Tag Archive | Produce

Wild Strawberries

IMG_5382When I was a kid, adults would ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  I never really knew how to answer.  At the time, that question made sense in American culture.  It was  the 1970s and 80s, when it was assumed that a person could decide on a single career for his or her life’s work.  The person could spend several years training for that career.  Then a person could plan to work in that single career, perhaps in a single company or institution, for decades, until his or her colleagues booked the banquet room at the local country club for his or her retirement party.

But I have never really been comfortable with those assumptions.  And I was not comfortable with the demands of the question of what I was going to be as a grownup.  I remember when I was 24 and filling out the forms which are the beginning point of a Presbyterian’s relationship with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry.  That committee ultimately makes a recommendation about the individual’s suitability to be ordained a minister.  There were questions on the forms, appropriately, about why I believed I was called to be a Presbyterian minister.  I answered the question; however, I was careful to be clear:  I believed that professional work as a pastor of a congregation was what I was called to next, but I was open to a variety of work to which I could be called later in life.  I don’t think that sat well with the members of the committee, and I believe that was part of the reason I had to spend the next eight months arguing with them that my sense of call was not, in fact, weak.  They were operating out of the assumptions which made sense in the culture but which didn’t fit well with me.

I have been thinking of these experiences as I have watched the wild strawberries in my side yard this summer.  The side yard on our lot is not very big; perhaps only about eight feet separate the wall of our garage and whatever remains of the split-rail fence along the property line which the previous owner put in.  Most of the posts in that fence have rotted in the seven years we have been here, and carpenter bees took up residence in the rails.  When we moved in, part of the fence supported a unique variety of climbing rose which blooms with miniature, deep red blossoms when it gets enough water.  The fence is only about four feet tall, so the immense rose bush had overwhelmed it and flopped itself all over the side yard, blocking the way with some wicked brambles worthy of a fairy tale.  That section of the fence around which the rose canes wound practically collapsed when I cut them back, dug up the roots, and moved the rose a few feet to grow up a more proper trellis.  The rest of the fence has followed suit in the ensuing years, so now there is only one section left, and it is about to fall over.

The rest of the side yard is still similarly wild.  Grass and weeds long ago overtook the path which was out there, so to maintain it, I run the mower every month or six weeks during the growing season.  I have to cut back my side of my neighbor’s immense hedge of unidentified bushes so they won’t block the path to my back-yard gate.  Her azaleas, cannas, Mexican petunias, and other spreading perennials would love to colonize my side yard, but the mower keeps them in check.  I have to pull some sort of rapidly-growing vine off of the brick exterior of the garage now and then, too, or my house would be covered in it.

Ever since last spring, though, right next to the three-foot-square concrete pad which welcomes visitors to the side door of the garage, little plants with broad, round leaves with serrated edges, have sprung up among the weeds and grass.  Right away, I was pretty sure I could identify the plants, and my suspicion was confirmed when tiny, white flowers began to appear.  Those flowers were followed by small berries which have ripened to an intensely red color.  They are wild strawberries, and they have done marvelously.  The berries are nothing to taste, but they have appeared consistently throughout the season in their attempts to supplement the runners sent out by the plants as they try to reproduce themselves.

Before I really noticed these wild interlopers, I never would have thought to plant strawberries in my side yard.  Who plants strawberries in such a place?  A side yard, particularly one so narrow, serves no function other than as a pass-through.  I only go there when I have to get something from the front yard to the back, or from the back yard to the front, that is not appropriately carried through the house.  Although my six-year-old son would probably find it amusing to watch Daddy drag the lawn mower, the bags of manure, or limbs trimmed off of the backyard magnolia through the living room and out the front door, I would rather not do so.  But the times when I have to haul such machinery, supplies, and trimmings back and forth are about the only times I go through the side yard.

Now, I have looked again at that side yard.  There is plenty of space out there for a strawberry bed.  It can come out three feet or more from the wall.  At one end, it can butt against the concrete pad by the side door, and it can run a good 10 feet and still leave enough room to store the hose I use to get water to the front beds and flower pots.  The neighborhood cats can patrol there, out of range of our dog who stays in the back yard, to discourage birds and squirrels.  Naturally, I won’t count on those tiny plants which produce small, tasteless fruit.  But their better-bred cousins which the nursery will stock next spring should thrive there because the conditions they grow in are similar to the conditions required by the wild plants.

As I make my plans, I have been thinking of that understanding of my vocation I was trying to communicate to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry sixteen years ago.  I have also been thinking about how God works.  I think God is like those wild strawberries.  God pokes up among the weeds and the grass in lots which we have long ago abandoned.  God emerges to tell us to look again and see possibilities we have not considered before.  God ripens to an intense red alongside paths that we thought could only function to get us from one place to another, practically directing us to stop, to put down the tools and the trimmings for a few minutes, and to pay attention.  Plant yourself here, God commands; the soil is rich and the sunlight is right and the water is plentiful enough and there is more than enough space.  You can bear good fruit here, God proclaims, if you will only allow yourself to do something you never thought you would do.

