Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Damn You, Birds!

I am sitting in my kitchen, staring at a bunch of starlings pecking at my vegetable beds. I’m feeling a bit paranoid, because last spring I watched birds very much like these descend on my vegetable beds and attack my emerging bean and cucumber plants.

I went out to the garden to see what the birds were pecking at and found that all my little seedlings had been nibbled down to nubs. What could have possessed the birds to do that? I wondered. Since when do birds eat plants? Were they trying to send me a message?

Well, probably not. This was just my initiation into that fraternity of gardeners and farmers who, through the ages, have railed at the brickbats and insults and sometimes just plain mysterious curveballs that nature dishes up. Drought, hail, locusts and now birds. Welcome to the world of trying to grow your own food!

Mine is an inner-city garden, which makes me an urban farmer, I guess. Three years ago, I wrote an article for the local paper about a young farmer in Southern Maryland who is passionate about growing greens outdoors in winter. He loves nothing better than dressing up in a pair of Carhartt coveralls in the middle of January and picking arugula in the freezing cold.

I was inspired. My wife and I signed up to receive weekly deliveries of the farmer’s winter greens. And I wondered if there was any reason I could not do this in the city. I mean the growing food part, not the dressing up in Carharrts in the middle of winter part.

We live in a big house on a big corner lot in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington, about a mile from the White House. The neighborhood had fallen on hard times when we bought our house. There was no landscaping in the front yard. I had never given it much thought before. But now, instead of crab grass and dandelions and chickweed, I saw beds of tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots. I saw rows of leafy lettuces and tall, spiraling Brussels sprouts. I saw my own truck farm smack dab in the middle of the city that would feed not only me and my family, but my personal chef clients as well.

One day I picked up a spade and just started digging.

I may have neglected to mention that although there was no landscaping in our yard, my wife had plans for landscaping. Detailed plans.

“What are you doing?” she asked when I started digging.

“Planting vegetables,” I said.

“Where, exactly?” she asked.

“Right here,” I said, pointing to a spot in the front yard.

“Don’t get too attached,” she replied.

We did pretty well that year with my first vegetable bed. We harvested tons of cucumbers and radishes. The Brussels sprouts took forever, but eventually we had enough for a few meals. We had a fair crop of tomatoes, although the tomato plants came down with some kind of awful wilt. We had lettuce.

But I wanted more. So the next year I started digging again, tearing up sod, pulling tons of rocks and broken glass and strange pieces of metal out of the soil.

“What are you doing now?” my wife inquired.

“More vegetables,” I said.

“You can’t plant there,” she said. “That’s where the front walk is going.”

I kept digging. It was a race against time.

It is said that everyone longs to grow things, that we all have a secret dream of becoming a farmer. I think I was just following behind my father, a sort of renegade brush salesman who dug up part of the forest preserve behind our house when I was a kid to plant rhubarb and strawberries and tomatoes.

As my garden grew, I was determined to make it as self-sufficient as possible. Call it enviro-gardening: I started composting. I built a three-bin system to compost yard wastes and grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Pretty soon I was cruising the neighborhood, picking up bags of dried leaves my neighbors left at the curb.

Then I took classes to become a Master Gardener. Then I built a huge container garden at my daughter’s charter school down the hill.

Obviously, I was turning into some kind of gardening nut.

In the summer, I built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers to climb. The okra stood eight feet tall, exceeded only by the sunflowers and the amaranth. Now we also had huge beds of zinnia and marigolds and dill and basil. I had parsley to feed an army. I made dill pickles in August and pickled green tomatoes in October.

I kept waiting for someone to come along and say, “You can’t do that.” But the neighbors love it.

People—strangers--on their way to work stop, lean on the iron fence and chat about the gardens they had when they were growing up. How their grandmother used to plant lima beans. People—strangers—stop at the red light across the street and shout encouragement out their car windows.

“What’re you planting there?” they shout.

“Oh, just about everything,” I shout back.

This year practically the whole yard is under cultivation. Yep, all except one little spot where my wife put her foot down. She keeps threatening to bring in a crew to build a retaining wall. She keeps pointing to spots where my vegetables are going to be under a walkway.

I keep planting.

My wife and I have reached an accommodation. We are going to combine my vegetables and her design to make an edible landscape. As for the birds, I am hip to their tricks. This year I bought fabric row cover to keep them off my seedlings. Take that, you birds!

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