The vegetable garden, once orderly and under control, has gone wild.
Sorrel’s yellow flowers, and a rainbow of yellow, red and pink chard line the path to my studio. Blue bachelor buttons have folded in with the blue-green fronds of lacinato kale and the emerald green of ripening peppers. Snapdragons thrust their spires up through tomato vines that sag under the weight of red globes, and hotly colored zinnias (red, orange and pink), five feet tall, lean against the tops of the tomatoes. Butternut squash vines, once contained in a single raised bed, wind, like the aggressive wisteria vines above, over three raised beds, dripping golden fruits into blue stone paths (where it is warmest) and into the remnants of the green bean patch. The birdbath is smothered in a riot of green and white nasturtium leaves with red, yellow and orange blossoms. Bright blue morning glories twist with red runner beans, orange honeysuckle vines and white blooming fall clematis over the trellis by the studio door. The artichoke plants are crowned with brilliant blue/purple thistle flowers that measure five inches across.
I grow the artichokes purely for looks. I have been waiting for them to flower because I love to feast my eyes on the vegetable garden as much as I like to feast from it.
The garden now resembles a watercolor painting. Where there used to be a simple geometric design and the straight rows of vegetables were lapped together like the strips in a log pattern quilt, swirls of greens and yellow; red, purple and brown; whites and blues have exploded, creating the happy accidents of color and light that can happen in a painting (sometimes these watery accidents are so extraordinary, it feels as if someone else snuck into my studio and made the beautiful marks). Early September most years, I am reminded that a large part of my reason for tending a garden is the chance to relish the beauty of the comings and goings of colors and textures, the different moods, and the fact that so much of the garden is out of my control.
What is it about a vegetable garden that could possibly be beautiful, you ask? Is it in the arrangement of organic shapes and colors? Is it the promise of food? Or is it something more spiritual, something “other” that inspires most of us to take such pleasure?
I bring the colors and textures from the garden straight into the kitchen with armfuls of flowers and baskets of vegetables (edible palettes of color and taste) during summer’s last few weeks of abundance. Cole slaw, which used to be pale and flaccid, is now made with purple cabbage and fresh orange-red carrots, lemon juice and mint to cool the tongue. The different hues of heirloom tomatoes — red, orange, yellow (some have green marbleized skin!) — are chopped into a simple salad, with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil, or better yet can be rolled into a more filling salad with the addition of day-old bread and grilled yellow and red peppers (this is a Mediterranean confection, called panzanella).
I fry or grill slim glossy purple eggplants and fatter white eggplants, then marinate them in vinegar with garlic and mint, and dress them with a nasturtium flower. I mix the tiniest most colorful potatoes I can find — yellow, red, purple — bake them in a slow oven, toss them with oil, then add a handful of chopped fresh rosemary and just cracked pepper. Slicing a deep red beet, I find layers of red and white that surprise me every time, and then I toss the boiled red beets with yellow beets in a vinaigrette dressing (the yellow is soon turned into a beautiful orange stained by the red; wet watercolor washes mix beautiful colors on their own). Even a simple corn salad, yellow and white, with red and green peppers, seems a small miracle.
My friend Judy’s pepper plants are covered with green, yellow, white and red peppers that hang like old-fashioned lights on a Christmas tree. My friend Eileen grows tiny watermelons whose mottled green skins are so beautiful sometimes I have to rush one into the studio — not the kitchen — in order to paint it.
I gaze out my pantry window at the colorful riot, my garden, only just barely contained by a hedge (the yellow clematis is scrambling over the top and headed for the neighbor’s place). The zinnias are brilliant color chips, the tangle of leaves and vines below them are green washes, and the brilliant blue purple of the artichoke flowers (a color I have not yet been able to mix in my painting studio) flashes up at the sky.