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Bad Gardenersí Grace

 

Notes to self from this yearís gardening season: Six collard greens plants are plenty. One, yes one, dill plant is plenty. The rest that volunteer are weeds. Donít plant turnips in a spot that will be completely shaded out by the broccoli next to it before they sprout. The reason lambís quarters are a weed and not a crop even though they are totally edible and tasty like spinach is that you have to harvest them when they are under six inches tall, and if you ignore them for a few weeks they become not only inedible, but several feet tall and able to steal your carrotsí lunch money.

We actually did better with our garden this year than last year. We had a plan, we had paths, we had seeds in the ground in at least some of the garden at the right times. We spent happy June hours weeding while our daughter imitated us by studiously moving piles of dirt from one place to another. And then, for a whole host of reasons that are interesting to no one but us, our diligence fell apart just as super-weed-growing season began.

Iím figuring that if we keep adding a month each year to the portion of the gardening season during which we keep up with the weeding, that in maybe four years or so weíll make it through without hitting that point where weíre embarrassed to show our faces and walk past everyone elseís moderately neat, mulched rows to where the tufts of weed seeds are blowing in the breeze over our little corner plot. Itís nice to have reasonable goals.

But in the meantime, itís fall; harvest season. We have a cooler of apples from my father-in-lawís trees in the kitchen getting turned into applesauce in small batches whenever a couple of hours present themselves. We have been celebrating last corn and first cider. And a couple of times a week there has been the by now eerily familiar proto-hunter-gatherer experience of harvesting from an ignored garden.

Because after all, the only thing worse than being the community gardenís negligent hoodlum would be to also let the food that was still growing there despite you go to waste. So, even though it would take several solid days we canít spare to make up for lost time and beat the jungle into submission, I have been slipping in and out to clip armfuls of elephant-ear sized collard greens and chard for our dinners and for the freezer. The butternut squash vine that has taken over a third of the plot has yielded up three huge squash so far, the broccoli plants are on their third or fourth bloom, and our ancho pepper plant has turned out a half-dozen cute little green fruits.

Plenty of others didnít make it, like the hundreds of carrots, turnips, and green beans that have just been swamped. Othersóthe chives, rosemary, calendula and oreganoóare likely still in there somewhere, merely lost in the sea.

The survivors are like little islands. To get to them, you need to bushwhack, searching for signs of our wooden paths, trying not to crush the unlikely vanguard of squash blossoms, and getting arms full of scratches and a nose full of pollen. Oh, and stopping to pick tomatoes.

Yes, the tomatoes. Youíve got to understand: unlike, apparently, nearly every other gardener or foodie on the planet, Iím not fond of fresh tomatoes. Like with coffee, I like their smell on my hands as they come off the plant, but I donít really want to eat them until theyíve been cooked into something.

Even so, thereís something about a fully-laden tomato plant that screams harvest and abundance. Especially in our garden, where we planted only two orange grape tomato plants, figuring that was plenty, but stepped aside humbly when a patch of volunteer plum tomatoes sprang up in a square we hadnít planted yet. Whoever heard of volunteer tomatoes? Youíre not even supposed to be able to grow tomatoes from seed outdoors in this climate. Somehow it didnít seem like the kind of thing you turn down.

There they were, and there they are now, holding their own against the weeds, sprawling this way and that, hiding bunches of bright red fruit in improbable places, sometimes tucked down low like a clutch of eggs of an extravagant ground-nesting bird, sometimes hanging perfectly over the bent remnant of a tomato cage.

I canít walk by them and leave them there, even if freezing a gallon of tomatoes had not been my plan for the evening. They are an offering and a responsibility, a little bit of graceóunearned, as grace always is, but nonjudgmental. They are a sun-warmed, fragrant, juicy little reminder that not everything goes to hell if you let go for a little while.

I think I have some plans that may work to keep our garden more a garden and a less a meadow next year. But I also think Iíll leave aside that square where the volunteer tomatoes came up, and welcome them if they choose to return.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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