Thursday, November 28, 2002

the garden in fall

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

--Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass

A lot of people seem to think that gardening is all over after the last frost. Not true. Things slow down, but there's still plenty to do (besides raking leaves) to take advantage of those crisp fall days, when with just an extra layer of clothes, there's nothing that feels better than to be moving around outside breathing the fresh air. After the initial jolt when every tomato vine withers, the annual flowers turn black and shrivelled, a cool sunny day revives the spirits, and it's the perfect time to clean up the dead and the weeds, and throw it into the compost bin.

It is with mixed emotions this time of year that I watch the progression of leaves. The serviceberry from one day to the next was different: light gold, darkening over days to burnt orange and fianlly burnished red til only a few bright leaves were left like tiny flags waving. The crabapple just outside the kitchen window with the leaves flickering golden lights in the breeze amidst bright red berries, presaging Christmas lights, and darken finally into brown and fall gently into the air, dancing down the invisible currents til they land. The dramatic displays of disease and death. It's true--some of the leaves are spotted with black--evidence of being eaten by other creatures even as they flare up into color before another death. The dying is all around--abundant and silent.

First snowfall. In the afternoon the wind kicked up and soon the leaves were falling in a crazy torrent. Looking north up Cayuga Lake from South Hill, the coastal hills are obscured in the thick gray billows of off-whiteness. