Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pater: bagging it...

Pater: bagging it...  The beautiful plant at right is Sarcodes sanguinea – the “snow flower” – that my dad and I saw lots of on the flanks of Mt. Lassen in June 2007.
Bagging it...

There are many ways in which growing up on a farm is profoundly different than growing up in a city.  One of these is that farmers tend to put their kids to work at a very young age, and my dad was no exception to that.

One task my dad found for me when I was quite young was bagging oak leaf mold for resale at the retail nursery my family ran.  I'm not sure exactly how old I was, but I remember that the tools involved – shovel, three-tined pitchfork, and bag tie twister – were just barely within my abilities, so I'm going to guess I was 9 or 10.

For many of my readers, oak leaf mold is probably something you've never heard of before.  It's not the disgusting image that likely first came to mind – it's actually a very pleasant material to use; one that any gardener would feel right at home with.  It's what's left after oak leaves have been completely decomposed (composted) by fungus and bacteria.  When dry, it's very light and fluffy, almost black, with an earthy smell and a texture a bit like finely chopped peat moss.  The holly trees that were the bulk of my family's nursery stock liked acidic soil, and the oak leaf mold was the perfect soil amendment for them: it added soil acidity, and it also added other nutrients and the organic material needed to help the soil retain moisture.

My dad bought the oak leaf mold in bulk from a man in southern New Jersey (the name “Pete” springs to mind, but I'm not sure I've got that right) who had a big truck and the willingness to scout out and find natural deposits of oak leaf mold.  I don't recall ever seeing where it came from, but it must have been from deciduous oak forests growing in somewhat sandy soil, as the oak leaf mold he delivered had traces of sand in it.  Anyway, this fellow would on occasion deliver a load of oak leaf mold to us, and he'd unload it into a small mountain inside of one of our sheds.

For retail sale, though, that stuff needed to be bagged up into convenient, neat plastic bags.  To do that, my dad had purchased an industrial-strength gadget that we could mount the plastic bag into – a bit like the burlap bag holder at right.  Then we'd fill the bag with oak leaf mold using some combination of a shovel and a pitchfork, tamping it down as we went (if the oak leaf mold was dry, it would fluff up like a pillow).  When the bag was good and full, we'd dismount it from the holder contraption, then use a steel wire twist-tie and a tool similar to the one at left to cinch the top up tightly.

I remember my dad showing me how to do all of this, paying particular attention to how full the bags were.  He wanted our customers to feel like they were getting good value for their money, so he wanted those bags to look like they were bulging with the oak leaf mold.  It really did make a big difference how much you tamped it down; I'd guess you could add another 20% or so to the bag if you tried hard, and that really did make the bag look “stuffed”.  He told me that if the bags weren't full enough, he'd make me do them over.  Then he sealed the deal by telling me that he'd pay me for this work, on a piece work basis.  I've forgotten what the amount was, but it was probably 10 cents or so per bag.  But it would be the first thing my dad ever offered to pay me for – a big deal indeed for me.

So I set off to fill some of those bags.  If we had a video of that first effort, I suspect it would be fun to watch.  I remember that I could just barely poke the shovel into the big pile of oak leaf mold, and when the shovel was full it would frequently twist and dump its whole load on the concrete floor.  With the pitchfork, I could easily stick it into the pile, but it would frequently lose its load by slipping through the tines.  My dad, of course, made both of those actions look ridiculously easy – he could even hold a full shovel-load in one hand while holding the bag filler gadget with the other.

But the really, really tough thing for me turned out to be that tie-twister.  My dad made it look so easy!  Hold the bag closed with one hand, wrap the tie around with the other, then hook the twister tool through the loops and give it one easy little pull – and presto!  A sealed bag.  But when I went to try it, somehow it wasn't quite so easy.  The closed bag would escape me, and it would fall over and spill some.  I'd get the tie wrapped around the top, but the loops weren't lined up, so I couldn't get the twister tool's hook engaged.  Worst of all, I'd do all the other stuff correctly – and then I just didn't have the strength to pull the handle on that twister tool!

Every once in a while, as I was struggling with all this, my dad would saunter over and give me a little advice.  I'm certain now – though I never suspected it at the time – that he was struggling himself: to keep from laughing at me.  But he didn't – instead, he showed me how to hold the shovel, how to fill it just partially so the weight of its load was within my capacity, how to hold the filled bag with my knees so I could use both hands to wrap the tie around the neck, and most importantly – how to hold my arm next to my side so that I could actually apply my little muscles to the task of pulling that twister tool's handle.  I still remember the sweet feeling of victory when I was finally able to twist those ties.

When I'd finished with my bag filling for the day, I had a dozen or so bags filled and tied.  To me that seemed like a huge accomplishment, and I was tired.  My dad came over and inspected the bags, and there were a couple he judged to be not full enough.  He gave me a choice of either getting paid for the just good ones, or to take the time to redo the bad ones and get paid for them all.  I redid them, so I must have been a greedy little tyke :)  Then he sat down with me, paper and pencil, and we estimated how long it would take me to bag the rest of that pile.  At the rate I was going, it would take years – so clearly I needed to get more done each day.

When I look back on that now, I can appreciate (and be grateful for) the lessons I didn't even know I was being taught.  I had to earn that money with my labor – and he made it very clear that simply working hard wasn't enough – the work had to be done right.  He didn't shower me with praise for doing a small amount of work, but instead was happy for what I did and then gave me a good appreciation for what I really needed to accomplish.

My brother Scott and I had many, many such lessons over the next few years.  My dad's business at the time (landscaping, landscaping maintenance, and retail nursery) was an ideal vehicle for him to do this – there were always plenty of things within our capacity to do, some of which were genuinely helpful to him, and all of which could be used to teach us.  There have been many, many occasions over the years since then for me to be grateful for those lessons...

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Tom, I love this entry!
    Although I didn't have the privilege (smile) of helping with this task, your post brought back strong memories of the smell of that leafmold, and of those wire twist ties! I remember them well. They fascinated me, too, for whatever reason.

    I'm so grateful for these posts...

    ~ Holly