My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney. But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing. The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.
But at heart, my father was not really a farmer. He went to his law office 5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming. One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding. Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road. My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office: “Claude, the cows are out again.”
For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York. After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his. It’s worked out well. The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.
Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try. I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table. Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do. Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.
I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though. Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and planted two dozen plugs, I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons. It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.
Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground. It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new. The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well. It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.
Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here. I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this. You aren’t going to like this at all.” We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again. I started to laugh. My husband looked at me quizzically.
“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.
I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars. And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.