For now, I am convinced that I am called to the work I am currently doing.  But those wild strawberries remind me why I stick by my commitment to be open to new possibilities for my work and life in the future.  And I hope that I can help my son to be faithful if he feels a similar discomfort with that probing question:  “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  Mostly, I look forward to this fall and winter, when I will clear a space in my side yard, define it with some edging, add some manure to enrich the soil, cover it with newspaper and pine straw to smother the weeds, and prepare to bring home that flat of strawberry plants next spring.  Because I have heard the message of the wild strawberries:  you can bear good fruit in unexpected places if only you open yourself to the possibilities.

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My Reflections on the World’s Largest Cabbage

On the radio this evening, I heard an interview with the man who grew the newly-crowned World’s Largest Cabbage.  The large, leafy head weighed in at the Alaska State Fair at 138.25 pounds, he said, and he emphasized the decimals, as if the extra quarter pound is going to be what keeps his produce on the largest-cabbage throne for many years to come.  If I heard correctly, it measured something like seven feet from the tip of the leaves on one side to the tip of the leaves on the other side.  It was a big cabbage.

In the interview with the man who grew the record-setting vegetable, the reporter started by asking the obvious question:  how does one grow such a large head of cabbage?  The man replied with all due humility, saying that the real advantage has to do with the unique conditions in Alaska.  Since the sun is up almost around the clock, he said, the leaves just keep growing and growing, never stopping to rest through the night like the lazier tropical specimens would.  The reporter pressed him a little bit, pointing out that all of his neighbors would be growing these enormous cabbages if it only had to do with the midnight sun.  Then, he conceded that his success in raising the cabbage also had to do with his own efforts.  He said that, if you want to grow a big cabbage like his, you can’t take off on a weekend fishing trip, or a week-long hunting excursion, like some of his neighbors do.  Instead, you have to tend the plant every day, watering and fertilizing and addressing even the smallest signs of pests, disease, or other threats.

The reporter moved on by the end of the interview to ask what would become of this large cabbage.  Would it be good to eat, she asked?  The man said it would; you would just have to peel off the outer leaves, just like on any other head of cabbage, and the inner parts would probably taste just fine.  He went on to explain that most of the fresh-food entries in the state fair are collected on the last day by local food pantries and other programs, who gratefully distribute the award-winning produce to people who need food.  However, something as big as a 138-pound cabbage is a bit too cumbersome for those groups, so it will probably end up in the wilderness somewhere, feeding some lucky herd of wildlife before what remains decomposes to feed the microbes in the dirt.

I can’t get this story of the record-setting cabbage out of my mind.  The story evokes two questions of polarities for me as a gardener.  For one, the story of this cabbage speaks to the question of what makes for successful gardening.  Is it the hard work of the gardener that determines whether the crops will produce and the flowers will bloom?  Or is success the result of the dumb luck of the location and the weather?  And the second question this story brings up for me has to do with the purpose of gardening. Is it more noble to use our land, water, and fertilizer, as well as our time and muscles, to grow only produce which can provide nutrition to our bodies?  Or should we dedicate resources simply to coax from the earth beautiful flowers and plants which have no utility other than to bring joy to our minds and souls?

The world’s largest cabbage exists in a tension somewhere in the middle of both of these extremes.  As the man who grew it admitted, the cabbage did not attain its record-breaking size solely through the good luck of being planted in a place where the sun barely sets.  But neither did the meticulous attention, knowledge, and labor of the gardener alone create this record-setting phenomenon.  Both location and hard work were needed to bring this cabbage from a tiny seed to the biggest specimen of its kind that the world has ever seen.  And similarly, this cabbage was not grown strictly to provide vitamins and fiber and good flavor for the gardener.  But it also could not be considered simply an aesthetic creation.  Its purpose was neither utility nor beauty; it was something else entirely.

I never thought I would string these words together to form a sentence, but I have to admit that I can relate personally to this cabbage.  On the first question of purpose, I cannot believe that I am granted space on this planet only to be useful to other people, to the world as a whole, and to the God who created me.  The joy I feel when I witness beauty, when I experience love, and when I glimpse the mysteries of God must have an intrinsic value.  Human life cannot find its entire purpose solely in its utility or solely in its pleasure; our purpose is at least a balance of those two, and perhaps even something else entirely.

