I take a cup with me out to the garden. I know I won't be able to fill it, but I'm an optimist. And sometimes I have been surprised. But I've been watching my raspberries, and I know I'll be lucky to get a taste.
Out to the back of the yard, between the swing and the back fence, along with the failed blueberry bushes and the wild rose that never blossoms, but does provide a thorny deterrent to fence-climbing children, where my much neglected but highly treasured raspberry bushes reside.
Two summers ago, the neighbor house was bought by a community-service organization. They placed two families - mothers with small children, one retarded, the other just not competent - and they renovated the house and yard. They look nice. But when the contractor took down the chain link fence to replace it with a lovely wooden one, they rolled up the fence and tossed it in my ‛weeds'. I complained, and was assured that they would be back to get it, but that never happened. My best bushes were crushed, ensuring no crop of berries last year, and the new shoots were stunted. When I finally, early this spring, persuaded my husband and son to brave the brambles and the scratchy fence, any yearling shoots which might have found the sun around and through the fence came up with it.
So now I survey the damage. Tall weeds where my hardiest raspberries used to grow. Over here to the right, the one shoot that I was counting on for a harvest has yielded to some disease. The leaves have all gone brown; the hard, immature berries red but inedible. This was the first of the ‛new' plants to really produce. I make up my mind not to accept any more ‛new' plants. A friend had found them in his newly acquired and wild yard and thought I might like them. I also thought so, at the time. But after seven years, they are still spindly, producing not a handful of berries. And now diseased. The old strain is hardier, disdainful of disease.
My father bought their ancestors sixty years ago, and planted three rows of them across an acre. For a son of farmers, the berries were one of his attempts to provide some farming experience for his children, some natural produce, without the onerous and time consuming aspects of farming. He also tried rabbits, chickens and bees, but found each of them to be too much work for his electronics-loving soul. My mother loved gardens, so the vegetable crops stayed: pears, apples, berries; as well as tomatoes and other annuals.
They were much better tended than this weed-grown little plot back here. Ten years ago (and nine, and eight) I ransplanted some shoots from my father's back yard. Now, pulling up weak and trampled branches, surveying the drooping heads of the new shoots, hoping that some may survive to produce next year, I find a treasure trove under the leaves. Tiny, no bigger than my little fingernail, they look juicy rather than dry, and the branch they are attached to is not dying.
Why do I bother? It's so much easier to pick up a half pint at the grocery store. Even at something like $3.00 - for that pittance, I will have more berries than this whole patch can boast, even counting the inedible ones.
After mother died, after my divorce, I went back to live with my father, my sons and me, for five years. My sister might come up from Georgia on the Fourth of July, and the berries were never ready. That's why I'm out here now, on July 10th, when they should be at their peak. I would go down the hill to the fringe of the woods and forage in the tall bushes, four feet most of them and some taller. Tramping down the milkweed and other weeds to make trails through the cultivated brambles. When my father noticed my interest, he transplanted some back to rows, tying them up to wires, but the best berries always grew in the milkweed jungle, where the ground was cool and damp. That's probably my biggest mistake here. There isn't mulch enough, the ground isn't damp enough, there isn't shade at the hottest part of the day. There aren't tall weeds to shade the leaves. Hmm...
I would go pick in the morning, every day for three weeks. Before the sun got too hot. I am not big on hot. I even made a - well, a thing - out of an old white sheet, that I attached to my head and wrists to provide a moving shade. As soon as I was done, I would drop the berries in the kitchen and head for the bathtub. Do I really want to have enough berries here to serve over vanilla ice cream? An hour of picking in the brambles (not wearing shorts) and hot sun? I'm not supposed to eat ice cream anyway.
There are three berries here. Well, four. Five if I count that one that isn't really quite ripe. Almost without thinking, I pop one in my mouth.
Shorter than the weeds, I reach up for a berry. And another, and another. My fingers turn red. I hardly notice, much less care. We aren't really supposed to be down here pilfering, but harvesting is hard work - if the children eat a few, they are still getting the nutrition, and that's a few mom doesn't have to pick. I'm an explorer in a new land, enjoying my discovery. There's a berry half the size of my thumb. My brothers - the enemy, are over there, creeping up on me, competing for my berries.
The wild, sweet, pungent taste is like no other. As the flavor has gone out of the giant strawberries that grace the supermarket shelves, so has it gone even out of the raspberries. Probably they are picked rather unripe. Or maybe it's the high-yield hybrids. But this berry has all the flavor of summer.
Looking over my (very) small empire, I resolve once again to protect and nourish my father's berries.