Sunday I spent several hours outside, pulling up pumpkin vines, digging up an elderly peony bed so the rudbeckia can expand next spring, cleaning out the front landscaped bed. Although I work at almost anything in the yard, my heart is really in the vegetable gardens and I am a little sad to have had to put them down. (I admit, though, that I am looking forward to a brief respite until it starts all over again.)
I learned a lot this year, this year in my gardens. For example:
1. Seeds work. If you plant and water them, chances are overwhelming that they will sprout. When I start seeds indoors next winter, I now know I don't need to plant three "for insurance" in every seedling pot. One will do it.
2. Broccoli plants grow faster and larger than anything else, especially when given a head start indoors. They then doom every plant around to live in their shadow. Next summer, those bad boys are going down to the sod garden.
3. Cilantro smells great, but I rarely used it.
4. The artichokes were beautiful, but I ran out of growing season before they even thought of flowering. They also hogged a lot of garden space once the broccoli was pulled. Next year I plan on growing them in large containers.
5. Ditto growing the cherry tomatoes in containers. Those poor little things got overshadowed by all the big tomatoes.
6. Garden charts are worthless if you start moving plants around.
7. I can't go all summer without weeding, but I don't have to be a fanatic about it. Even "lackadaisical" is adequate.
8. I'm buying onion sets next year.
9. There is no such thing as too many tomatoes, but there is such a thing as too many tomato plants in too small an area.
10. Chives live forever. Back by Warren's shed, I found stands of it from my mother-in-law's gardens of decades past. I transplanted them and, once the broccoli came down, the chives took off.
There are probably more lessons, but these are some key ones. Except for the biggest one of all: a vegetable garden is a compressed lesson in life and death.
Oh, I know, that last point sounds so obvious. Or hokey. Or both. But I have found that I sometimes get so caught up in the little pictures - the weeding, the harvesting - that I miss the Big One. So I'll say it again: a vegetable garden is a compressed lesson in life and death.
Working in the garden all season - from those first sprouts in the cold of March to pulling up the last tomato plant just this past Sunday - brought me closer to not only seeing but also understanding the cycle of life. There were miracles every time I turned around. There was the promise of spring: a sprouting seed, a swelling blossom. There was the rich season of the summer: the tomatoes weighing down the vine, the broccoli after a rain, the bees landing on and lifting off of the pumpkin and zucchini blossoms. And then there was the coming of autumn: the plants stripped of their strength, a stray tomato rotting on the ground, both gardens quietly giving way to the dark and the cold.
I try every day to look for small moments of great reward. Some days it is harder than others - not because they aren't everywhere around me, but because I am not always in the frame of mind to see them for what they are - gifts of the everyday. And every day the garden gave me countless small moments of wonder and awe, just outside, right out there in the back yard.
French existentialist Albert Camus wrote, "in the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." As I type these words, it is a cold, rainy morning. The gardens are bleak and sodden in the gray light. It is a long way from today to the first sun-warmed tomato of next summer.
But I am already imagining that first tomato, that invincible summer.