Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Confessions of a Sloppy Gardener

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Confessions of a Sloppy Gardener

Article excerpt

HARVEST is a gardener's time of reckoning and I was in disgrace this fall: I threw two bushels of tomatoes on the compost heap after I had skinned, seeded, and stewed them down to sauce. They spoiled in the preserving pan. Each day for five days I gave them the hour I could spare, but the Indian summer heat claimed them first. I wasted work as well as fruit - the worst loss I remember in 10 years of gardening.

Of course, I expect waste and loss in any garden. The frost or the potato bugs always claim their share. One year my sister stacked her bumper Marglobes in milk crates three deep on the mud porch, waiting for a free day to put them up. When her food co-op met in her kitchen, the fruit flies found the treasurer's perfume from two rooms away and orbited the poor woman's head in a frenzy the whole evening.

I laughed that year and told my sister the fruit flies knew better than she that she couldn't do everything. Tasting my own fermented sauce last month, I spent less time laughing and more time listing excuses for the season's poor show: The dry summer stunted the carrots, my July vacation gave the weeds a head start, the August heat took away my drive to work in the sun.

But no matter how I excused it, the garden was a mess. And no unfinished project is as brazen as a neglected garden. Old knitting folds neatly in a drawer, but a garden once begun keeps growing over and under. Among the yellow cucumbers, squat and bitter from the drought, a thousand grass flowers waved their stick flags, broadcasting enough seed for millions more next year.

Yet even a neglected garden holds surprises. I was grateful for red peppers from the green ones I never froze on time, and for the rogue dill that commanded a bed of its own. The dill produced giant flower heads to give to friends and enough seed to compete with that witchgrass in spring. The stunted corn grew tiny ears, one to each sunburned stalk. They weren't worth harvesting, so we ate them raw in the garden, sweeter than any we ever steamed and buttered in the house.

We did bring in bushels of potatoes to the cellar and a half a freezer full of beans, but still I felt guilty about the waste. As in most rural areas, around here gardening and preserving replace housekeeping and lawn mowing as the touchstones of a tidy life. This year I did not measure up to the standards and every day something reminded me how I failed.

My friend Alice, who somehow never fails the season's test, called to complain about the harvest work. "I'm exhausted," she said. "We've put up 55 pounds of beans and 40 quarts of tomatoes since Sunday. Yesterday I canned 12 quarts of peach butter. Not as much as last year, but then it's been so dry."

I hung up depressed. Alice mailed me her recipe for the zucchini bread my daughter Emma loved when we last visited. …

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