And any success at achieving life’s purposes is similarly complex.  A number of years ago, my sister tried to convince me that she and her husband had earned everything they have.  I know that they have both worked harder than some people do.  But if I am honest, I can’t buy my sister’s claim.  I have worked, too; I have worked harder than some, but not as hard as others.  But where I am in life also has to do with the location in which I was born.  I am not talking only about my birth in a rural town in the American West in the late 20th century, although those facts of location all contributed in important ways to who I am now.  I am also talking about the social location of my birth.  I am what I am in part due to the dumb luck that I was born to parents who live solidly in the middle-class, and who have worked for many years to maintain the trappings of that social position.  I am what I am because my family values education, and there was never any question that I would attend college.  I am what I am because my parents also value freedom, so any adventure I wanted to take was granted full support as well as a ride to the airport.  And I am what I am because I have never had to question whether my parents love me, even when my education and my freedom have been expressed through decisions they could not understand.  Everything I am is not due solely to the luck of the location of my birth, but I will never claim that I have earned everything I have through my own work.

So I live with that cabbage in the middle of tension.  My understanding of human purpose is caught somewhere between utilitarian function and aesthetic beauty.  What I am now is a result of the luck of the location where I was planted as well as the attention, knowledge, and labor I have put forth as I have gardened my own life.  And 1200 or so words later, I am still fascinated by the world’s largest cabbage.

Strawberries

I think God sees the world like I see my strawberries.

We have a small vegetable garden in our back yard, and most years it is planted with tomatoes, bell peppers, peas, sometimes broccoli, and a few other things that strike our fancy as we are wandering through the garden centers in the spring.  My wife and I both have dreams of growing enough of our own produce that we do not have to buy any of the pesticide-laden veggies at the store for at least a season.  But the space is tiny, and some years the slugs have enjoyed the buffet we set out for them a little too much, and our yield is usually not even enough for a decent salad.  At least our son gets the concept that fresh veggies come from plants which must be planted and nurtured, not from the supermarket which must simply be paid.

With that same desire to educate our son, limit our dependence on our local Kroger, and because I thought it would be nifty, I decided to grow strawberry plants last year.  Our yard space is small, and so much of it is taken up by other things, so I thought a nice strawberry jar would be a good way to go.  Strawberry jars are those flower pots with all of the spaces made in the sides; sometimes they are used to grow herbs or other small plants, but I wanted to put one to use for the purpose for which it was intended.

I was inspired enough that I was willing to invest some good money as well as energy into the strawberry project.  I found the strawberry jar I wanted at a local garden supply store.  I didn’t want a small one, because I have noticed that bringing a bunch of small pots into my small back yard just makes things feel cluttered.  So I spent the extra money to get a good-sized one.  The strawberry jar I picked out could hold as many as twelve strawberry plants.  When I was early for a meeting one day in another town, I found my way into the garden center at their local Lowe’s.  They had an ever-bearing variety of strawberries on sale there, which are the kind that are supposed to bear fruit all the time and not just in any specific season.  That sounded like it would do just fine.  I probably could have bought the plants in a flat and paid less per plant.  But those plants that come in a big flat always look a little puny to me, so I paid a little extra to get the ones that came in individual pots.  I purchased my plants, went to my meeting, then brought them home to put in the strawberry jar.

For all that investment of money and energy, though, I was determined I would not be disappointed if I didn’t get enough fruit out of the deal for even one strawberry pie.  And thank heavens for that resolve, too, so that I have not been disappointed.  The strawberry plants have not come close to a return on my investment.  The plants seem to bloom well enough, I suppose, although because they are the ever-bearing variety, there are never a lot of blooms on them all at once.  The berries are nothing like those enormous things you can buy in the plastic boxes in the grocery store.  They are small, and as they ripen, about half of the time the ants or squirrels nibble small holes in them before my son or I find them.  Little Man has found a few bright red berries, but at any one time there are so few that he just pops them in his mouth before he ever makes it in the back door of the house to wash them.

The strawberry pot project is worth it to me, though, more for the project itself than for the produce it yields.  My son learns something about how the world works and gets a sweet morsel now and then.  The pot itself, though it is unassuming, is interesting, and even beautiful, in its place in our back yard.  I rather enjoy having it, so I drench the thing in water now and then, pull the weeds that make their way into the jar, and try to make sure it is protected from the cold spells and the dog’s need to relieve himself.

As I think about my strawberry pot, I wonder if God sees the world the same way.  If God wants a good return on everything God has invested in us, God must be sorely disappointed.  I know that I, for one, don’t yield as much fruit as I could.  What fruit does come from me seems pretty small, and it is forever being nibbled away by ants and squirrels and other pests.  The most I can hope to provide is a sweet morsel now and then.  If God sees anything interesting or beautiful in me, it is not because of the fruit I bear.

But still, God drives away the dogs and insulates us against the cold.  And God clears out the weeds.  And God drenches us with more water than we deserve for all the fruit we bear.  The way I read the Bible, in fact, its core message seems to be that God finds us interesting and even beautiful despite our paltry yield on God’s investment in us.

Tonight, my son noticed that there is a strawberry out there which has grown a little bit larger than the rest.  The seeds embedded in the skin have spaced apart, and its green hue is pale and splotched with some pink and even some red.  He was delighted at his discovery, and if he does as he has done before, he will go out there just to check on it and fuss over it every day until it is red enough to pick and eat and enjoy.

Thanks be to God.