Summer’s Passing An (only slightly bitter) ode to the southern garden

Every year is different, but the momentous shifts always resonate in the same way. There has not been a day that quite felt cool yet, but the sun hangs lower in the sky. In our home–designed to suck in the winter rays–the shift is not subtle. The tulip poplar leaves have started to fall; a few places that are usually shaded now see dappled sunlight.

The anticipation of my favorite time of year builds every day. I can almost smell it–though not quite yet.

Past are the exhausting weeks of late July when you resent planting such a big garden because every spare moment is spent frenetically processing the harvest and the heat and mosquitoes make it miserable to be outside. There’s no time to enjoy anything because all your hard work will have been in vain if you let it rot in the field because you didn’t make time to put it up.

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The people who write garden books do not live in the South. If you leave your beans to dry on the vine, you get sprouted beans. Though Weston A. Price would pat me on the back, I can’t save these for next year’s crop.

Past are the ugly weeks of early August when everything is diseased and you want to move to Maine. The weeks where you almost pull out the tomatoes because half of them are blighted, but you don’t because you have a vague memory that there comes a point where some of them overcome adversity and make something else worth eating. The weeks where nothing is fun because it really is too early to do any fall garden preparation of any kind, so you can’t even pretend like it’s time to move on.

We are nearing the end of the long, wretched couple of months when doing garden tasks actually requires having childcare or just hoping the kids don’t kill each other because no one will even contemplate coming outside with you. You’ve also uncovered various nests of baby copperheads among your vegetables and the fire ants are everywhere, so you don’t really want them to join you, anyway.

Radical acceptance is not just for parenting. There came a point when you realized that you clearly planted your garden just so the bugs would be well nourished. They eat different things each year, and you mourn and try not to count the hours you spent getting the crop established.

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It’s okay, you can have the beans. You are really lovely and there are a lot of beans.

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so...

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so…

Tasty fennel.

Tasty fennel.

No, really, go right ahead.

No, really, go right ahead.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

The history of the Great Plains.

The history of the Great Plains.

It has taken a decade to become proficient in the garden. My expectations and time horizon for doing and learning have stretched with each season that passes. In the early years I was likely to be more upset when things went “wrong.” I still cried when the birds ate my entire sorghum crop this year, but I’ve learned to start enough experimental crops that something is likely to go right.

Being a scientist means that I don’t like taking other people’s word for things, so I often try to grow crops that everyone says can’t be grown here or attempt what seems an ingenious solution to a problem, only to realize there’s a damn good reason people don’t do it that way. But there are also successes, and I take note of the failures and move on. My soil gets better every year. The garden gets bigger with less effort each year as I become a better steward of the earth I work with.

They say don't plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don't plant moldy roots.

They say don’t plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don’t plant moldy roots.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop, but it turned out to be the perfect place to start late summer lettuce for the fall.

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

At some point this summer I stopped worrying and started bringing the camera to the garden. It’s early September. The plants that are going to survive have made up their minds to do so. Much of the fall garden is planted and this year the seedlings are actually thriving. Arugula, radishes, tatsoi, collards, carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, kale, and lettuce are raising their tender heads.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I've not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won't be disturbed.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I’ve not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won’t be disturbed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Sickly ladybug

Sickly ladybug

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

Hello baby tree frog!

Hello baby tree frog!

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

I still suit up in my loose long sleeves and pants tucked into my socks before heading out. I still end up with ant bites in odd places. But this morning it was 67 degrees and the winter squash and pumpkins are screaming autumn. So much of the spring is spent planning for summer, but it’s the least pleasant time to actually be in the garden.

Goodbye summer, thank you for all the fresh food you gave us. We’ll remember you all through the fall as we enjoy the tomatoes sauce, pesto, pickled cucumbers, and gallons of beans I’ve put up these past few months.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m not the slightest bit sad to see you go.