The waning of summer has burdens all its own. A few days ago, the temperature dropped twenty degrees overnight. The next day autumn tingled in the air. I could hear it coming from whatever distant lair it inhabits during the hot, green months of summer.
The garden is still producing though the plants are tired. A month ago, I couldn’t keep up. Fruit would rot on the vine. The tomatoes were vulnerable, getting big and plopping into the soil to become a soppy, goopy mess before I knew it.
Everything moves more slowly now. There are still tomatoes ripening, though fewer than even a couple of weeks ago. Soon, I will strip bare the vines and bring the final armloads onto the porch to ripen. Sometime, deep in winter, we will open the freezer, pull the soup they make, warm them on the stove and remember the thick, wet days of August.
Things have got to be cleaned up out there. I started the other day by facing down the bully who’s dominated the garden this year. Back in May we planted something we weren’t certain we could identify. It grew. It kept growing. Eventually we recognized it as zucchini.
Taming the Wild Zucchini
It took over. The plant’s sticker-covered tendrils spread in every direction. I let it go, in part from curiosity. I wanted to see what would happen. What happened is that eventually a quarter of our yard was covered in zucchini plant.
The fruit was plentiful. Zucchini are more durable than tomatoes, thank goodness. They take longer to fall to mush. I learned this by stumbling on zucchini that had lay on the ground growing in silence for weeks. By the time I broke them loose, they were huge. I harvested and my wife pushed them through the food processor, filling the freezer with plastic bags of zucchini slivers.
Still, the plant did not stop giving. I pulled off fruit, stacked it on the porch and wondered what to do with it. Finally, I realized I could give this stuff away.
I gave zucchini to people at work. I gave zucchini to the neighbors. I gave zucchini to the other neighbors. I thought of flagging down random cars to give zucchini to the drivers. It was, to say the least, a productive plant.
Providing for others from the garden was intensely satisfying. To see the bounty the earth has given, to take our fill and still have more made me feel rich. It used to bother me when gardeners would try to foist their excesses on others, dragging that broken box of squash to church, leaving a dirty plastic bag full of tomatoes on the table at work. Now, I know why they do it. It’s addictive.
A couple of days ago, I cut back the zucchini plant. I expect a couple more fruits, but its production has mostly run its course. Cutting back the plant was tough. I felt unthrifty. I felt wasteful, like I was throwing away food
I felt this way, I suppose, because I was throwing food away. As I hacked away the plant’s limbs, I checked them over for any fruit I had missed. I spotted a couple. They were tiny, mottled things, half the size of my thumb. I could have let them grow. Another two weeks and they would have fed the neighbors. There are hungry people in the world, I knew. Some of them might like a zucchini.
I chucked the little fruits into the trash anyway, feeling the weight of such profligacy.
When the Garden Ends
Anyone who produces food, on whatever scale, will feel this tension. Appetites are bigger than growing seasons. The needs of the world outweigh the strength of our arms. At some point, the plants have to be cut back, down, away. The growth must stop.
The grower decides when, when the work required outweighs the reward received, when there is enough. It can be tough call. When you quit the garden, someone somewhere is going to go without. They may not starve, but they will miss the nurture you could have provided. They’ll spend money, if they have it, to buy what you could have given freely.
Yet, stop you must. The weather cools. School starts. Things change, and armed with knife and spade you wander into the garden to close it down. You make your choices and bear their weight. Closing down the garden, you unearth your limits. There, outside in the fading light, you discover the meaning of your summer work hidden beneath the leaves.