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  • John R

People remind me all the time how smart I am. When they visit they’ll look at our garden and say, “Gee I thought you were smarter than this.” To which I’ll gratefully (and with all modesty) reply, “Aw, shucks. Not really.”

Which brings me to the mystery image, above. I have no idea what those things are that are coming out of the ground. They’re like two little aliens poking up butt-first into the cool late-winter air.

Normally, I’d conduct a thorough internet search for things like, “emerging bulbs” and “fat globular items with no apparent purpose showing above ground.” I’d send the photo to the Oregon State Extension Service for an I.D. and I’d solicit the advice of my gardening friends.

But this time, I’m letting it slide. I’m putting my journalistic responsibilities on a well-deserved hiatus. All that research and double-checking facts can get so (yawn) time-consuming and tiring.

But no problem! While my brain takes a breather, I’m going to turn this blog over to a brain that never tires of cranking out sentences. I’m invoking ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence robot that will regurgitate words at the slightest provocation and is seen as a godsend for Ph.D candidates who have put off writing their dissertations until the very last minute.

All it takes is a prompt and ChatGPT will blab on like a history professor during last call. Let’s try it!

Prompt: Write a short introductory paragraph about the benefits of gardening

Response: Gardening offers numerous benefits to individuals, communities and the environment. From providing fresh produce and improving physical and mental health, to creating attractive landscapes and promoting biodiversity, gardening has the power to positively impact our lives in multiple ways.

Okay, that wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. It has that sort of chimp-with-a-typewriter feel to it. But look at all the space it filled in this blog! Let’s up the ante:

Prompt: Write a dramatic introductory paragraph about the dangers of gardening

Response: As you step into your garden, surrounded by the fragrant blooms and vibrant greenery, it may seem like a peaceful haven. But beneath the beauty lies a hidden danger, lurking in every corner and waiting to strike. Whether it's the sharp thorns of roses, the poisonous leaves of nightshade, or the venomous bites of spiders, gardening can be a treacherous pursuit. With every reach and every bend, you expose yourself to the risks of injury, illness, and even death.

OK, now we’re cooking. In fact, ChatGPT has hit several nails on the head here, especially that bit about how gardens can kill you. That’s pure gold. Although it doesn’t answer the question, What are those things poking up out of my garden? Try, try again.

Prompt: Write a dramatic introductory paragraph about tiny alien beings emerging from the ground.

Response: The ground shuddered and split open, revealing an otherworldly sight unlike anything humanity had ever seen. From the depths of the earth, tiny, shimmering beings emerged, their minuscule forms pulsing with an inner light. People all over the world watched in awe, wondering what purpose these tiny, mysterious creatures had in emerging from the ground, and what their presence would bring to the world.

Wow! And it’s all happening in my very own garden! But let’s not end with sci-fi speculation. Let’s create something just for the spring season:

Prompt: Write a short poem about tulips


Tulips in the garden stand,

Colors bold and bright, at hand.

Red, pink, yellow, and white,

A rainbow in the morning light.

Petals soft, like silk so fine

A gentle sway in the breeze divine.

Each stem a work of art, so rare,

A symbol of the beauty everywhere.

They bloom and brighten up the day

And bring a smile to all who say,

"Oh, how lovely are the tulips bright,

A gift from nature, pure and light."

Aww, you had me at, “A rainbow in the morning light,” you big beautiful artificial brain you.

Tulips: ©Venkra | Dreamstime

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  • John R

I’ve written about our chili peppers before and although I don’t want to drive the subject into the ground I’m going to do exactly that.

The good news is that this particular year’s crop far outperformed the previous year’s. In crop terms, it was absolutely bumper. Quite possibly our success was due to the fact that we planted an inordinate amount of pepper plants, so the odds of some chilis surviving were in our favor. Of course, anything that we purposefully planted and that survived to maturity was cause for celebration, so we were winning in all sorts of ways.

We focused on poblanos and jalapenos. Poblanos are a family favorite because we adore chili rellenos. If you must know: we stuff charred poblanos with cheesy mashed potatoes and then bake them—not fry—in a nice roasted tomato sauce. We looked forward to harvesting poblanos with at least as much anticipation as we had for the births of our children. Well, that one kid, anyway.

