Friday, August 31, 2007

A Season Passed

Time and again the old saying proves itself: "The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow."

It is VERY hard to garden in a place where one does not live. Some have done it, and a few have done it well and long-term. But the vast majority of new gardeners fail utterly in this situation, through no real fault of their own but ordinary, expectable human shortcomings.

My hope springs eternal, just as the hope of each new gardener in the spring. So every spring I give way to the beseeching of wannabe gardeners begging for the use of a bit of land to grow stuff on.

They want to work and work. They want to double dig (which horribly damages the structure of this particular soil) and to work in loads of laboriously imported compost (though the ground here is already rich in nutrients). They want to build fancy wood-sided raised beds (which I watch in amusement as I carefully lay my heavy mulch over the entire garden, digging as little as possible). They want to plant more and more and more....

And they do. In the spring when the farm is still Eden-like, a peaceable kingdom before the birth of the annual crop of mosquitos. In spring, when the weather is mild and the weeds are small. In spring, when everyone is used to a workaday schedule and regular routines.

Time passes, and summer comes, and bugs, and weeds, and vacations, and too many vegetables, and not enough time or energy. The lake beckons, a second job appears advantageous, friends visit from afar. Throw in a personal crisis or two, and it's harder and harder to drag oneself out to the jungle every few days. Garden visits grow further apart just as the weeds hit their stride and the veggies grow weary.

It is hard enough, in the high heat of summer, to drag myself from the back door to the garden even in the cool of early morning, because I know that I'll come back wringing sweat from my shirt. How much harder it is for someone to get in a hot car after a long day at work and drive over.

Time passes. The weeds gain the upper hand easily, uncontested. I'm too busy working on my own to notice that I haven't seen this year's wannabe gardener for a few weeks. Then his weeds are beginning to overtop his tomatoes, which sprawl from their tiny 3' cages. (I had suggested that 5' cages were generally needed, but he thought he knew what he was doing. How can I argue with an earnest young man who is so certain? He COULD be right.....) The tomatoes ripen before mine (planted late on purpose), and I DO notice that they aren't being harvested. The weeds really begin to obscure the tidy wooden beds. One wild sunflower plant (the Kansas state flower) easily tops 14' tall.

I e-mail, I call, eventually I make contact. Lots of excuses, no good reasons. But can he please redeem himself, do a grand battle with the weeds and then plant a fall garden, he inquires?

This time, for once, I said "no". For I've learned that this, too, is part of a cycle as natural as spring, summer, fall: the season of hopeful renewal. And this season, for a wannabe gardener, is nearly always followed by a final complete abandonment of the garden. Meanwhile, I'll have watched the weeds set a million seeds, and the vegetables go uneaten except by mold and bugs. And an occasional oppossum, judging from the tooth marks in some of the fruit.

This year I'm reclaiming the abandoned garden in its first abandonment, while there is still fruit to pick. From at most a dozen plants, I picked a huge tub of tomatoes.

Last night and today, I stood at the kitchen sink for hours, washing, cutting out bad spots, chunking up tomatoes for the freezer. No time to can now, when it's still hot and there's so much fall garden work ahead of me in addition to dealing with all the weeds. All told, I put 5 gallons of crushed tomatoes into the freezer, dreaming of chili on a cold evening, steaming tomato soup after a hike in the snow, luscious hot simmering pasta sauce.

Wonderful wearying work that yields a tired contentment like no other.

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