, but also that in early May my patch turned into a pond, despite my raised beds.

Those were desperate times. I mucked about digging trenches around the patch and making small berms to keep the surface water from pouring in from the street. My amateur drainage was not enough and the soil remained sodden. So I finally decided that I would remove the mulch and loosen the soil between plants with a fork to encourage drying. I think it worked to dry out the soil, but after removing the mulch the rich soil life never returned the rest of the season. After harvest, I applied compost and planted cowpeas, soybeans and buckwheat. Even under the dense green sward still the worms did not return. When the legumes began to flower I cut them down and laid clear plastic over the patch for a week in early September. I was hoping that the warm and moist environment would bring the earthworms up from their depths to feed on the cover crop residue, but nothing.

After a week, the residue had turned brown, but I did not see much else. I am hoping that my emergency May earthworks worked, so that the rains of next spring do not swamp my patch – because one lesson I learned is that soil life loves mulch over all else.

But I suppose much more important connections were made out in the garlic patch. I have noticed that people appreciate hard work, and also that serious gardening is now somewhat of a novel concept. After recently moving into this neighborhood I did not know any neighbors – I was too busy teaching and being a Corona shut-in. But as the weather warmed and I was working out in the garlic patch I began to meet my neighbors.

Irina lives next to the garden patch, a middle-aged woman alone in her home. She has a small house and a tiny yard – but she tends it as richly as any botanical garden. After watching me work in the patch from her kitchen window, she came out to say hello, and soon invited me to see her garden, from which I have learned much about tending plants. Since that day we have exchanged countless plants for each other’s yard, as well as my vegetables and her honey. One special day last fall, she came out and gave me two large purple cloves of garlic from Lithuania that her mother had sent her. I planted those cloves, which turned into two bulbs, that I will again plant this year.

I also ran into Hailee, the eight-year-old neighbor girl. Her parents were often away working, and with me teaching from home for the spring she and I were fast garden partners: planting sunflower seeds that soon enough grew taller than her, then I. We weeded in the garlic patch and tended plants in my backyard, and she would tell me about her goings-on and constantly ask about each task we did: “Why, why, why?”

She loves our chickens, and came to know them better than us – we call her the Chicken Tender. My wife and I took Hailee on several expeditions this summer. On a trip to the local greenhouse, she picked out her favorite flowers. We turned another neighbor’s neglected garden into our squash patch by planting the perimeter with pickling cucumbers and watermelons. In the center we placed a giant pumpkin plant that one of my students grew from seed. We planted that sucker in a pit of horse manure and it grew until its leaves were the size of umbrellas. It was too bad when squash vine borers and powdery mildew took it down prematurely, but not before Hailee and I picked one single respectably-sized pumpkin. Hailee insisted on carving it into a jack-o-lantern, even if it was a few months before Halloween.

— Sam Oschwald Tilton, VGN columnist; Photo at top: Two pumpkin carvers caught in the middle of the creative process. Courtesy of Sam Oschwald Tilton.

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