Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Root-bound and drizzly

 As soon as it started to drizzle, Lorenzo turned to go home and said: “Mañana.”

“Mañana?” I looked up into the mist. The wetness felt refreshing on my face and beard, almost tropical. The new green grass on the hillside appeared grey and yellow through the drizzle. An hour past noon, the sun felt as though it might break through the mist any minute.

I held out my hand toward the hill. “It’s hardly raining, Lorenzo. It’s just a drizzle. Really? You’re going home?”

I thought he was joking with me, trying to pull a fast one. I saw that he was serious, his face questioning. “Lorenzo, I’m staying here until it gets too muddy or cold. If you need to go, that’s OK. I don’t want you getting sick.”

I’ve worked in worse weather; sat in a foxhole soaked to the bone from rain when the sky cleared and everything froze. Nothing to do but wrap myself in a poncho, rub my hands together and try to stay warm.

Ever since, a little rain seldom bothers me. I don’t mind the rain, as long I’m warm.

Lorenzo gazed up at the sky and gave a shrug, “OK.” He returned back to work with his brother-in-law, Aldofo, who was pulling the Jewel variety of blueberries out of their bags and redressing them.

The drizzle continued falling steadily. The ground glistened among flecks of white rye grass seed that had been spread between rows a few days earlier. I looked at the sleeves of my red flannel; an outbreak of little dark specks of rain appeared.

“It’s not that bad,” I said to Lorenzo, “when it gets bad, we’ll all go.” I wanted to get as much work done as possible.

Lorenzo and his crew  incorrectly placed nearly 300 or so plants into 5-gallon grow bags in September. We had just moved the most recent transplants into the northern corner of the field. They appear anemic, yellowed, as if choked, lacking vital nutrients. They need help.

When I first discovered their sad appearance earlier this week, I began pulling them randomly from their bags to see how many of them were root-bound. Every single one was balled up tightly, like an ingrown hairball.

Leaving them that way would have meant certain demise. The only thing to do, and I’m hoping it’s not too late, is to pull every yellowed, root-bound plant out of its bag, loosen the roots, and start them over again.

Steven, who owns the crop, wasn’t happy with re-doing more than 300 plants. It was a sore spot with him for at least an hour Sunday as he removed plants from their bags, loosened their roots, added nutrients, and put them back into their containers. It took the two of us nearly two hours to finish one row out of more than 10 that needed to be re-done.

Steven had cooled after the first row and we got into a rhythm. “Our new motto,” he said, “is no more fuck-ups.”

In so many words, a more experienced farmer told me that farming is nothing more than an ongoing series of fuck-ups. Three steps forward, two steps back, if you’re lucky.

I don’t like working Sundays. I was cranky and in no mood to argue. “Yeah, good motto.”

Damage control on the blueberries could have been avoided. I might have paid better attention to Lorenzo, who had forgotten, or neglected, to loosen the roots during the last phase of transplanting, about 500 plants, which we completed in October.

We had let them stay put for about four weeks before moving them into rows, allowing, we thought, the plants a chance to get somewhat established. Days after we finished setting up all 1,500 plants into rows, we detected the yellowing, spindly growth of the newest transplants. The northern edge of the field looked almost like a weed patch.

As we trim away the spindly growth, the plants actually show more vigor than was apparent at first. The remaining leaves appear green and healthy, some with pink buds, which we’ve been pinching off.

I’m hoping our effort will pay off. The plants, newly loosed, need to re-settle and re-establish a good root system. We may not get a harvest from them next season, but at least we can try to save them and give them another chance.

The episode left me more feeling more cautious about our workers. I demonstrated how to carefully loosen the bags, pull the plants from their containers and undo the root balls, which were shaped more like the original square 1-gallon containers from which they had come.

“You pull the corners like this,” I said, digging my thumb into each corner and pulling away the tangled roots. “Then massage between the corners, like this. OK?”

Aldolfo started into the next one, pulling, tugging and tearing. “Gentle,” I said. “Be gentle.” I took the plant into my hand. “Tease the roots out. Don’t pull and tear.” Aldolfo nodded his head. I watched him do a few more until I felt satisfied.

He and Lorenzo began working on the plants together. I observed them from a distance while adding mulch to the re-bagged plants. I watered and trimmed.

I went to tend the drip system, which is nearly completed on the southern half of the field. When I returned to check on Aldolfo, he was tugging hard on one of the plants, nearly pulling the stem out of the root ball.

“No, Aldolfo. Too much! Easy!”

I got on my knees and pushed on the sides of the bag, loosening the soil around the plant. He pulled it up easily, without struggle. “If it doesn’t wanna come out, it’s probably OK, it’s probably got a good root system. Leave it alone.”

We made good progress, finishing one row in just over an hour. They broke for lunch and soon after they returned it began to drizzle.

Five minutes had passed since I convinced Lorenzo to go back to work with his brother-in-law. The drizzle fell like a hard mist, not quite rain but wet.

“OK, mañana!” Lorenzo said, as he picked himself up and headed for the gate once more to go home. “The mist is more wet than rain.”

“I’ve never heard that before, Lorenzo. But if you say so; see you tomorrow.”

Aldolfo stayed and the drizzle fell hard for another 40 minutes before he too got up and said: “Mañana!” At one point, I turned to him and said: “I like this rain. It feels tropical, don’t you think, Aldolfo?”

He looked at me as if I had lost my senses. “No,” he said, “it’s cold.”

The field was starting to get muddy.

I went to sit in my truck, eat lunch and watch the drizzle turn into rain, and then stop completely. My feet were wet. I felt a chill. I could hear the drizzle returning as it fell on the leaves of the willows next to the creek. I started up the truck and drove home. §


  1. This use of passive voice reminds me of when Ronald Reagan said, "Mistakes were made."

    "Nearly 300 or so plants had been incorrectly placed into 5-gallon grow bags in September. These most recent transplants were placed in the northern corner of the field."

  2. Thanks for the heads up.

    I live with the best editor anyone could ask for, but she lately hasn't shown much interest in reading my blog material. I'll probably get a note days or weeks hence, with a long list of stupid constructions, etc., that she'll spot and take me to task.