Planting Out the Tomatoes

They were ready. They were ready two weeks ago, but an unexpected series of overnight frosts kept the seedlings captive indoors, bursting from their milk cartons, falling over each other, vigor beginning to fade from this cosseted existence. Outside, I pulled a slat from the compost bin and filled my garden cart with the always surprising result of having dumped my dead leaves and rotten produce in one place. Even more surprising, this result always smelled good. It’s perhaps a proof that we’re born to be gardeners: good quality dirt smells good to everyone, even the city-born and city-bred. I spread it in the newly-weeded raised beds, and waited. Finally the north wind quit, the south wind blew in, and the frost was banished to October. The tomatoes and I advanced on the garden.

Some experts advise spacing tomato plants palatially far apart, as supposedly being better for them. But just because they’re heirlooms, surely they don’t each need an estate. I have all these plants I’ve been nursing along – am I to betray their trust and toss some of them on the compost pile, or offer them to the care of strangers? Besides, the empty space between the plants just fills up with weeds. Why raise all those weeds when you could have more tomato plants? My tomato plants will have a sense of community.

They will also have support without being in cages. I’ve never liked tomato cages. They make it hard to weed, facilitate climbing squirrels and perching birds, and tip over at inopportune moments. Besides, they’re called cages. Not a good word. I mostly use some delightful tall spiral stakes, where vines can wind their way up without having to be tied. They have a nice twirly look. Recently I have added a few tomato towers, open v-shapes, sturdier than cages, really able to hold up the bigger, fatter tomato types without falling over. I’m hoping they won’t be attractive to those squirrels and birds.

So, out to the garden and in with the tomatoes, planting them deep to let them root along their stems. I know I’m anthropomorphizing here, but as soon as I settled them in their raised beds I’m certain they stretched and wriggled their toes and fingers with delight. Or anyway, I wriggled mine.


I woke up early this morning to the sound of muffled clomping on my roof. Fortunately, my experience with feral peacocks in Pasadena prepared me to recognize this as the sound of large birds hopping around up there. But I was pretty sure there were no feral peacocks in Ann Arbor. I stumbled outside to investigate, and looking up over the gutters found something the opposite of a peacock – bare red head, drab feathers, hunched shoulders – gazing back down at me.

A turkey buzzard. In fact, a whole wake of turkey buzzards, wake being the collective noun for them. Not exactly the avatars of pride, though if pride goeth before a fall someone or something has to be there to clean up the fallen.

The turkey buzzards usually hang out in a tall pine tree in front of my neighbor’s house, on the corner overlooking the main road. It’s a straight road with a lot of shallow ups and downs and a forty-five mile per hour speed limit, which generates a lot of roadkill. The civic-minded buzzards collect no taxes, yet every day they do the work of sanitation for their fellow residents. What were they doing on my roof, so far from the usual action?

Then I realized they were not peering down at me. They were peering down at my barbecue grill. I suppose the clinging scent of last night’s hamburgers had them looking for a nice juicy carcass. I made sure to move a lot while watching them, so they’d know I was alive. This was sufficiently convincing that, one by two, they gave up and went back to the neighbor’s tree. I counted fifteen of them. Their wingspans were wider than I am tall. As they settled into the tree, branches drooping with their weight, their silhouettes really bulked it up – it was twice the tree with buzzards in it that it appeared to be without them. It was amazing to think that this many birds of such size could be supported on the poor driving habits of one neighborhood.

When Goats and Rowers Are Not Enough

I hadn’t lived in Michigan very long before I discovered that the lovely, nodding plants with the delicate white flowers filling the woods in the backyard, were an invasive plague: garlic mustard, a classic example of a right thing in a wrong place. It was brought here from Europe as a beloved garden herb, but whatever kept it in check in that hemisphere is missing from this one. It grows from inch-high to knee-high seemingly overnight, choking out other plants both wild and domestic. It seeds like a maniac, and has to be pulled up by the roots or it regroups with a vengeance. Mowing makes it worse.

I turned to my local sources for ideas on eradicating it. Burning down the entire back yard didn’t seem like a great plan. Chemicals lacked appeal. Renting a herd of goats was a much more charming option, or alternatively one could rent members of the university’s rowing club, which being a club instead of a team sport didn’t get a share of the football gate and had to raise its own money. The goats ate the garlic mustard, but I assume the rowers pulled it. I did try eating it myself, but I was not impressed.

The trouble with these methods was, they were perpetual. The garlic mustard always came back, and you had to cope with it all over again. I was thinking this over while inspecting some damage deer had caused in my yard. The deer herd has reached numbers that cannot be sustained by their usual eating habits and they are now nipping the buds off of flowers they never cared for in the past, and gnawing native shrubs down to the ground. But they never eat the garlic mustard. This means they are helping the garlic mustard compete for space and resources.

And so I advance my modest proposal. We need deer genetically engineered to eat garlic mustard. I promise I would make them welcome.

Growing a Poem

Though all kinds of lines and phrases for poems will occur to me while I’m working in the garden, I can’t do much with them until I write them down. I need the feedback of seeing the letters on the page. For prose – like the text of this post – the keyboard and computer screen fill that requirement perfectly. But for poems I must have pen and paper. This is not so much a mystical connection with ancient methods of communication as it is a matter of topography. What starts out as a line of a poem will inevitably develop branches, arrows, circles, and various degrees of cross-outs that must nevertheless remain legible for future reference. If you looked over my shoulder (but I never let anyone look over my shoulder so early in a poem’s life), you would see a rather smudgy doodle. Every doodly smudge of it carries information for me.

When I write a poem I spend a lot of time mentally flexing it in and out: how does it feel from this angle? What if I look at it this way? Does it look inward, or outward? What does it see, and what does it show? What about the line breaks? What would happen to them if I read this aloud? Words have undertones and overtones – do I want the ones that are sneaking in here? Can I nudge them in another direction? While I am writing this, can I picture you reading it? And should I be writing, like this, about poems, or should I be reading and writing poems themselves? Is this like looking at seed catalogs instead of weeding the garden? Any number of gardening metaphors could certainly apply. Or, I could go outside, and think about whether I’m weeding the garden to put off working on a poem, or working on a poem to put off weeding the garden.

The Season Here

In Pasadena, spring was a subtle presence: a difference of which things were blooming, a change in the quality of the light. It came in on tiptoe and was easy to miss if you didn’t pay close attention. It took me years to learn to recognize it, and I was proud when I did. It seemed a kind of secret knowledge, something newcomers to California didn’t get.

No such obliviousness can be sustained against the spring in Michigan. One minute the edges of all the streets are humped with a sulky rind of snow. The next, there’s a cannonade of bird, flower, leaf, and green, while the daylight once in such poor supply suddenly stretches improbably beyond the dinner hour, the dessert hour, even the coffee hour. Snow boots and down coats break open like chrysalises, and arms and legs emerge, waving tenderly in the sun. If a late chill sneaks back in, we are too dazed by glory to care.


Under my windows hundreds of daffodils celebrate their inedibility, heart-shaped hoofprints showing where the deer stepped among them, prospecting, finding nothing they could eat. My daffodils’ triumph is the deer’s loss, but spring is generous. By now the deer are far away, eating someone’s tulips. I’ve seen it, walking around the neighborhood. It’s how I learned to plant daffodils.