Kids come back to college at the end of August, but night comes back into its own at the end of September, so between freshman orientation and the equinox is an odd month: End of summer? Beginning of fall? In a garden, it’s the home stretch.
Gardens begin cold and bare. Drained soaker hoses lie like discarded ropes or dead snakes. When the compost pile finally unfreezes, you spread on a dark hopeful layer. The first things to poke up are of course weeds, plus a few asparagus tips. On your knees, you plant peas. Poking the soil to make holes for seeds feels like sexual harassment, intimate and futile: It’s impossible to imagine anything coming of this.
As the weather warms, you call in reinforcements: six-inch-high tomato plants from the green market, plugs of lettuce or basil in black plastic six-packs. As children, perhaps we were taken (bored) through ye olde herb gardens at historic sites, or lived near old folks who tended their flowers. Such experiences left us with images of gardens that were orderly and static. But when a garden is your own, you learn: You can plant cheek by jowl, so long as you fortify the soil with compost, and you can move plants around, as other plants block off needed light or offer welcome shade. You are also constantly thinning your herds: eating them, of course, but also uprooting the weak and the sick. Bugs nibbled this one — give it a haircut. Some disease sure made that one look funny — pull it up. If there were People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants, all gardeners would be in jail.
June is the month of glory. The light will go on forever. Wrens (the German word is Zaunkönig, fence king) move from post to post, singing. The apothecary rose blooms now, and now only. Japanese beetles have not yet arrived. Your once-naked space shows greenery, even along the fence’s suggestions of an enclosure. This is the life!
High summer brings rankness. Borage, having shot up, topples over. The asparagus you missed back in the spring sends up weird inedible plumes. Johnny-jump-ups in the garden path were cute, but now they are joined by volunteers — hello, chickweed — that are not cute. Climbing beans need no human help, they will grow up your legs if you stand still, but bush beans must be staked lest they fight the war of all against all. Tomatoes, propped up in inverted conical cages, must be buttressed by tree branches and metal fenceposts to keep their dangling arms aloft. It’s hot out there; you wear a DEET-infused hat to keep off bugs and the sun, but it is not pleasant. Like Grant or Foch, you keep putting in more lettuce to replace its fallen comrades.
August thanks God for sunflowers: They stare right back at the great interrogator. The hoses that seemed needless in the spring have become niggardly lifelines. Everything gets done from 5 to 8 p.m.; it would be madness to work earlier. Showering afterward is always a mystery: You know you have not rubbed handfuls of dirt onto every patch of body hair including the little that remains on your head, yet those regions always seem to turn up grit.
Now is the home stretch. Beans are done; a few shell beans remain in their papery pods, black, red, or speckled, to be sprung into a bowl with a satisfying pop. Tomatoes are taking their bows: What a glorious performance they have given, cherries and beefsteaks, rainbows and Aunt Ruby’s German greens, plump as buttocks in a Boucher. Zucchini vines twist and wind over their beds and down into the paths, stiff and prickly, covered by dense canopies of leaves. Never let them be, or you will be dismayed to discover the monstrous produce that swelled out of sight (or, as Thomas Hardy put it, “In shadowy silent distance grew the zucchini too”). Pumpkins, similarly generated and concealed, seem less sinister; their bright colors and their round shapes give them away, and they grow no bigger than heads. Now finally chard comes into its own; we clipped it and clipped it all year, dimpled reptilian leaves with bright orange stems, throwing it all away, because it doesn’t work in salads and it was not yet time for steaming, but once palates change with the weather, chard becomes a keeper.
Plants work overtime to make and scatter their seeds before winter. One year, a squash plant grew in the compost bin that sits just inside the tree line at the top of the lawn. It sent a runner sunward, creeping over rocks and sedge. When it found the light it flowered and fruited. Touchdown, with a minute left in the Super Bowl. Now the sunflowers bow, as if praying that whatever seeds the goldfinches have not picked out will find paydirt and breed successors.
We go out earlier because night comes down earlier; at the time we used to think of having a little May wine, it is dark. At dusk, whenever it comes, the barred owls ask, “Who cooks for you?” My wife. I know who picks for her: me, and my wife. It is the time to wonder when things will end. I say to her, “I bet the hummingbirds have migrated,” and then she sees one, or I do, and then we see another, and then we don’t. There are maple leaves on the lawn, dry and yellowed. Drought, or time to die? First it’s the former, then the latter.
Some things will go to the very last minute. Kale guards our garden gate, tall, dark, and massive, like eunuchs in the sultan’s court. For chefs it is the vegetable of the moment, but it is as stubborn as Trump or the Kardashians. Calendula will shine on until Thanksgiving. And as long as it does, there will be toiling bees, slower and slower, like old people looking through their scrapbooks.