Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves - we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves
-- The hymn "Bringing In The Sheaves," based on the Bible's Book of Psalms.
The harvest of sheaves wasn't much at the Burton household in this year of moisture aplenty. Being of farm background, I fully understand water is the key to good crops, but one can get too much of a good thing.
I remember a rainy spell back in the Great Depression, and my Grandmother Burton telling me that sometimes too much rain was worse than little or none. Dirt farmer irrigation - dipping water into a barrel from a pond five miles away - might be time-consuming and back-breaking work, but at least it could be a remedy for drought.
But when there was too much rain, the beans and other vulnerable vegetables would rust. Worse still, rain meant no sun. The wet stuff was needed when crops were sown and growing, but sunshine was essential for ripening.
Like many a farm boy, I was turned off by the work involved in farming: the plowing, planting, hoeing, weeding, watering and harvesting. The 12-hour days of military life after I skipped home to join the Seabees were a vacation compared to working the soil.
But, also like many a farm boy, in later years I thought of those days on the farm - though not the plowing, planting, hoeing, weeding, watering and harvesting. I thought of the wholesome and tasty meals, the rewards of working the soil.
Heaven knows, one isn't drawn back to dirt farming by the money. But anyone who has tasted freshly plucked lima and string beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, sweet corn, squash, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries and tomatoes can appreciate life on a farm.
When I was a kid, we figured other people ate like we did. We never endured vegetables in cans or days old from a grocery store shelf. We'd go out and pick the makings of the next meal. The food on the dishes was fresh and packed with true flavor: no additives, no excessive salt, sugar or calories.
Like elephants, those raised on a farm only to leave for city and village have long memories that go beyond all the work and worry. They remember the taste of freshly picked produce.
The Burton Garden
Probably a dozen seasons over the past 50 years, I've gone whole hog on the garden routine, planting and reaping most of the more popular veggies. But seeing as my vocation was primarily writing about fishing, and fishing interest peaks about the same time crops need maximum attention, the crops weren't always as intended.
Not infrequently, the monetary bottom line was a bust, but for the table enough vegetables were reaped from amidst the weeds to make it worthwhile. Hell, just a few fresh tomatoes was reward enough.
Tomatoes. Those who think they know what a good tomato tastes like don't - unless they've picked one warm and fresh right from the vine. Nothing like it, as I'm sure Baltimorean Bill Leroux will attest. We'll get into his story in a moment.
There's no way to describe the flavor of a fresh-picked tomato, especially a Big Boy. Eat one sun-warm straight from the plant. Choose a big one fully ripe, wipe it off in your hands and let the juice dribble down your chin as you bite into it like an apple.
Try it, and forever thereafter you'll walk right by those artificially ripened tomatoes you see in the market - even the ones with a sign above them that reads "locally raised." They've been off the vine at least a day or two, and many were picked just short of ripening to ensure they weren't over-ripe and too soft when consumers squeezed them.
That's why - like Bill Leroux - I find time each summer to plant a tomato vine or two smack in the midst of the flower (and weed) garden on the east side of the Burton homestead overlooking Stoney Creek in North County. The small yellow blossoms can't match the roses and the flowers for color, but who can look at a budding tomato and not track its progress daily before plucking it the day it's perfectly ripe?
Last year when it was hot and dry, the crop was a total bust - well almost. The fishing was too good, and I didn't get to tomato planting until too late, when I found only one scrawny plant available. It grew slowly, blossomed slowly and produced but one tomato - and by Thanksgiving that one was still green.
I knew the first hard frost was bound to come soon, so it ended up fried with a pepper and onion. This year, I was determined to do better and bought, for the outlandish price of $3.75, a greenhouse-boosted plant, the variety of which I can't recall. I wanted an easy early start on tomato production.
A couple weeks later, I added a 95-cent Big Boy, though not one doctored up with special care at greenhouse. The wet weather was ideal; both plants eventually climbed six feet on poles.
Too Much of a Good Thing
But Grandma was right: You can get too much of a good thing. Or is it not enough of another good thing, sunshine? To go from that bright green to an even brighter red, tomatoes need warmth and sunlight. Day after day, I checked, and all was green, green and green.
It wasn't until late August that the first tomatoes ripened - and the first came from the cheap Big Boy. The flavor was worth the long wait. Twenty-seven more ripened on the Big Boy, 32 smaller ones from the other plant, which now has nine still ripening, while the Big Boy has a couple to come.
Not much rain now, but days are chilly and the sun is slow to turn the green to red. The pepper plant's production (it turned up 13 peppers) is also tapering off; only two remain to be picked. Its many blossoms, like those on the tomato plants, will probably just wither away.
So the harvest is just about over. Most of the sheaves are in, and the only thing I can thank all the rain for is an abundant harvest of black walnuts from our two trees: three wheelbarrow loads, about five bushels, gathered and stacked at the edge of the woods where squirrels can do the messy job of removing the outer coats without staining the concrete walks.
The Sad Harvest of Bill Leroux
You might say the bushytails are enjoying a better harvest than the Burtons, but at least our operation isn't in the red - as it turned out for Bill Leroux, who is slowly restoring the Gertrude Stein house at East Biddle Street in Baltimore, where, incidentally, my son Joel lived for a year - but did no gardening.
Bill Leroux likes tomatoes, so he planted some in the back of the house in a rundown neighborhood. As the time came to reap the crop, he reaped a ticket - a $50 ticket for growing "high grassweeds" in a residential area.
He's paying the ticket to save the time explaining to a city judge the difference between a tomato plant and a high grassweed.
You can't take the country out of the boy, but a country boy can't bring a bit of the country into the city, either. Thank heavens for Riviera Beach where we can, without incident, mix tomatoes, flowers, black walnuts and weeds. And that's it from Stoney Creek.