Sunday, August 30, 2009

8.28.09. The curtain falls

It feels like the day the circus left town. Cool, cloudy, silent.

The temperature is in the sixties. It’s been a couple of weeks since we saw sixties once the sun was up. Now when I get out of bed, my first act is to pull down a window. Other factors add to the mood; Kennedy’s death, the end (some say) of an era. But I live closer to home, as I suspect most of us do. Yesterday was dry and clear, low seventies, but almost unbelievably sun-filled. If you walked in the sun you felt warm, even hot, though the humidity had vanished. But today somebody has turned the lights out. I get up, close the windows, and all day walk under a cloud on what feels like an emptied stage. Everyone has stepped back. No one is in a hurry, not the way they were. No one is shouting. School is in the offing according to the calendar of the world; that’s part of it too, I suppose. But every year there is a day when summer is over; hot, sticky weather has slipped off the stage, to the regret of some, the cheers of others; the season is over.

We will miss it, because there is something special about “warm” weather in a cool climate. The state and quality of the air itself, the element we breathe and wear on our skin, is what mean by “it” when we ask, “what’s it like?” (It’s hot; it’s going to rain; it’s lousy again.) The vaguest and most universal references are carried by “it.” Generally, it’s the weather.

For several weeks the weather was warm, sometimes hot, sometimes sticky; now it’s not. It may not be back. Today I salute its passage.

During a spell of classic summer weather you wake up in the morning knowing it’s warm out, the day’s first sensation, because the windows are open and the air feels like – room temperature. You know it’s warm “out,” because “out” is in. Warm out (summer, to most of us) is when room temperature has moved outdoors. It’s easy to be there, it’s easy to be here, it’s easy to be anywhere because everywhere is warm. Something in your body relaxes. Something that wants to be outdoors.

This leads to the phenomenon one of my garden books calls “outdoor living.” A marketing slogan, but there’s something to it.

We make of the outdoors another room. A big room if you have a big space, an ordinary room if the space is small. You decorate it, you make it comfortable. You make a place to sit. A place to eat. A place to cook, if conditions permit.All this works best if the weather is right. So you wait for the weather to get warm. Warm is the desirable state if you are going to sit outdoors. Warm is “natural.” Natural leads you out of doors, and outdoors you have plants. Even if you don’t mean to, you share your space with some kind of plant life, because they just grow there. They come in uninvited.

If you are a gardener, or become one, you want to work with your plants. You want to make a difference. You do something so they do something. There is a cooperative feel, a connection. In some of us the connection “grows” – it’s impossible not to use garden metaphors; they’re everywhere – into something more elaborate, more conscious. We have dirt under our fingernails.

Even if we don’t have the time or the inclination to get our hands dirty in our own outdoor living space, we want to sit on a deck (or a patio, or a lawn, or a flat space of some sort) and stare at something green. We might decide we want some color, a blossom or two, in which case we are lured into that interconnection with the nutritive, generative, “naturally” growing world I referenced above. (This way to the universe!)

All this because the weather is ‘nice.’ It’s the ‘right’ weather to go outdoors. It’s room temperature out there. It’s warm; it’s what we mean by summer. You don’t want to waste a moment of it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poor harvests and other disappointments of the soul

So let this year be known as the year without tomatoes. That’s what they told me at the garden center when I offered my lament on the unwonted sparseness of my garden’s tomato crop: “Nobody has tomatoes.” Businesslike shake of the head. “This is the year without tomatoes.”

I did have many squash plants, which turned out – in a chastening demonstration of the foolish bravado of my ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ philosophy of anarchistic gardening – to be all pumpkin plants. Which plants proceeded to take over the garden, string themselves from tomato pole to tomato pole (not that the underpopulated tomato plants were particularly in need of support to hold the weight of their nonexistent fruit), and develop the easily foreseeable rash of spotted white mildew disease which has spoiled my previous efforts to grow squashes in this garden. We do have a half dozen petite pumpkins, about the size of hardballs, only the largest one – smaller than a gym class spud ball – indisputably saying pumpkin to the casual observer. These winter squashes will ripen, but will get no bigger since their plants are succumbing to the white mildew epidemic, so I am working hard to stimulate a cutting edge fashion for decorator petite pumpkins.

I cut off the silky leaves of the squash plants when they develop chalky white spots, leaving behind the maimed yellow stalks which look like cracked piping to nowhere. I have changed the geometry of the vegetable garden several times already this summer, adding new seedlings, new rounds of bean seeds, encouraging the squash runners to use the metal funnel-shaped pea supports, then cutting them back when the leaves diseased. With dead or non-productive foliage removed, more sun gets in now, but for late August the pickings are thin. The basil plants, freed from competition for sun – once summer sun arrived in the very last days of July – have rebounded, growing bushy new leaves. My culinary daughter Sonya is here and harvests them aplenty. The skinny, mostly naked sweet pepper plants have begun to set tiny peppers, the largest maybe two inches long. Some are mere tiny green circles emerging from white flowers. But the tomato plants are not making new flowers and so to all appearances have closed the book on their miniscule haul of round red fruit.

So yesterday, finding myself in a local garden shop in search of herbs for our expanded “spice garden” (Sonya’s literary term for it), I came across vigorous, healthy potted tomato and pepper plants for a dollar apiece, already bearing more fruit on thick leafy branches than a dollar will buy in the grocery store, and snapped up a few. The two new tomato plants are ‘beefsteak,’ a variety I would not ordinarily choose because of its hubristic name, but their fat green offspring are a welcome sight. I looked forward to popping them in the ground and trusting in nature the rest of the way.

Now here’s the problem. I planned to pull out the current, moribund inhabitants of and re-use their stakes. However, when I give said post-productive plants a close, last look before yanking them, my tender heart imagines I spy new growth, a greener green, near the top of the main stem and reasons if there are new leaves then surely there may be new yellow flowers, and if flowers then fruit. Never mind we are speaking of Aug. 23, and when will this prophesied new fruit mature? I am a holdout for late season comebacks. A late-life daydream believer.

The old ones stay. I fit the three new fat plants in between. Sports writers would call it a late-season acquisition.