Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Incredible Expanding Gourd AND The Attack of the Giant Caterpillars

“She sat down in a weed patch, her elbows on her knees, and kept her eyes on the small mysterious world of the ground. In the shade and sun of grass blade forests, small living things had their metropolis.” - Nancy Price

Tuesday is the morning I volunteer at the Vegetable Garden in a nearby public garden.In the closing days of June, the morning air still remains cool and soft until well after 8:00 (down here at the 32nd latitude). What a lovely way to greet the day. By the time I quit about noon, it was topping 80.

I harvested a few cherry tomatoes, some small bell peppers, a few delicate strawberries cowering between another ornamental gourd in a raised bed, and a single tomatillo. I patiently stalked zucchini and cucumbers hiding amid the camouflage of their fat stems, beneath plate-sized thirsty leaves. I harvested corn – by climbing in and around the giant gourds that started on a modest hill beneath the wooden tripod where sugar peas are still producing some succulent purple pods, with opaque chartreuse peas inside that look like pearls.

Today, the 4 x 4’ block of corn stalks, including the few immature ears that remain, are sinking into an expanding sea of gourd vines. There is more than one plant out there. Or is there? What if it is a single, mutated monster with at least three different shaped and colored fruits? The gourd vines have overtaken the pea vines, and continue to expand like the Incredible Expanding Blob, which I remember as a giant handful of grape jelly pursuing Steve McQueen. But, where was I?

Another arm of gourd vines reaches out at 90 degrees, behind the herb bowl and surrounding it from two sides. Several solo vines reach around the corn and are now overtaking the interpretive Vegetable Garden Sign, that’s bigger than a doomed rodeo clown trying to distract a charging bull.

After cleaning up, weeding, harvesting and photographing, my final Tuesday morning chore is to give everybody a good soaking and give a big drink to the freshly turned compost. The hose provided a refreshing increase in humidity. Which I guiltily realized, is why we’re told not to water our plants in the hot sun, overhead with a hose. While I appreciated the cooling, I was also washing the harvested vegetables to remove pests. Even so, I felt guilty about wasting so much water to evaporation, with such questionable value to the garden.

I brought home the eggplant, the ripest plums and peaches, the four fattest sweet corn and a bloated Russian red heirloom tomato so sweet it tastes like candy. I left cured garlic and garlic chives, the rest of the corn and fruit and the bigger zucchini and cucumber, plus a few crowded carrots. I was going to let the carrots stay to go to seed this fall, but I couldn’t resist letting some intrigued young teens harvest them, because they couldn’t name guess what the carrot tops were until they gently tugged the long orange roots into daylight.

I left behind a million ripening red grapes that are still tiny and green, as well as green tomatoes and tomatillos in all shapes and sizes. Several passing visitors predicted they would all ripen in the same ten minute window. I got tips from passing visitors about preserving tomatoes, cooking tomatillos, and the name of the green caterpillar in the corn whose name I forgot instantly because I don’t care for creepy crawlies.

And before you call me childish, it so happens that my earliest traumatic memory is sitting on the back steps at Dallas Avenue circa 1952, shucking some corn and having that bug’s ancestor crawl onto my hand and attack! The thing was the size of my thumb – the one I still sucked at the time! Although it’s probably overstating things to assert that this incident is the root of all my dysfunction, antisocial behavior, and inevitable tendency to hurt the ones I love. However, you don’t have to be Freud to deduce that this experience IS the root of my fear and loathing of bugs in general, and green caterpillars in corn in particular.

Later, at home, I stood at my outdoor sink in the backyard, washing the harvest and shucking the corn, I encountered the green caterpillars in three of the four ears I brought home. As I flicked them with my thumb and washed them down the sink, I was strangely comforted to find I reacted with little more than a “yuck” or two.

Perhaps, in addition to all the other benefits to body and soul, at long last, my vegetable garden has given me Closure wrt/ green caterpillars on corn.

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