Monthly Archives: June 2012

My Father’s Shovel

CRAAACK!  The wooden handle on the old shovel was no match for the big chunk of granite hiding in the field .  We had stopped counting how many rocks and boulders had been hauled from the dirt, and this one was right where a grapevine was goingto be planted.  Jed had stopped drilling with the augur and was toiling away with a shovel to get the rascal removed.

The K E N shovel

“Oh noooooo!  You wrecked my dad’s shovel!”

No concern for whether or not Jed was ok on my part.  My reaction to a broken shovel surprised me.   I mean, it’s not like this was the first thing to be broken on the farm.  We both inspected the broken tool: the perfectly fine metal shovel head now separated by spikey wooden fingers from its handle.

“Oh good!  I don’t care about breaking this one. That’s not my dad’s shovel! That’s a different one.”

“What are you talking about?”  Jed wanted to know.

When my parents sold their house in Florida my dad gave me some of his tools, including this cool shovel that he got it when he worked at Bachmann’s, a landscaping company in Minneapolis.  He has owned this shovel for probably 40 years.  It’s plain, with a very long wooden handle that has been worn smooth and mellowed to the color of dark honey.  Three capital letters, K, E, N, were stamped into the handle near the shovel end.  They are a bit crooked and just a tiny bit too far apart from each other.  But they spell out a recognizable “Ken” which is all that would have mattered because everyone at Bachmann’s knew my dad.   If they saw these letters on a shovel they would know who it belonged to. He worked at Bachmann’s for over 30 years, sometimes in the nursery or in the greenhouse, and later on in the store.  When my mother and I would stop by to see him (and yeah buy something using his employee discount) we could ask anyone if they knew where Ken was, and even the newest and youngest employee always knew who we meant.  “Anyone seen Kenny?” they would holler, and before long my dad would emerge from some back lot, often with this shovel in his hand.  My dad has never been a big talker, in fact some people might call him shy.  But he is friendly , and he has always been a very very hard worker.   It was always a bit of a surprise to see how many people knew, and liked, my dad at work .  It was a reminder about this whole other life my dad had, with people who often spent more time with him than we kids did.  It was good to know how much they liked him.

When Dad moved to Florida the shovel went with him – with Bachmann’s blessings.  It made a lot of sense because when Dad had landscaping projects at home he always used this shovel.  I can picture him now digging a hole for the maple tree that he planted in our front yard, or digging out beds for the shrubs by the front door. Once I had homes and yards of my own, visits from Mom and Dad often turned into projects, painting a room, or trimming a hedge.  Dad knew the names of hundreds of plants, and how to grow them, and how to prune them.  I would follow him around watching and making notes.  Those yard projects were some of the most companionable times I’ve spent with my dad.

My parents have moved back to Minnesota from Florida, and they no longer have a yard of their own.  Even in retirement, Dad still helped out from time to time with pruning, or weeding, or spraying, but he no longer needs his shovel.  He’s going to be 89 soon – it’s about time for a break! So now the shovel is mine and I understand why he liked it.  The handle feels smooth in your hands, especially without gloves on.  The long handle is in perfect balance with the metal shovel head.  The head is solid and heavy.  You learn quickly that gravity eases the work when you use the shovel correctly!  My relationship with this shovel is pretty new.  Even though I’ve owned it for three years now, it wasn’t until we moved to the farm that it started getting used regularly.  So when the big CRAACK! sounded, and I thought Dad’s shovel had broken it was like losing a new best friend.

Poor nameless other shovel! No respect, no mourning, and not even a proper funeral.  It’s metal shovel head got used for shoveling peat moss during the planting of the vineyard, but now it sits forgotten in the pole barn with no likelihood of being fixed any time soon.  Meanwhile, the world has been warned (or at least Jed) that under no circumstances is my Dad’s shovel to be used in any way that might endanger its existence.  It no longer hangs in the barn with the other tools, but has been brought into the garage with Dad’s dirt rake, and gravel shovel, to be used only by me.  When I use these tools I sometimes look down and see the same motions I remember seeing when these tools were in my Dad’s hands.  It’s very spooky, and very comforting at the same time.

I know that this shovel won’t last forever.  In fact, the leather holster for my dad’s Felco clippers finally wore out this summer.  I promptly bought a new one, which is boring and ugly and doesn’t have the nice patina or softness of my dad’s holster.  I might try sewing the broken piece, but I’m not confident it will hold.  The handles on the Felco clipper have started to develop big cracks in the plastic – possibly because they’ve been getting used almost every day out here.  But I can’t bring myself to dip them in liquid replacement because the new dip is yellow, and everyone knows that a classic Felco clipper – only the best clipper ever in the whole world – has a red handle.  So dipping the handle is like ruining its pedigree.  People know when you whip out a Felco that you know what you are doing, and now that I really do know what I am doing (thank’s Dad) I think it will just feel wrong to use a genuine Felco clipper with a stupid yellow handle.  Let me think about this some more.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Thanks for the wonderful shovel, the Felco, and the time you spent with me showing me what to do with them.

Ken and Sally Benson

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City Weeds, Country Weeds

Herb garden at Raccoon Creek.

I have lived most of my life in cities or towns: Minneapolis, Chicago, Haddonfield.  Except for college and one year in Santa Barbara I have always lived in houses and always had a yard.  Even the small yards had a patch of lawn, a few trees, and a pot or two of flowers during the summer.  I inherited a vegetable garden and a perennial border in a rented house in Chicago at about the same time I was first experiencing Chicago’s great ethnic cuisines.  From then on I always had a small herb garden wherever I lived.  By the time I lived in Haddonfield I had not only my herb garden, but also a vegetable garden, flower gardens, several perennial borders, and roses.