We’d had some modest success with jalapenos in the past, slicing and pickling a few handfuls into a very toothsome condiment, and we were determined to produce plenty of jarfuls so we could give them to friends and family. If that wasn’t ambitious enough (and gracious enough, truly), I wanted to smoke-cure some of the jalapenos, dry them, and grind them into ancho seasoning powder. Grand aspirations indeed, considering who was doing the aspiring.

Unfortunately, peppers like a lot of sunlight. This was problematic in our sunlight-deprived yard, especially in the locations where I’d built raised-bed planters from very heavy concrete blocks. These substantial planters were part of my overall attempt to nudge our property toward Shangra-La-ness, one forty-pound block at a time. They are magnificent structures if I say so myself (I think I just did), with curved corners and generous depth, built with mighty sweats and strains and filled with top-quality organic planting mix. Labor-intensive, yes, but those multi-tiered concrete-block walls won’t ever need refinishing or replacement. After gloating about how much future maintenance I'd avoided I began to realize I’d neglected to take into account solar opportunities. The sunny promise of early spring was soon be obscured by the leafy reaches of early summer. Nearby trees filled out their canopies and, save for a two-hour period of direct, brutal overhead sunshine, these beds—these immovable objects—were in cool, dappled shade.

Oh sure, we could have switched gears and planted something more appropriate. Lettuces, spinach perhaps. Maybe kale. That would have been smart. But two words would prove to be masters of our will power: chili rellenos.

So hold on—I had a plan! Why if the peppers needed more sunlight, we’d oblige by extending the growing season for an extraordinarily long amount of time. I calculated that a good eight months of crappy sunlight would equate to four months of decent sunlight, or thereabouts. Problem solved!

Energized by this stroke of horticultural genius, I installed a skeleton of curved PVC pipe designed to support a fabric covering that would protect the tender seedlings from frost. In March we weened our little peppers from their indoor grow lights and stuck them into the beds, blissfully ignoring advice to “harden off” the seedlings by exposing them to the outdoors in progressive stages. My plan’s timetable had no room for “hardening off.” They needed max daylight, now.

I was diligent about managing this early stage, keeping the plants sheltered during nights and cool weather, uncovering them if the temps rose above 50 degrees. Despite this care, they lingered in their puppy stage, their little two-leaved heads quivering in the rude outdoors. Amigo, we’re not in Oaxaca any more.

But eventually, grow they did. They took to warmer days like a sophomore takes to a kegger. They got big and, because they were sun-starved, lean and lanky in their efforts to get vertical and find more light. I fussed about, testing for soil nutrients and moisture levels, occasionally singing You Are the Sunshine of My Life to the young plants in a cooing sotto voce. About late August, when peppers should normally be fruiting, ours were just starting the tiny, star-shaped flowers that would become globular peppers. No matter, we had a fair amount of good weather ahead, and our time-warped plants were rather handsome, with glossy leaves and thick stems.

chili poblano jalapeno
A day's harvest.

Eventually, by mid-October, the peppers were at long last ready for picking. The jalapenos had turned red, yellow, and bright emerald; the poblanos took on a glossy dark green that slowly shaded toward maroon. We harvested every few days and collected (by Schiddygarden standards; admittedly a low bar) an abundance of peppers. Let’s call it an overabundance. We had bowlfuls and regiments lined up on the counters, and still the peppers came and we harvested daily. I got pecan wood for smoking the jalapenos and we bought a dehydrator for processing our overload. We smoked and dried and ground and pickled.

Smokin' jalapenos.

Okay, that was the good news. On the other side of the coin, the peppers were way too spicy hot. Over-the-top hot. Blazing. I do not say that lightly. But when we finally got around to sampling those fat crunchy fruits, it was like chomping a lit blowtorch. This crop, this bountiful spilling-over army of picked peppers, had enough Scoville units to melt glass.

Or did they really?

Turns out we humans (and other mammals) are full of TRPv1, a receptor protein that’s a heat sensor. When we get overheated due to exertion or a toasty summer day, TRPv1 signals our bodies to cool down by sweating. If we grab a hot pan or get a campfire ember up our hiking shorts, TRPv1 puts out the alarm.

