Monday, May 28, 2012

Leaves of 3, Let Them Be; Friends and Kin, Let Them In

by Zinta Aistars

One of the greatest joys of owning Z Acres is sharing this place of beauty and peace with my beloveds. Time is sparse when you suddenly have ten acres to care for (and a new job, and a literary magazine to manage, and a list of freelance assignments to complete, and a stack of books to review, and ...), but I've been working in a schedule of visits from family and friends to add to their pleasure and mine.

My sister Daina was among the first on my list. I couldn't wait to have her come out from Chicago to my little corner of heaven.

We both share a deep love for Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and while I had spent three years hunting for a small wilderness property where I might someday enjoy log cabin living, she and her husband had already purchased five wooded acres on a lake where they hope to build a retirement retreat.

Instead, I found my dream property in southwest Michigan, trading a dream of wilderness living for country living, and my sister is deeply entrenched in running a business outside of Chicago that has been pushing out their retirement plans a little further, a little further still.

I'm less patient. I had had enough of suburbia. I'd lived in my little blue house in a residential neighborhood, walking distance from shops and stores and facilities and schools, for more years than I'd ever expected. I am still (oh too many) years from retirement, if ever I get there, but I wanted to enjoy that country oasis already. If I spend my days at an office, why not my evenings and weekends in that green place away?

And so I bought Z Acres and moved in this past March.

My old chow pup, Guinnez, went running up the wood stairs, all the way up the hillside to the long drive above as my sister's van pulled in. Like the good host he is, he walked Daina down the hill to my little red farmhouse tucked into its side where I awaited her.

"I love it!" she squealed, and I gave a little hop of joy and hugged her and squealed in reply. Okay, so we are girls, after all...

The weekend was humid and hot, and my more than century-old farmhouse does not have air conditioning, just a lazy ceiling fan, but I had already found out, to my great satisfaction, that even on days that were hazy and near hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the place remained amazingly cool, if not downright chilly. While in cemented suburbia, I had had to install central air conditioning to stay cool, living in the middle of shady woods, on the downside of an insulating hillside, I was keeping it cool without any artificial help.

I invited Daina in, her grin stayed in place, even stretched a little, and we brought her suitcase up to my upstairs bedroom. I gave her the grand tour, inside and then out.

"Oh, I can see why you fell in love with this place," she acknowledged. "Photos don't do it justice. Nothing like being here."

Being here and digging in. Part of our weekend became a visit to area greenhouses and nurseries, as my sister, just like our mother, is an avid gardener. She was hunting for new perennials to add to her gorgeous flower garden at her home, while I was hunting for plants to produce more edibles on my property. Her van quickly filled up with flowers, shrubs, plants. For me, there were two blueberry bushes and a red grape vine. I also added in a couple hanging plants for my screened in patio, where I enjoy sitting in evenings with a book, a glass of wine, and lit candles ... or a cup of coffee in the morning as I woke slowly to the day.

Daina was only too happy to help me add my new greenery to my garden at Z Acres. We found perfect spots for my blueberry bushes--next to a row of red currents and a raspberry bush. My little berry patch, we agreed. The red grape vine would curl up a little wooden trellis leaning against my toolshed at the back corner of my yard.
While Daina enthusiastically cleared the chosen spots, ripping out weeds with both hands, I brought out the garden hose and bags of composted soil to give the plants a good start. These additions to Z Acres, I knew, would hold special meaning to me as I would always remember by who and how they were planted. I would think of my sister and our visit every time I popped a sweet blueberry in my mouth over coming summers.

I would also remember a terrible, itchy, blistery rash.

I sighed when I got the text from my sister a couple of days after she had returned to her home in Chicago. "LOVE your place! HATE your poison ivy!"

Oh dear.

I walked my gardens looking for the offending weed. Where had it touched her? I needed to find it and eradicate it. How is one to find this three-leaf plant on ten acres of woods and fields? No doubt it grew in more than one spot, but I had to be sure it was gone at least from the gardens surrounding the farmhouse.

It was my dear farmer-poet friend Amy who helped me find the villain. Our visit started on the following weekend over shared cups of tea and latte, topped with real whipped cream, streaked with chocolate. I hummed in pleasure at every sip. Amy introduced me to Daily Brews coffee shop in Wayland, a good spot for us to meet between her farm and mine.

Amy is one of two owners and seeding founders of Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. I had learned much from being a shareholder in her CSA, a community-shared agriculture venture last summer. Once a week, I had stopped by her lush farm to collect bags of garden-fresh vegetables, organically and sustainably grown, and had eaten them all summer, fall and even through the winter, from what I had diced and sliced up and frozen for months of delicious enjoyment.

