Grate expectations

The Old Hippie (aka wife, Stephanie) is pawing away in the garden already. I usually like to fire up our classic, antiquated red Troy-Built tiller and turn up a straight and orderly seedbed, then just kind of look at it for a while. The newly-turned soil amid the fresh green grass and budding apple trees touches something deep within my Garden State dirt farm heritage. But not this year — with shakily contrived cold frames to protect the new plants from a late freeze, rich compost from the Sheltered Workshop and materials scavenged from who knows where, this former art teacher has turned our garden patch into a world where Picasso meets Dr. Seuss.

She beat me to it again. I guess that it’s an annual competition though I never really saw it as such before — the established order versus the adventurous departure from the mundane, orderly and comfortably familiar. Once her gardening process has begun, I can only lie on my side on the cool soil and watch her create the latest sculpture as her graying hair falls in her face and slender, agile toes constantly monitor soil consistency.

As much as I would like to stand up for the established order, I must admit that it has always been a source of fascination for me to see what appears in the garden next.

I recall the cold frame that she made using a sheet of clear plastic. Our curious little beagle-terrier, Bonkers (aka The Holy Terrier), looked it over and immediately recognized this strange new contraption as a hammock, climbed on and went to sleep on the doubled and tightly stretched fabric. Her black, tan and white fur absorbed the early spring sunshine intended for the tiny plants — doggie heaven. This lasted for about a week. As Bonkers slept in the sunshine, the dog’s RDMs (rapid dog movements) while dreaming of chasing critters through the woods eventually shredded the delicate material — back to the drawing board.

Several glass cold frames would follow, their large expanses of glass and wood scavenged from some newly demolished hall of higher learning on the Potomac State campus, a collapsing Victorian era house or defunct garage or factory. A woman with an old pickup truck is a constant source of ever-changing artifacts.

These would eventually wind up broken somehow (meteorites?) or the wooden sashes would rot and the frame collapse. She would then set up the individual panes as mini-frames that resembled some sort of solar energy collector experiment.

The next challenge was to discourage her cats who have formulated their own opinion of what the loose dirt should be used for. Stephanie insists that she is not a crazy old cat lady but these five cats found their way here anyway. Cats have a way of becoming like a small occupation army, perhaps quietly holding this ground until the day when cats finally make their move for world domination.

One early experiment involved planting masses of tiny upright pointed sticks so that any squatting cat would be unceremoniously goosed and thus be discouraged from using the garden. This was doomed to failure as being prohibitively tedious and labor intensive and the cats being too smart to fall for so basic a trick.

Another challenge has been songbirds scratching up the seeds. To address this, she has mounted several highly reflective pinwheels on tall sticks in order to scare the birds away.

These pinwheels reflect the tiniest flicker of light. Late at night, I have been shocked to see blinking lights in the garden as moonlight shone from the slowly rotating blades. The visual effect was that of space aliens having landed in the garden to abduct our radishes.

This year, in addition to the usual tenuously perched and constructed cold frames, she has been going about scavenging old wire oven grates. These are spread over the entire garden, supported by stones, pieces of firewood and so forth. As the plants grow, the size of the objects supporting the grates is increased until the plants attain enough stature to naturally deter birds and cats at which time the grates will be removed.

This just might work though I wince at the thought of an encounter with one of the grates and the roto-tiller in a “normal” garden year.

This leaves the possibility of groundhogs eating the garden. I’ve designated a rather rustic looking Iver Johnson 16 gauge and a box of No. 4 high brass shells for this detail. The wanton and reckless use of this tool is discouraged by the possibility of blowing half a row of plants into Hardy County and the gun’s legendary kick — these factors help to even the playing field. Like anyone else, a groundhog deserves an even break — even if he can’t predict the weather.

Note: Quizzing my wife for information for this story brought forth a flood of offbeat garden memories. To read about how a young Old Hippie’s gardening techniques set a whole community on its ear 30 years ago, pick up a copy of the May/June issue of Antique Power magazine and read “Garden Delights” in my column, “Of Grease and Chaff.” Antique Power is available at Barnes and Noble, Tractor Supply, Books-a-Million and others.

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