Only the herb garden remains now that we’re out in the country – oh yes, and those 1263 grapevines.

The experts tell us that the single most important thing we can do for newly planted grapevines besides keeping them irrigated is to keep the vine row weed free.   Nothing should be competing with the baby vines for water or nutrients.  So now that we’ve got our irrigation system up and running we’ve got the water requirement covered.  That just leaves the weeds.  No problem……..er, make that big problem.

Weeds can be beautiful.

As a city gardener I got pretty familiar with city weeds.  Jed and I were never ‘lawn rangers’,  fanatically regular about fertilizing, mowing, and weeding our lawn. Our back yard was mostly white clover which was soft and green underfoot just like grass, though we did have to share it with honeybees from time to time.   I used to joke that my vegetable garden was organic mostly by virtue of the fact that I was too lazy to buy all the products that you are told you need to make things grow big.  A nice normal size strawberry is just fine thank you.

But I did try to stay on top of weeding which I tried to handle the good old fashioned way: getting up early and pulling unwanted plants out by hand.  I certainly wasn’t a fanatic about it because I was mostly a weekend gardener.  And I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for weeds. My vegetable garden had more than a few dandelions, and we included the  young leaves in our salads each spring.  Thistle grew below every bird feeder, and morning glories managed to find their way to the raspberry canes and up the pole bean trellis.  We had several giant pokeweeds in the back yard each year, and I loved the fact that they could grow taller than me in just a few months.  I always wanted to dye something with their lovely purple berries – actually I did dye parts of a few shirts, just not on purpose.

Mayweed

I think I had a pretty friendly relationship with my city weeds.  I knew most of them by name, and didn’t get too bent out of shape by a small presence in my gardens and yard.  I figured that I had put enough time in pulling weeds and working a scuffle hoe to be ready for a few country weeds.  While we did throw down grass seed around the house once construction was completed, we didn’t really want a manicured lawn look.  Clovers took over the meadow behind the house and buttercups have commandeered the field behind the barn field.  Both look great.

Grasses and goldenrod

I’ve been amazed at the variety of plants that live on these ten acres.  I don’t know most of their names, though I’m slowly learning to tell burdock from plantain, and to recognize them both with and without their flowers.  I’ve learned that the sweet little daisy growing here and there is called “Mayweed” – presumably because it will soon be gone.  I know that later in the summer there will be chicory growing out by the road, and that the marvelous blue flowers will not last even a minute once picked.

I was delighted that in unpacking after the move I found my old copy of “North American Field Guide to Wildflowers” – in fact a book about weeds.  Out in the country, weeds are the clear winners, so it’s much nicer to call them wildflowers.

Pretty purple mystery vine

Much as I’m enjoying exploring this new world of strange leaves and odd delicate blooms, I know that they don’t belong in the vineyard.  The country weeds are forcing us to adjust our notions of ‘organic’ to reality.  Early on, Jed and I thought we would try to keep Mr. Monsanto out of the vineyard as much as possible.  Neither one of us wanted to live around a steady diet of chemicals.  So we pretty much ignored the weeds in the vineyard field the first couple of years in order to focus on other priorities. We did plant sudan grass and rape, and both of those dominated the field, though it was far from weed free.

Once we had all the vines planted, and the rows were leveled out for the drainage we wanted, the vineyard was pretty clear and ready for grass seed to be put down in the aisles.  Almost overnight weeds began to spring up.  We dutifully got out the scuffle hoes, and the garden gloves, and began to get out early in the morning to pull weeds.  It didn’t take long before the weeds were winning.  OK, we can’t be totally organic;  we knew that in New Jersey that was going to be hard to pull off anyway.

Cinquefoil – I think.

Let’s selectively spray a wee bit of Round Up on just the big bad boys that we can’t pull out just to make sure they don’t go to seed.  No wimpy little ten ounce bottle either. We’re getting out the 2 gallon tank with the hand wand.   No make that two tanks, one for each of us.  We started walking the field.  Uh, two gallons doesn’t go very far in a four acre vineyard.  And uh, this stopping every 50 feet to pump up the pressure?  Not very fun.

Tuesday morning we loaded the tanks on a wagon behind the riding mower.  Jed and I alternated driving and spraying.  After two hours we still hadn’t finished the vineyard. The big weeds have started going to seed.

Last night, Jed and I went to Tractor Supply and bought a 45 gallon spray tank on a trailer with an 8 nozzle boom attachment and a hand sprayer with a ten foot hose. We got $100 worth of Round-Up concentrate.  Jed assembled the tank, filled it with plain water, and hitched it to the mower.  Out he went to inspect the battlefield and see how the new arms performed.  He returned satisfied.

Early tomorrow morning we will rise and we will scan the horizon for wind.  If it is calm we will don the armaments of war: long pants, long sleeves, gloves, glasses, boots….and 45 gallons of chemical death.

Mr. Monsanto, I promise not to say any more mean things about you if you will just help me get rid of these evil country weeds in my vineyard.   Just this one time.  Well, maybe just a few times.  Over a few years.  You and I are undoubtedly going to have a love-hate relationship.

Just like I do with these country weeds.

Country weeds winning in the vineyard.

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: | 1 Comment

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