by Mario Machado—
The days are passing, but just. I woke up again last night drenched in my own sweat. One hundred and ten degrees during the day makes the 90 degrees at night feel like an air conditioner. Still, my body doesn’t quite agree with this heat. The local Paraguayans say that it’s the sun in this part of the world that really gets to you. In reality, it’s not just the sun, but the stifling lack of wind, the latent heat trapped in the thick tropical forests, the fact the running water shuts off at random, and that, with houses so small, most of one’s life must be spent outside anyway.
Nobody works in the fields during the hottest parts of the day; to do so would be virtual suicide. Siestas get longer during the summer (Paraguay is in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are switched). Tereré, the national beverage and cold version of Argentina’s yerba mate, is consumed around the clock. People are smart—they stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, and wake up at 4 a.m. to finish tending their crops before the sun hits its peak.
In this country, tomatoes are often scorched by the sun. As a boy coming from eastern Pennsylvania, the notion of tomatoes getting too hot seems almost silly to me, however, in Paraguay anything and everything can burn. Winter squashes, watermelons, and melones (halfway between honeydew and cantaloupe) all have the benefit of beautifully broad leaves to shield them from the intensity of the midday heat. Tomatoes, sweet peppers, cabbages, and other vegetables require artificial shade structures (in Spanish called a media sombra or half shade) to survive the critical months of December and January.
Crops suffer from the heat almost as much as people do. When rain is needed, when the heat becomes intolerable, when the will of the land and the fields and the farmers seems to ache for salvation, the Guaraní phrase okyse (which translates directly as “it wants to rain”) is often muttered, half as an observation and half as a sort of invocation. And while hot days can string together repetitiously, the rain eventually comes, usually sweeping across the gently undulating hills in an instant. No sooner can those dark clouds be spotted on the horizon than golf ball-sized droplets are cascading from a terribly flustered-looking sky.
As the storm passes, as the heat is broken, the infamous viento sur (southern wind) comes charging up from the Argentine border. The following days are cooler, calmer. The plants can once again fill their veins and straighten their spines. The farmers return to their fields. The weight of anticipation has been lifted, and the land can release its humid sigh of relief. The nights, now bearable, feel a little more like home. But this isn’t home to me—not yet, at least. To me this is still Paraguay and I am still trying to set my rhythm to the pulse of this strange, new place.
I am Rebecca, one of the new interns at Organic Gardening. This summer I am working with a lot of online content and helping develop the web presence. I am also trying to reconnect with nature, in particular gardening, during my summer here.
I grew up with a family who loved gardening. My mother had several
flowerbeds, and I spent weekends helping her plant seeds and bulbs. (Somehow I always got the work that involved pretty flowers, while she would trim and weed—I saw weeding as punishment.) My grandmother had a vegetable garden, and most uniquely my grandfather grew bonsai trees.
When I went off to college, I moved into an apartment without a yard, my grandparents couldn’t garden anymore, and my mom lost her interest. The closest to gardening I experienced during my first 3 years of college was remembering to water my cactus once a month (my roommates and I all got cacti 2 years ago, and my cactus is the only survivor, perhaps a sign of a green thumb?).
As an Organic Gardening intern for the summer, all of a sudden I am having to think back to those weekends (some of which, I will be honest, were forced) on my knees in the garden, covered in dirt.
So I am going to get back into the garden and foster a new love for gardening this summer. In order to do this, I will be visiting the Organic Gardening Test Garden once a week and spending time in the dirt. So follow along as I connect with nature again.
I went to the test garden, which is hosted by the Rodale Institute, for the first time on Wednesday. The Rodale Institute is gorgeous—and large enough that it took me a while to find the correct plot of land. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Institute features much more than the Organic Gardening Test Garden, including a production garden where the food served in Rodale’s employee café is grown.
After a quick tour, we started gardening. And naturally my first task was one that I used to dread the most—weeding. But now it seemed more like a relaxation technique then punishment. I was excited to be outside, to see progress being made as I dug up weeds, to enjoy the warmth and to not have anyone nagging and telling me to put gloves on while I worked in the garden.
Once we had cleared out two beds of weeds, it was time to harvest. There were
sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, radishes, and kale ready for picking. The first three were easy, but kale was another story. I had never even tasted kale before, let alone know what it looks like when it is ready to harvest. After a quick lesson from test garden manager Doug Hall, I was able to harvest that, too, and I got to take some home with me.
That night, I even sautéed the kale and the peas for dinner. The tomatoes didn’t even make it out of the garden, though—Doug and I were popping them into our mouths as we picked them. For perhaps the first time in my life two of my meals were exclusively made with food I harvested myself. That was one of the greatest accomplishments: harvesting and cooking the food I would eat that day. For some people, this is a normal experience, but for me it was a first. —Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith is a rising senior at Elon University located in Elon, North Carolina and is the current online editorial intern for Organic Gardening. She is from Raleigh, North Carolina and has interned for past publications including Raleigh Downtowner Magazine. She also interned at SR Media while she studied abroad in London, England last fall.
As a child, I remember Grandpa saying that tomatoes don’t like to get their feet cold. He was patient and would never set plants out before June. By then, there was not a chill in the air, even at night. My parents rarely started tomatoes inside, and claimed their volunteer ‘German Pink’ tomatoes came up and outgrew those plants anyway. No one ever heard of soil thermometers. They relied on common sense and experience. Just as mothers would not let their children go out in the winter without a coat, Mother Nature knew when it was safe for her little sprouts to be above ground.
Today, I witness this orchestrated plan for all the self-seeding annuals each spring at Heritage Farm. Seeds dropped in the fall, reliably self-sow and weave their way through my garden at just the right time and place. Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and other self- seeding annuals bide their time until conditions are perfect, never getting themselves frozen. Violas appear early and profusely once the coast is clear. Love-in-a-mist and ‘Radio’ calendula sprout like weeds. I can always expect later appearances from borage, dill, verbenas, vining petunias, night-scented tobacco, and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.
Unfortunately, I can’t claim to be as responsible as Mother Nature. As I’m looking at empty raised beds in the display garden feeling the strong heat from the May sun, I am convinced freezing temperatures are a thing of the past. The plan begins innocently with setting out a few eggplants and tomatoes, then thinking marigolds and purple basil would make a good-looking border combination—bam—before I know it, my garden is on its way. But inevitably there is another frost, and some morning my plants will have turned into clumps of withered stems with brown burnt leaves. Blooming in the path nearby, however, are bright little pansies that took care of themselves looking up at me with smug, cheerful smiles. What these little pansies knew was it’s not the air temperature, but the soil temperature that makes it safe. The ground that time of the year is always cooler than the air temperature, making it ideal for violas but not for tender annuals.
But really, how often is the soil temperature a topic of conversation. Gardeners want to talk about the fun stuff, like the latest gardening tool, growing tomatoes upside down, or a new greenhouse. It is easy to forget about the basics, like soil temperature.
Ironically, as I am writing this, outside my window a Seed Savers Exchange staff person is walking by carrying a flat of bright green tomato plants—a beautiful sight. We have been sending tomato and pepper transplants out to gardeners since March. No wonder it is tempting to forget about the warmth of the soil, when transplants are readily available.
But this year I will not be fooled by that first warm day. I will instead take my cues from Mother Nature.
Photo: Diane Ott Whealy
Photo of Diane: Jim Richardson