It's the season to give garden a long goodbye

October 01, 2005|By ROB KASPER

October is our golden month, delivering a stretch of pleasant weather that makes it easy to remain idle, to behave like the grasshopper not the ant.

A quirk of the calendar gives us five weekends this October. Tempted as I am to use them lolling in the autumnal sunshine, I know I have to get cracking and start saying my long goodbye to the vegetable garden.

There are a couple of ways to say farewell to your garden. One is to let the frost do the bulk of the work. A frost sweeps in like a banshee, leveling everything and leaving you with the task of removing the deceased. This is the unplanned end to the gardening year. It can be embarrassing, the equivalent of your cows getting out of their pasture or, in Baltimore County, letting your bison escape from the farm. It is evidence that you aren't on top of things. It has happened to me several times.

Another is to go through the garden like Sherman went through Atlanta or the University of Baltimore went through the Odorite building, leveling everything in your path. It is brutal, but efficient, with no time for deliberations about what is worth keeping. I have done that a few times as well.

This year I am trying a new tactic, stretching out the adieu. I am saying goodbye to my rented garden plot in Druid Hill Park one section at a time over a series of weekends. I have become the grim weekend reaper.

The watermelons were among the first to go. Every gardener should have at least one surprise crop, something that you aren't counting on. Watermelon has been that crop for me. I have grown several different kinds over several different years, none was especially successful but each crop was fascinating to watch.

The vines grow at a furious pace, stretching out faster than a teenager. And like a teenager's room, a watermelon patch becomes a world unto itself, dark and almost impenetrable. Secrets lurk within it as I discovered a few weeks ago when I happened upon two large watermelons, hunkered in a corner.

Nature punishes such neglect, and the two melons - big, green Moon and Stars variety - had not been missed by creatures who roam this realm. Critters had chewed holes about the size of a fist in both of the melons. Once the door to melon flesh was open, others had joined in the feast. I tried to lift up one of the fractured melons, but scores of angry yellow jackets rose up in protest. I quickly honored their objections, dropped the melon and skedaddled. A few days later, when the melons were spent, I returned and safely carted off their empty shells to a compost pile.

As I yanked the watermelon vines out of the ground, I discovered little treasures, small melons that held out the promise of a sweeter tomorrow. I had to be heartless. No matter how "cute" those little watermelons were, no matter how proud I might have been that I grew them, their time had passed. Earl Weaver used to say that the hardest part of being a big league manager was telling a kid, who had been a star up to this point in his life, that he wasn't good enough to play in the majors. For a gardener the equivalent, I think, is tossing away the green fruit as you start your fall cleanup.

The goal of these cleanup efforts is to get to bare ground. Bare ground, the garden books preach, is an excellent defense against pests - flea beetles, cucumber beetles and harlequin bugs - that like to spend the winter curled up in the plants, or in debris on the soil. This winter motel extends down about 6 inches, so once the watermelon patch was bare, I put a shovel in the ground and turned over the top 8 inches of soil. I will do the same thing in future weekends to other parts of the garden.

The other evening the fading light in the garden put me in a reflective mood. Gardening reminds me in vivid ways that there is a cycle to life, a shift of seasons. But it can be a hard message to accept. I am getting ready for winter, the dead season, by taking most of the garden back to bare ground. But at the same time, in another corner of the plot, I am in denial, planting lettuce seeds and hoping mild weather will let me harvest them. Fall could be my favorite time of the year, if only winter didn't follow it.

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