Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pioneer Day: putting down roots, pulling up roots.

Varmint-proofed, but not virus-proofed.
I forgot to put together a Pioneer Day posting about a notable dead person, and now it's 10:30 pm and my bedtime. Did pioneers have bedtimes? Are bedtimes for sissies? If the cows busted through the fence or the blog needed updating, I bet a pioneer would have just pushed on through, with pluck and candlelight.

But I digress. Today I visited my community garden plot, as I do most days. This community garden is brand new this year, newly carved from the parched, weedy wilderness of the Salt Lake foothills. We founding gardeners were in charge of removing the cement-like never-tilled dirt, pulling out the rocks (which were many), putting down gopher barriers if we so chose, refilling our plots with amended soil, all before we could plant. Even when that was done, we had to worry about deer nibbling on our plants, because it took until early June for the deer-proof fence to go up. I worked so hard on my garden plot--only one other gardener out of the total of 37 worked as hard as I did to do everything right. I put in about 20 hours total getting the plot ready: first digging--sometimes hacking with a pickaxe--the plot out extra deep*, lining the trench with expensive metal hardware cloth that cut my hands, and then putting back in just the best of the native soil, well amended with compost I had purchased, and hauling away the rejected rocks and soil--about a dozen wheelbarrow loads. Backbreaking, blistering work, much of it in the baking sun. I finally planted my garden halfway through June, and though I knew that my harvest would not be great due to the late planting, I was ecstatic. I had hacked a safe and nourishing little garden bed out of the wilderness for my vegetables and flowers--the desert would blossom as the rose, because of my diligence! My fellow gardeners who had taken far less care in preparation would envy my plants!

Well, my garden has grown quickly in the good soil, and I have laughed as the gopher burrows appear  around it and without fail stop with amusing abruptness where my gopher-proof wall begins. The basil and zinnia seedlings I'd sprouted in March in my apartment and that had languished for a month and a half past their ideal planting time, waiting for a place to be planted, slowly revived from the transplant shock and now are lush and full. The giant zinnias are beginning to bloom, and are beautiful.

But the prize of my garden was the tomatoes--eight heirloom tomatoes selected with care at a plant sale on Mother's Day weekend and given the best spots in the garden plot. I constructed a bamboo trellis for them, anticipating their quick growth. They grew quick and lush, like the rest of the plants, but.... in the last couple weeks most of them have developed leaf curl. At first I thought that it was just stress from the high heat--that sort of leaf curl is not a big problem. But three of the tomatoes stopped growing, which I knew was a sign not of stress, but of a disease. Today as I re-examined the leaves yet again, I saw some purple veins--a sure sign of beet curly top virus. At least three, and maybe more, of my tomato plants have an untreatable tomato virus that is contracted from bites by bugs who have previously fed on infected weeds in the Utah wilderness--the Utah wilderness that immediately surrounds my little garden. I've grown tomatoes for many years and never had this problem--and never seen such vigorous, healthy tomato plants turn withered and stunted so quickly. Three others show early signs of perhaps having the same virus, which would leave me with just two tomato plants. As I read up on the virus today I learned that it tends to target the very most lush, healthy plants in an area, and is more likely to hit plants that are spaced far apart. Apparently the very things that pointed to the health of the plants and the care that I'd taken in trying to give them the best chance at thriving, had likely been their downfall. I've examined the tomato plants of the many other gardeners around me, plants that in general are packed in much more tightly, and that are less green and full because of their poorer soil and shallower beds--and only a couple of their plants show the same virus symptoms. Though a few of their plants have been lost to gophers because of poor plot preparation, in general those who planted on time and without the extensive precautions I took likely will have a much better harvest than I will.**

So on Pioneer Day, as I stood in the sweltering heat and imagined the July 1847 pioneers plowing the soil two and a half months late in a desperate attempt to get enough crops grown to keep their families alive through the winter, I took a deep breath and ripped out three of my beloved tomato plants, including my favorite variety, which had always grown beautifully in my prior gardens. Their roots were long and deep in the rich soil. I had done everything right, but the wilderness didn't want to give up its wildness so easily. I didn't need any of those plants in order to survive--it's just a hobby. I have enough delicious food stored in my house to feed me well for months, and enough money to buy enough food to last me for years. My dismay was nothing to what the 1847 settlers must have felt as they struggled against the elements and the plant diseases and the crickets just to survive. But it felt fitting that the painful uprooting happened on Pioneer Day. Because I'd never worked so hard to clear a space for my plants to grow I'd never cared so much about their success or been so surprised at their failure. And because I've inherited my life in this desert civilization fully fenced and furnished and ready to plant my comfortable life in, it is easy for me to just love the nature around me as a beautiful, if severe, backdrop for my adventures. But today I felt, just a little bit, what it must be like to be at war with nature for the necessities of life. To look at the mountains as foes and the native plants as noxious. To feel that hard work is necessary and good, but success is still a game of chance. With, if you pray, enough God-sent gulls and friendly Native Americans to keep you (barely) alive until spring.

I honor those who planted their faith and their beans in this hostile place and cleared a space for my happy and abundant life here. May my halting attempts at goodness and my care of this fiercely beautiful desert do them honor.

* I dug it out 18 inches deep in a plot four feet wide and 20 feet long. My dad even hired a day laborer to do an hour's worth of hacking while I was at work because he felt so sorry for me when he saw how hard the soil was--thanks, Dad!

** Let's call their plots California 1847, and my plot Utah 1847.