Confessions of a Sloppy Gardener

HARVEST is a gardener's time of reckoning and I was in disgrace this fall: I threw two bushels of tomatoes on the compost heap after I had skinned, seeded, and stewed them down to sauce. They spoiled in the preserving pan. Each day for five days I gave them the hour I could spare, but the Indian summer heat claimed them first. I wasted work as well as fruit - the worst loss I remember in 10 years of gardening. Of course, I expect waste and loss in any garden. The frost or the potato bugs always claim their share. One year my sister stacked her bumper Marglobes in milk crates three deep on the mud porch, waiting for a free day to put them up. When her food co-op met in her kitchen, the fruit flies found the treasurer's perfume from two rooms away and orbited the poor woman's head in a frenzy the whole evening.

I laughed that year and told my sister the fruit flies knew better than she that she couldn't do everything. Tasting my own fermented sauce last month, I spent less time laughing and more time listing excuses for the season's poor show: The dry summer stunted the carrots, my July vacation gave the weeds a head start, the August heat took away my drive to work in the sun.

But no matter how I excused it, the garden was a mess. And no unfinished project is as brazen as a neglected garden. Old knitting folds neatly in a drawer, but a garden once begun keeps growing over and under. Among the yellow cucumbers, squat and bitter from the drought, a thousand grass flowers waved their stick flags, broadcasting enough seed for millions more next year.

Yet even a neglected garden holds surprises. I was grateful for red peppers from the green ones I never froze on time, and for the rogue dill that commanded a bed of its own. The dill produced giant flower heads to give to friends and enough seed to compete with that witchgrass in spring. The stunted corn grew tiny ears, one to each sunburned stalk. They weren't worth harvesting, so we ate them raw in the garden, sweeter than any we ever steamed and buttered in the house.

We did bring in bushels of potatoes to the cellar and a half a freezer full of beans, but still I felt guilty about the waste. As in most rural areas, around here gardening and preserving replace housekeeping and lawn mowing as the touchstones of a tidy life. This year I did not measure up to the standards and every day something reminded me how I failed.

My friend Alice, who somehow never fails the season's test, called to complain about the harvest work. ``I'm exhausted,'' she said. ``We've put up 55 pounds of beans and 40 quarts of tomatoes since Sunday. Yesterday I canned 12 quarts of peach butter. Not as much as last year, but then it's been so dry.''

I hung up depressed. Alice mailed me her recipe for the zucchini bread my daughter Emma loved when we last visited. ``Why don't you ever bake bread like Alice?'' Emma complained. Bending to her pressure, I baked the bread. Four loaves of Alice's zucchini bread called for a quarter of the softball bat I rescued from under the vines. I could have baked that bread till Christmas and still had zucchini left.

My husband tried to soothe my guilt when we brought in the pumpkins. ``Just pretend we are French peasants,'' he said, ``growing more than we need for the love of gardening and to till the surplus under to feed the soil.''

The fantasy was fun, but I was not fooled. I knew we were Americans this year: We planted everything we could think of in double the amounts we needed, just because the space was there. Good starters, big talkers, we had forsaken craft and perseverance for wide open spaces and dreams.

The international stories chastised me even more because I know about the politics of food. For years I have criticized this country's abundance and waste in a world where people starve and resources dwindle.

One year my English father-in-law fell to his knees when he saw our garden. He entire back yard in the north of England would fit inside our potato plot. He grew lettuce among his roses all his life and he shamed us with his vision of our field as orchards and greenhouses and terraces of flowers and food.

The guilt was powerful enough, but even more than guilty, I felt sad. For the truth about my garden is that after years as the star of summer, it did not come first. I chose other work over work in the field and the sloppy harvest paid me my worth.

Such an admission may not be so painful for other gardeners. There are other things in life after all. But gardening and I go back a ways. Our relationship began 10 years ago and it started my move from the city to the country - the biggest change of my life.

Gardening taught me the tenets of the philosophy I still live by: belief in the strength from my own mindful labor; love for fresh air and nourishing food; need for a quiet, fruitful place to live in the cycles of the earth. In other years I may have been unfaithful to my beliefs, but this year I broke vows. That loss pained me more than the gaps on the pantry shelves.

But luckily for all this remorse, in the garden's cycle the harvest is also the New Year, a time to make resolutions, to assess mistakes and plan. Some of my promises are predictable: I will divide the rhubarb and move the sage, buy more mulch hay and plant less corn. We will dig asparagus beds and sow lettuce in succession through July.

Less predictable is my new vow: I will be honest next spring. I will plant a garden the size I need and the size I can work. I am not yet ready to give up my garden completely. I just want to be as happy walking its paths in October as I am in May.

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