Living garden uproots usual fall tradition

November 10, 2001|By Rob Kasper

AUTUMN IS my favorite season. It used to be spring, when things swelled up with hope. But lately it has become fall, when things wrinkle and die. I might be aging.

In the fall, the temperature is moderate, the air is crisp, and you can sit in the stands in relative comfort and holler - in a constructive, supportive way - at your kids as they play football, soccer or field hockey.

Even the switch from daylight-saving time, while initially dispiriting, works to your advantage. Say you have been shanghaied into performing one of those outdoor autumnal chores: cleaning gutters, insulating windows or sucking leaves up with a nifty combination blower and sucker. According to your domestic-bliss contract, you can only work until sundown. In the fall, it gets dark early.

That means by 5 o'clock, rather than toiling in the yard, you can be in your den, stretched out in the full recline position, beverage in hand, watching college football on television - "Whoa Nellie!" You can't do that in the spring.

While this autumn has been gorgeous, a real keeper, I do have one complaint. It has been difficult, almost impossible, to say goodbye to the garden. That is because the garden has refused to die.

Normally at this time of the year, gardeners are supposed to be dealing with dead stuff, yanking out vines, tossing out frostbitten vegetables, carting off deceased herbs.

But here we are at the second Saturday of November and so far there has been a remarkable shortage of mortality. Some plants have withered, mainly because we haven't had a serious rain in weeks. We still haven't had the "black death," the killer frost that, like a Bill Maher wisecrack, sweeps over the landscape, leaving victims in its wake.

For the past few weekends I have journeyed up to my plot in the community garden of Druid Hill Park expecting to administer the last rites. But instead of me saying, "Rest in peace," the garden has greeted me with the vegetable equivalent of a "Hey, what's happening baby!"

There is a cherry tomato plant, a volunteer that is putting out progeny faster than the garden's resident warren of rabbits. The herbs, cilantro, oregano and mint basil are creeping faster than socialized medicine. And the red-hot chili peppers are still smoking.

This "not dead yet" attitude displayed by the garden has thrown me out of my seasonal choring rhythm. I have been itching to do the "fall cleanup," the garden equivalent of our former Vietnam War strategy of destroying a village in order to save it. The idea behind a good clean fall cleanup is to leave nothing standing. There should be nothing on the ground, no lingering eggplant, no spent tomatoes, and no fallen vines. These loiterers can, I have read, provide comfort to the enemy - insects and diseases looking for a place to spend the winter.

So I stand in the garden dust as a conflicted soul. I can't wait to yank things, to get to the bare ground mode, yet I can't bring myself to pull live, productive plants from the ground. Accomplished gardeners, who harvest many bountiful crops, may not have this trouble. But any time anything grows in my garden, I am amazed and grateful. Moreover, when plants not only flourish, but also linger into November, I feel it is a sign from above - or maybe even from below, down where the nematodes dwell - that I should not interfere.

Now my garden resembles the East Baltimore neighborhood near the old Flag House Courts, three public housing high-rises that were demolished last February. There are vast empty patches and then right in the middle, a few flourishing spots. On that stretch of East Baltimore landscape, the lively spot is Attman's Delicatessen. In my garden, it is that volunteer tomato plant.

Someday, serious cold weather will settle in. Then this long goodbye to the garden will be over, as will a remarkable autumn.

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