Summer Vines Make a Last Stand

Pumpkins, butternut squash, and zucchini are putting out blooms that will not outdash the frost. Stuffed, breaded, and lightly fried, the blossoms make a tasty garnish.

IN late summer, the sun at its declining angle strikes the garden with ever-lessening intensity. Bees get sluggish; a large yellow jacket clings to the laces of my shoe, worn out by its one season of pollination.

But the cucurbit vines - pumpkins, butternut squash, zucchini - still vigorously send out lead runners, as if to outdash the frost.

They never do, of course.

Here in the north and steadily southward, one morning the vines will show a last special crispness before darkening and wilting, along with the basil leaves, green peppers, and tomatoes.

This is a time to harvest the large pumpkin and squash with abandon. Even the small fruits, no bigger than a baby's fist, with a blossom still attached, can be harvested now; time does not remain for them to mature.

There are two kinds of blossoms on each plant: The long-stemmed blossoms rise like a folded parasol and open for barely a day before they crumple; these are chiefly for pollination. The other blossoms that fit tightly into the crooks of the vines are the ones that grow into fruits. Through most of the season, pick chiefly the long-stems. Pick them in the morning, a little after the bees have gotten around, and refrigerate them until preparing evening dinner.

In Italy and France, farmers often market the blossoms. Here in the States, the half-day turnaround has not caught on commercially, although the blossoms - breaded and stuffed or just dipped in a light batter and sauteed or deep-fried - would make a handsome garnish at restaurants that feature local fresh-grown produce. (See recipes below.)

This year we had a big crop of blossoms on our suburban plot. We were leaving for Europe in early June, and we'd left only half a day to plant the garden. A little after noon I began setting out the tomato, eggplant, and green-pepper plants. Then I planted leek seedlings, two hills of cucumbers, four hills of bush butternuts, six rows of purple and romano beans. And that was it. Time to pack and make the flight, the garden one-third unplanted.

Our garden is a circle, some 50 feet in diameter. In the center is a smaller circle, eight feet across, for herbs. The garden bed shape was determined by the locations of three granite rocks, whose bottoms I abandoned finding after digging five feet into the ground. I'm inclined to move things; these I accepted as givens. Rows are planted like spokes of a wheel.

WHEN we returned in July, the garden was full of "volunteer" pumpkin, butternut, and melon vines. The winter compost, spread in the spring, had produced a crazy quilt of seedlings sending vines this way and that through the consciously spoked rows. It was a wonderful joke for someone who likes order. The vines' grasping tendrils were kept from dragging down the staked tomatoes. Tomatoes in the home garden are king. The basil was kept clear. I lifted and pointed back gardenward the rambunctious vines so w e could mow the lawn to the garden edge. Other than that, the vines could show what "profusion" meant.

In every season, some things do well and others do poorly. This year, the heavy rains that retarded the tomatoes gave the squash a running start. Every evening we would have a dozen or two blossoms to bread and saute.

The summer's blossom marathon is winding down. Solace is with the fall raspberries, just ripening now with momentum. They will last until the first beads of rain crystallize into ice at Thanksgiving.

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