My sister-in-law is about to come down with a bad case of mid-summer gardening fatigue. I can sense it creeping up on her — and many others — as it does every year right about now, just as the birds are quieting down from their early nesting hoopla, just as the sun hits its warm stride, just as vegetable gardens in New England reach their peak. In a couple of weeks she’ll vow to shrink her garden beds to more manageable size next year, but come spring, out she’ll go, merrily designing the layout, perhaps even an expansion, planting and transplanting as though there was no such thing as mid-July doldrums.
Her vegetable garden is stunning: bursting with the bushiest, tallest basil I have ever seen, tomato plants the height of a tall man, winter squash that meanders merrily over and through its neighbors and its neighbors’ neighbors. It’s an Edenesque place for vegetables. Everything seems to grow well there. No sulking peppers, no stunted cucumbers, no late blight, no ravenous flea beetles. Only a few varmints of the woodchuck persuasion to keep things interesting.
Of course to have it this good means her garden is not in Addison County, or anywhere in Vermont for that matter. She lives by the sea near Boston and gardens in soil we’d have to spend a small fortune to truck in; her beds bask in soft air that vegetables of all sorts seem to love. With conditions like these, you could produce a good deal of your own food. Which she does. But it’s almost too much of a good thing — keeping up with the evolving, expanding demands: the weeding, the watering (or wringing out), and especially, the harvesting. Everything teeters on the edge of chaos, at least to human eyes.
Like many gardeners, she is filled with enthusiasm each spring as she designs the garden layout, sows seeds and tends to the wonder of new growth; she gladly pulls young weeds and welcomes the scent and feel of the warming earth. And late June-early July is fine, too, with all its firsts: first peas, first potatoes, first cukes, first tomatoes. Everything tastes so good. Everything is a pleasure to pick and care for. But all right already. As the season wears on, the weeds are increasingly impossible to handle; the bugs are biting through the heaviest of shirts … and doesn’t anyone ever get to relax?
By about now she’s giving away buckets of vegetables (a good thing) and trying to find new recipes for zucchini and green beans and eggplant (not such a good thing). She’s warily eyeing all those tomatoes ripening, knowing full well that even a single cherry tomato plant is tough to keep up with after she gets home from her long day at the office. She feels guilt’s press as she watches all those beans and cukes and zukes growing to monstrous proportions … it’s the stuff of nightmares when you don’t have a contest for the biggest vegetables in your town.
Indeed. Another friend, likewise suffering from gardening fatigue, has dreams of giant vegetables growing like kudzu right up her windows, forming an impenetrable wall in a scene straight out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Another confessed that he can’t wait for the broccoli to bolt, the kale to stop throwing out leaves. It’s all a bit too much.
How many gardens make it to this point and then fizzle out because their caretaker contracts mid-season fatigue? A lot, I imagine. There’s help, though, a prescription of sorts, a way through the Ides of July, so hang in there and take heart. And if the following tips don’t help, I’d be happy to bring you some of the rabbits who hang out in my garden. They’ll straighten things out in no time.
1. Next year, plant in waves. If you can’t bear to shrink your garden, go ahead, order all those seeds from shiny catalogues in the depths of winter but don’t lose your head and plant everything within the same week. Sow cool season varieties as soon as you can work the soil, then in late May long-season winter squash and corn and a smattering of the rest. A smattering — not the entire packet. Plant another wave in the middle of June, and a third about now. And if you like, sow fall crops at the end of July-early August knowing that an early frost might well get them before you do. All season long, you’ll have tender young plants to please the eye, vegetables to please the stomach —but not too many of any.
2. Mulch well after the plants are thriving, and then don’t worry too much about weeds. When you stroll through your garden on a weekend morning, pull a weed here and there, sure, but don’t get all perfectionist about it.
3. Thin the rows, pinch the flowers (and eat them). Give your plants plenty of room (see my June 16 column, “Minding the Gap,” www.addisonindependent.com/201106patchwork-minding-gap-gardening-mid-june), and if you’ve overplanted, dig some seedlings out and give them away or add them to the compost pile knowing that they will feed next year’s crop.
With vegetables you grow for the fruit — summer squash, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes — pinch off a third to a half of the flowers. You won’t harm the plants, and the remaining fruit will benefit from your efforts. Nipping the zucchini problem in the bud will keep their output reasonable and give you delicious blossoms to sauté for dinner stuffed with fresh goat cheese from one of the county’s cheese makers (see my “Eating and Drinking Flowers” article from last Aug. 5: www.addisonindependent.com/201008patchwork-three-gardens-many-kitchens).
4. Give your overflow to the food shelf or gleaning project. There is no need to think you have to eat all that food — your garden can contribute to the larger community’s good health.
5. Get your family, friends and neighbors to garden together. In your garden. Create your own little community garden. Invite people to help you plant, tend, reap, cook, eat. Treat it as special time — you can talk and weed at the same time. Send an email to everyone you know to help themselves to all that yummy squash.
If necessary, bribe them.
6. Remember the health benefits of growing your own food—all that stretching and pulling and moving around as well as all that healthful food. Think of the exercise, the nutrients; you don’t have to leave home for either.
7. Treat gardening as meditation as much as labor. When I taught full time, working in the garden was relaxing, even meditative, a way to reconnect directly through the senses to the wonders of this earth. The garden beckons as a place where everything slows for a moment and I really listen, feel, see, smell (and of course, taste).
8. Buy a freezer. A big one if you can. Even bigger. Stock up for winter. Soup and more soup.
9. Enlist your pet’s help. Teach your dog to love peas and zucchini and eggplant, how to go out to the garden by himself and pick whatever he wants.
10. Ask me for some of the wild rabbits hanging about in my garden.