Digging out after summer gardens grow with zeal

August 27, 2005|By ROB KASPER

IN AUGUST, the garden riots. The lemon balm that was prim and pint-size in April becomes as broad and bushy as a Ravens lineman. The mint, which seemed to be submissive in May, spreads faster than Quiznos on a four-lane highway. The watermelon and its viny kin push beyond the proper boundaries, testing the neighborliness of anything they entwine. The sunflowers are so tall and tough you don't dare try to correct their posture.

Then there are the tomatoes, once a prized crop, now a surplus commodity, something like government cheese. There are more than the supper table can handle. The neighbors, who earlier took a few tomatoes off your hands and pretended to be thrilled, now don't answer their doorbell. You take extras to work, but suddenly everybody seems to be on vacation. Hours of picking in the sun now earn you the right to spend even more hours in a steamy kitchen, turning the tomatoes into sauce.

Planting all these crops seemed like such a good idea in April when the air and your enthusiasm were fresh. The other day as I toiled in the late August sun, trying to bring some semblance of order to the tangle of vegetation, a parallel came to mind. The summer garden, I thought, is like your kid's bedroom. It starts off neat and planned, but as the days wear on, disarrangement rules. Welter begets welter and by the time the kid is headed back to school, it is a jumble in there.

I took some consolation in the notion that I was not alone, that other area gardeners had been overwhelmed, maybe even "whupped" by vegetation. It also occurred to me that with this weekend's prediction of milder-than-normal temperatures, lots of folks could be wading into the leafage and settling some scores.

Sure enough, when I checked with Michelle Motsko, the heirloom tomato lady, she reported that she, too, was paddling hard just to keep pace with the torrent from her garden. In the spring, I visited her garden on the grounds of McDonogh School, where she lives with her husband, Andy, a member of the school faculty, and their three children. She put close to 100 heirloom tomato plants in her garden. The plants prospered and have provided her with a steady stream, make that a flood, of produce and kitchen duties.

She cans tomatoes; this summer she has put up 49 quarts. She makes salsa and sauce. And she picks tomatoes, and more tomatoes, and more tomatoes. Recently she stopped picking cherry tomatoes, sweet but small and therefore hard to handle. After her family returned from vacation, the resulting tomato harvest was so large that it swallowed up the kitchen, consuming countertops, the island and the kitchen table. Lately when she leaves home for work, she carries not only her briefcase, but also a large bag of tomatoes to give to co-workers at her law firm, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary in Towson.

Besides correcting for the enthusiasms of April, August often makes gardeners reflective. We vow to plan better next year and to plant fewer crops.

Motsko told me that while this year she harvested some terrific-tasting Green Zebras, Aunt Gertie's Gold and Marianne's Peace tomatoes, next year she was going to curtail her plantings. No sprawlers, she said, explaining in an e-mail that next year she is only going to put as many tomato plants in the ground as she has tomato cages to hold them.

Of course gardeners, those of us drawn to the dirt, are a fickle bunch. We have been known to say one thing -- that we are going to plant fewer crops -- then do another, such as put enough plants in the ground to feed an army.

This week, for instance, after I had ripped out some aggressive cucumbers and dug out some menacing mint, I eyed the resulting patch of bare ground. That space looked alluring. It looked like the ideal place to plant an autumn crop of lettuce.

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