Last cuke on the vine

'TIS the last rose of summer left blooming alone, sang Thomas Moore as he smote his bloomin' lyre (the Irish lyricist was a musician as well as a poet). All to the good, but it is never the last rose of summer that gives me a pang - if you care to see me weep, come around when I reap my last cucumber with chill fingers while the first frost hovers, about to settle in to bring summer to an end. This time we got to the end of October with cucumbers still current, but like Easter the date is movable and Maine has been known to get ice around the edges as early as late August. On average, the September full moon does the job and we rise to a golden dawn that is almost, but not quite, as good as a cucumber. But the gold is false and fleeting, and daylight shifts to white rime and, as the air warms, a drip. When the sun hits the cucumber vines they blacken and give up, and it occurs to me that no Thomas Moore has ever penned a paean to the last cucumber of summer.

My passion for cucumbers is permitted to be rampant only in the cucumber season. I do not, and will not, buy one in the market in the off-season. I did once, and they are not the same. In season, I take a reasonable portion at mealtime - breakfast, dinner, and supper - and I keep a salt shaker, protected from rain and dew by a flowerpot, in the garden so I may nibble between whiles. I do use the same shaker on an occasional tumultuous tomato, if it is perfectly ready, but I can go an hour or two without a tomato. Accordingly my study of the cucumber in its native haunt has been rewarding, and I am an authority on its career and habits.

I used to remark that only man goes for cucumbers, and not all of them; ``I like cucumbers but cucumbers don't like me.'' But I learned that I was wrong about that. Over the years I had noticed that the customary garden varmints had poached everything except cucumbers. The hopping bunny would come now and then to borrow some lettuce and sometimes touch up the carrots, but he never foraged under the cucumber vines. The woodchuck, until curbed, would molest the green peas and the string beans, but he left the cucumbers alone. Even potatoes were fair game - an occasional mole will dig into a hill and chew holes. Then the raccoon goes for the sweet corn. But mole and 'coon seem not to favor cucumbers, so that all in all I decided man is the cucumber's only enemy. But I learned five or seven summers ago that this is not so. A deer wandered by (easily known by hoof prints) and picked one of my cucumbers in passing. He neglected to detach his prey, so that the whole cucumber vine went along with him as he returned to the wilderness. Thus I was convinced that deer, and man, eat cucumbers, and I have meant for some time to do a monograph about this and get published in the Colby Library Quarterly.

I grow two kinds of cucumbers - the picklers and the slicers. Those that make pickles extend things into the winter and I'm grateful, but it is the slicers that please me on the hoof and make each moment of my cucumber season a joy. Both kinds provide the getaways - the cukes that get missed in the plucking exercises each morning and continue to grow until they are big, fat, yellow, and useless. I look, and I never see them until one day they perk up and are perfectly visible from two rods away. I am always sad at finding one of these getaways, for each is a cucumber I am not going to eat. Some people have been known to make a sweet pickle from ripe and overripe cucumbers, but such depravity is inexcusable as an extremity in the philosophy of make do. Better pickles can be had.

When the first frost hovers, about to descend, I give equal opportunity to all the sass, as required. I get the green tomatoes and the peppers, the squash and the pumpkins, and certain posies, housed, and then I make a ceremonial tour of the cucumber patch, gathering all from the biggest getaway to the tiniest pickler that is still wearing its blossom. Some are saved for the pickle jars, and I save a few slicers to lengthen the summer - not too many, for cucumbers wilt in the refrigerator and do not last that well on the shelf. ``This,'' I say one day, ``is the last cucumber, the end of summer, and I'll have it for supper.'' Here in Maine it is prudent to delay planting cucumbers until June 15. The ground is warm, the bugs have waned, and they'll produce as soon as cucumbers seeded earlier. I plant cucumbers June 15. Gives me something to look forward to during the meantime.

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