By spring, now a rookie farmer myself, I was ready to start my own vegetable garden. Not like I haven't gardened before. I'd been a successful gardener many summers, although many summers ago, and admittedly in a state of "ignorance is bliss." I tossed seeds into the ground, did a little weeding, watered, and harvested.

By now, I had learned a little this and that, just enough to get me a little intimidated. PH balances in the soil? Blood meal and nitrogen levels? Raised beds? Compatible and incompatible crops? Desirable temperatures in compost piles? Uh boy.

Did I know what I was doing? No. Just enough to be ... well, not dangerous, but enough to know that I could do much better. Amy was the expert to whom I went for gardening advice.

And, as it happened on this Saturday, for equipment. The spot where I wanted to start my new vegetable garden had been gardened before. From the many seeds in the greenhouse, the left behind (thank you!) gardening tools in the toolshed, the gorgeous perennials I had enjoyed all spring, I knew the woman who had owned Z Acres prior to me was an expert gardener. I would dig up the dirt in the spot I could tell she had used, thinking the soil would have already been worked well, surely composted and mulched in previous summers, if perhaps not this last one.

So, with our cups drained, Amy and I headed to her farm in Shelbyville. There, we borrowed a pickup from her farmer father, who lived in the historic farmhouse next door, in the family for more than a century (I am in awe of such history, and the more I learn about farming, the more I admire and respect and support the small family farmer), and loaded up a good-sized old rototiller into its bed, using an old door for a ramp.

Then on to Z Acres. Amy brought her dog Buddy, and Guinnez was only too thrilled to see his dog pal. The two went off running across the fields, forward and back, and finally circling around us. Amy had started to till up the future garden patch.

Weeds and the sparse grass had managed to get tall enough that we had our work cut out for us. Seeing what work this was to clear, I soon let Amy know that garden didn't have to be quite as large as I had first planned ... smaller would be fine for my first summer here of digging in. Space next to the garden would be good for dumping compost and grass clippings to form mulch for the garden.

I pulled up grass and weeds as Amy tilled back and forth, back and forth, and then I took a turn. Great old machine! I loved the feel of slicing through the soil, preparing the ground for growing food. I put a tiller, a smaller one for my own uses, on my wish list for future purchases. It would make good sense to have one of these machines for use on this acreage, as trying to dig all this land up with a spade was, well, absurd. As my expertise will surely grow, I liked the idea of slow expansion across my acreage to grow more, enjoy an ever more sustainable lifestyle.

I battered my friend with gardening questions as she worked, and tried to retain all the good advice and information she was giving me. We talked about creating raised beds, how to avoid compacting soil, and how I would order my vegetables, including the transplants she had given me, left over from her own garden--many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, surely my favorite summer fruit, and beans and red cabbages to add to my own transplants in the greenhouse.

Garden patch upturned, Amy was on her knees at its edge and dug her hands in, letting the soil crumble between her fingers and holding it up to her nose.

"Just smell that!" she said. She was right, the earth smelled sweet and good. "Loamy," she said. "This is good earth."

I grinned. Hard work ahead, I knew, and no doubt mistakes and failures, too, but Amy assured me that this was all part of the learning process, and that after a lifetime of farming and gardening, she was still learning. It was a lifelong education, working with the earth, challenging but always satisfying.

We strolled around the yard then, and I showed her where my sister had recently planted the little red grape vine, then took her up to my berry patch.

"Aren't they sweet?" I pointed to the two blueberry bushes Daina had planted. "Look, already tiny blueberries ... "

"Careful," Amy pointed. "That's poison ivy growing right next to it! Leaves of three, let it be."

I stepped back quickly. Oh. So THERE it is. The nasty and poisonous weed that had caused a rash on my poor sister ... and first red spots to surface on my own arms and upper chest and neck. I scratched and then remembered not to.

"Oh heck."

Amy gave me lessons on poison ivy, stinging nettles (yes, have some of those, too, over by the little spring feeding my pond, as nettles enjoy moist ground), and tips on avoiding and ridding my berry patch of these weeds.

Oh, the value of an informed friend! And an itchy sister who still loved my Z Acres and looked forward to her next visit.

By then, I hoped to have garden fresh vegetables to serve to my beloveds. They were my best and most valuable harvest here. Good hearts, sharp minds, willing hands, all adding to the wonder of this beautiful corner of earth, mine, even if it does itch a bit to live here.

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