Capsaicin, an alkaloid chemical produced by chili peppers, is a trickster. It fools the TRPv1 proteins into thinking that our tongues are literally burning up. If you handle chilis and get enough capsaicin on your skin then you’ll have little TRPv1 proteins running all over the place screaming, Fire! Fire!

But you’re not on fire, and your tongue and your skin are certainly not turning to char. Understanding this explains why chili peppers of all kinds have become essential in many of the world’s tastiest cuisines—over the millennia we’ve realized that A) we’re not damaging ourselves by eating hot chilis, and B) the pain is worth the gustatory reward.

But we had to get real—our chilis were pushing the envelope. In the case of this year’s chili crop, I’d say the pain—or at least the sensation of pain—overwhelmed any yummy chili flavor, rendering our harvest unpalatable. So we pickled most of the jalapenos and gave them away to unsuspecting acquaintances. We dried the poblanos and stuffed them in plastic bags with a warning label reminding us never to eat them.

Undeterred, I’m already planning next year’s chili plantings. I’ll search for varieties that have a reputation for being mild and flavorful. Why would I risk it? After all, chili pepper hotness is remarkably random—you can find hot and mild peppers on the same plant. So many variables; so unpredictable.

Two words: chili rellenos.

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Relief is a state of mind. Isn't it?

I am writing this while in extreme pain. Sciatica. It’s a condition often caused by a bulging disk that pokes out of your spine and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, a length of bio-wiring that runs from mid-back through the buttocks and into the thigh. Remember those tubes of ready-mix Pillsbury dinner rolls that you’d twist and a splorch of dough would pop out? Yup, like that.

My search buddy DuckDuckGo says sciatica is a fairly common ailment, and it can last for weeks. At its worse, the pain can be excruciating, hand raised on that one. And there’s no quick cure, no whiz-bang operation where a surgeon goes in and uses a wooden spoon to pook your dough back into proper alignment. Relief comes mostly from a pharmaceutical grab bag of anti-inflammatories and pain meds, plus ongoing physical therapy. And time.

Which brings us to this moment.

Currently I’m doubled over, nose inches from the keyboard, pain coursing along my spine, past my buttocks, and into my upper left thigh. I’m not looking for sympathy (although I am looking for the letter W—it’s hard to focus being this close. Ah, there it is!)

Why write while in distress? And what’s all this gibber-jabber about back pain have to do with gardening?

I’m currently taking a mélange of substances that include Vicodin (prescribed) a Lidocain patch (also Rx), gobs of prednisone (prescribed and begrudgingly taken), half a THC gummy (strawberry), two modest glasses of a very acceptable bourbon, and a beer chaser. The concoction hasn’t done a thing to alleviate the pain, but there is a sort-of wayward side section of my brain that is agreeably giddy with all this biochemical tomfoolery. Let’s write about this pain thing in real time! enthuses Side Section. It’ll be so, um, real!

Describing pain with the written word is challenging, pain being such a completely subjective experience. Deb has suggested that I have a very low pain threshold, meaning she would like me to cease whimpering and stop pointing at my coffee mug, wordlessly pantomiming that I need a refill. She reminds me that her pain threshold is extremely high, and as proof she plays her trump card, which is to clarify which of the two of us was the one that endured childbirth. Make that childbirths, plural. No argument here. Let’s just say that my pain feels as if someone is flossing the spaces between my vertebrae with barbed wire.

Which brings us, finally, to gardening. Or specifically, the routine yard maintenance that is not happening, a situation made more pathetic for the fact that the weather has turned absolutely gorgeous, with clean air and bright skies. Plants are happy, peppers are pendulous, birds are doing their bird things. I have fence-mending to finish, and irises to move, and poblanos to pick. At the moment, all that pleasantry seems so far away.

But with an admirable display of pluck, I hobble painfully outside. (Again, sympathy is not being courted here. Welcomed, sure. But, when you think about it, not overtly solicited.) I sit in a lawn chair and take off my shirt so that the midday sun falls directly on my bare back. That feels good. I toss a few peanuts to Calamity and Chatter, our two greedy, insatiable California scrub jays whose fondness for dried legumes knows no bounds. The Raywood ash casts filigreed shadows that hop and quiver on the patio. There is a single-engine plane flying far overhead, the sound like falling into a dream. The pain begins to ease. I close my eyes and listen to the early autumnal winds reminding the trees of what is to come.

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