Sunday, December 25, 2005

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Although I heard it in a different context, somehow it seems like the right thing to do for a garden - never put it to bed without a good meal.

Besides, its a damp, fifty degree autumn morning and a little spading and raking will allow me to barbecue our lunchtime hamburgers without having to lean my chilled torso over the flames for warmth.

But most importantly it's one of the things that I do to keep the gardening season from finally slipping away into the black hole of winter inactivity. And to let the garden gods of spring know that I'll see them again on the other side of the cold weather.

Some of us horticulturists are like that - unable to accept the inevitable fact that the physical part of the gardening season will cease for the next one hundred thirty days or so. (The imaginative aspect , on the other hand, goes on forever - even sometimes in the face of direct contradictions from the real world.)

This year my denial began in late September with a steadfast refusal to believe that my tomato plants had actually stopped producing. First I sulked. Then I snipped off all the branches that looked totally dead.

A few days later, after sulking again, I removed those that had no signs of potential life - such as tiny fruits, flowers or flower-wannabes.

Several more days, two or three more sulks, and I severed anything that wasn't actually supporting a living tomato - of whatever size. If none existed then finally and regretfully I removed the plant. What I now had left was a single stalk, with a single branch, with a single green fruit, firmly attached to a single green plastic stake by an overabundance of velcro tie-strips.

This lasted for a couple of weeks until I finally admitted to myself that the plastic support pole actually looked healthier than the plant itself . So I sulked again. Stamped my feet a few times. Uttered a couple of adult, non-gardening phrases and, with a heavy heart, ripped out the desolate plant. And sulked.

Uprooting plants that have stopped producing is fun in midseason when the sun is hot on your shoulders and the possibility of another crop that year is likely. Doing it on a cold, overcast day is the absolute pits - a feeling of total surrender to the inevitable.

But this year I was still able to put off the final stripping of my garden thanks to the mid-September arrival of five eggplants. Although they didn't develop much beyond their late September size and color, they at least remained alive looking enough to let me pretend that I was watering and nurturing them until mid-October. And the plant's leaves remained thick and healthy. Which allowed me not to end up with a purple-fruited replica of the solitary tomato at the other end of the otherwise empty vegetable plot.

I also planted grass seed. This past year we re-landscaped our front yard and had two small crab trees removed leaving us with several new significant areas of bare dirt, in addition to a multitude of smaller patches of nonproductive soil that already dotted my front lawn.

I tried filling some of these areas in July when we finished putting in most of our new plantings - but the results were as limp as my body felt after preparing the yard and spreading the seed. For whatever reason, I thought grass growing was a warm weather project. But the folks at Stonehedge Nursery told me otherwise.

That was all I needed to convince myself that the yard immediately required a few more heavy doses of my homemade topsoil/compost/peat moss casserole to prepare it for its tiny, pre-emergent seed visitors - most of whom, with the help of several feet of rain, have now appeared in all of their bright green Spring glory.

And finally I decided to turn the vegetable garden. Truthfully this is my absolute, most favorite gardening task of all. As a result, I deliberately choose it to mark both the beginning and the end of the growing season.

In the Spring it awakens my gardening muscles from their off-season dormancy and introduces the over-wintered soil, strengthened by its pre-hibernation meal, to the warming world with a nourishing breakfast of nutrients.

In the Fall it fattens up the dirt for its long winter nap, imbeds the motions and strains of the effort into my muscle memory for the winter, and states my commitment to remain on the right side of the dirt for another season.

I've performed the Autumnal part of this ritual, with minor variations, for the past several years now.

The recipe is pretty constant - compost from my bin, peat moss and composted cow manure from my pile of plastic bagged dirt additives, and pine needles from the ground around those trees.

The amounts differ - enough compost to cover the garden one layer thick, about half that much of needles, about one quarter of the manure bag and however much peat moss is left in the bag. I lug the ingredients to the garden and spread them evenly across the surface, and turn them into the soil once by hand.

This year I'm leaving the clods of dirt intact and the tossed-and-turned garden unraked.

Symbolism is important here.

I want to make sure that everyone concerned, the garden, mother nature and myself, realize that in spite of the interruptions of the seasons, nothing in this life is ever really completed, even though the change of seasons may make it seem as if they are.

And that whatever you harvest in the future depends upon the ground that you are laying right now.

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