Heirloom tomatoes, collapsed in raised bed

Greetings from my air-conditioned bunker as summer 2007 clatters apart overhead like an unbalanced engine. Amy’s at work, I’m on hiatus, and out in the backyard the heat and humidity are mounting over the soggy vegetation — a prelude to an afternoon forecast of violent winds and, of course, more rain. On the TV, weather is the news throughout much of the country: flooding, landslides, and heat advisories. We are living in a very exciting new world.

In my oven are a couple of frozen whiting fillets, and in my head is “Mohammed’s Radio” by Warren Zevon. (Do yourself a favor and buy the remastered edition of Stand in the Fire right now from iTunes or Amazon.com.) While I wait for the fish to cook, and for the rain and the Bush administration to please go now, I’m eating lots of heirloom tomatoes from our raised bed. The Cherokee Purples are my favorites. The Mortgage Lifters are pretty good too.

As it turns out, I was right that tomato plants would grow bigger in the ground than they do in containers. I had no idea how much bigger. The six Chef Jeff’s seedlings Amy and I planted first grew to nearly six feet tall, obliterating the herbs and flowers that I had imagined could share their space. The walls of the raised bed were exceeded and the sidewalk obstructed. Stalks reached out into parts of the backyard that I could no longer see because tomato plants were blocking my view.

Eventually though, their own weight plus the weight of their fruit and of the rain ended up crushing the silly wire cages that I thought could hold them. We are now left with a three-foot-high tangled mat of toppled tomatoes, punctuated here and there by a few sturdy salvias. As for the oregano and the thyme and the marjoram, I guess they must be underneath it all somewhere. The nasturtiums? They were attractive when I last saw them. If I ever grow tomatoes again, I will construct a six-foot-tall framework of either strong PVC or perhaps steel girders. Next year, the raised bed is getting annuals.

Meanwhile, rabbits and squirrels have been chipping away at the last piers of my mental health. The squirrels we will always have with us, but this year we have roving packs of voracious cottontails as well, and when they’re not chasing and jumping and spraying each other or making bunnies, they’re eating our asters, roses, lilies, and burning bush. None of the popular remedies has any effect. Lavender and blood meal are completely useless. Liquid Fence® makes them smirk because they know you’re squirting your money away at $25 per gallon. What hurts most is realizing that, between scheming new ways to outsmart them and cursing them when my plans fail, I have grown up to be Elmer Fudd.

Overall, our gardening has been mostly successful. The coneflowers and black-eyed Susans grew wonderfully. The “Little Joe” cultivar of Joe-Pye weed we planted has stretched to over five feet tall. Our black elderberries, also planted last year, are now over the six-foot fence. Bee balm has bloomed in three different colors, so thick that it has to be cut back. There have been a good many butterflies, including red admirals, tiger swallowtails, black swallowtails, monarchs, skippers, cabbage whites and small blues. The dogwood and the blue oat grass around it are thriving, and what we thought of last year as some sort of ornamental grass turned out to be beautiful Siberian irises.

It’s been a fairly musical summer. First of all, Steve Dahl has returned to the stage backed by The Nadas and we have enjoyed a couple of those shows with a couple more still to come. We caught a full day of music at Harbor Fest, including the blistering guitar of Ronnie Baker Brooks and the sheer electricity of his former keyboardist Daryl Coutts. Also this summer, we saw the Ike Reilly Assassination, of whom I had never heard (even though Ike is from Libertyville), but others have called them the best bar band in America. After witnessing their roisterous set, I think it might be true. Plus, I should mention the breathtaking show by JoAnna James, who has the talent and the magnetism to become a huge star any minute now.

We caught a total of one bike race this year, the very last race of Superweek in Whitefish Bay, but it was great to see Eddy Van Guyse again. Speaking of Belgians, we visited the Hopleaf Bar in Chicago with our beer-enthusiast brother-in-law a while back, and not only was the selection impressive and the food pretty good, but the bartenders were not half as off-putting as some reviews have made them out to be. I know nothing about beer, and they were helpful guides. I also enjoyed the revenge factor in eating the delicious rabbit appetizer.

The few DVDs we’ve watched lately have not moved me to review them. I was quite disappointed by The Matador but I’m Alan Partridge was pretty funny. When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina film for HBO, was brilliant at first and then gradually bogged down into understandable bitterness. Still, it’s a fine document of nearly everything that happened in New Orleans two years ago. The original four acts are really worth watching, but I would skip the bonus disc.

Back in the here and now, my lunch is eaten and CNN has a reporter 10 minutes south of here in Kenosha to report on the flooding. I don’t like to see the word “disaster” headlined so close to home. So far, we’ve had some standing water in the backyard away from the house. Yet another storm is sweeping in from the southwest, but most of the really heavy stuff seems headed for Chicagoland this afternoon.

The forecast calls for drier weather over the weekend. I would enjoy some Canadian high pressure, please. I would like some reassurance that I’m not living in a tropical swamp. Bring in the cooler, drier air and the chillier nights. Bring on Chicago Bears football and apple orchards and roast turkey. Summer 2007 was fun, but it gets fatiguing after a while. So does the rumble of thunder.

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