In The Garden
by Holly Howley
At the end of summer, just as the nights turn crisp and mums multiply, I make my ceremonial sauce. Forty juicy tomatoes that’s what it takes. Trial and error has gone into that number. It’s enough to make sauce for a few meals with some left over for the freezer. After all, these are not just any tomatoes. They are tomatoes from the garden.
Growing up we had a garden. I recall few details of the actual planting but I remember checking daily for progress and cheering when the vegetables miraculously sprung from the ground. So, thirty five years later when my husband and I bought a house that came with a backyard garden plot, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my own kids.
I soon realized, though I had no idea what I was doing. That first year we, my two sons and I, did a lot of research. And then we planted way too many seeds, way too close together. Second year, we sowed half the seeds and everything farther apart. It was one of the hottest summers on record. The entire garden grew with rapid speed. Most nights July through September we enjoyed something from our homegrown harvest.
This year, a little more confidence has settled in, along with a healthy respect for what lies before me. It has taken me a while but I now know that even the weeds have their place.
This morning as I poured over the past prime plants, picking the late blooming tomatoes for my ceremonial sauce, I felt the familiar struggle of the changing season. In the garden, in me. The garden has come to mean much more to me than the produce it provides. I’ve learned a lot, over the last few summers, in the garden.
Space. Plants, like people, need space. When they are crowded they either get power hungry or topple from the weight of others around them.
Balance. Plants also require water and sun. But too much of either is, too much. Balance is important.
Timing. Never water in high heat. The water bakes the plants and makes everything droopy. It’s the same as trying to reason with a tantrum throwing toddler in a grocery store. Let the intensity subside, and things will work out just fine.
Imperfections. Get rid of weeds before they’ve fully taken root. If you wait too long, it can be difficult to tell which is the plant and which is the weed. After a certain point, it’s better to have some weeds growing side by side with the plants than to kill the vegetables trying to destroy the interloper. And sometimes, it turns out, the plants and weeds grow just fine, together.
Freedom. Let plants roam. I try to plan out the flow of the garden so that the rambling summer squash vines don’t invade the more controlled eggplants and tomatoes but in the end, the plants do what they want. I gently nudge them and tie them together on sticks and cages. Plants like people need direction, support. But don’t give them too much instruction. They’ll find the warmth they need, after they figure out which path is best for them.
Share. There is nothing like the taste of juicy homegrown tomatoes or the tangy punch of garden leeks except the glory of sharing something you’ve grown with an unsuspecting friend.
Letting Go. There is no perfection in the garden. I love getting my fingers dirty, tending the baby plants, sowing the growing fruit. But it isn’t orderly or pretty. I am usually a sweaty, buggy mess after I’ve spent time in the garden. And despite my best efforts in May to pristinely plant seeds in perfect rows, by July the garden is a twisty, twirly magical mass of green, ready to burst with the season’s bounty.
Then just a few short weeks later, the vines wither, the fruit is picked, and even the weeds grow weary. Summer ends.
And that’s when I make my ceremonial sauce--to remember--summer in the garden.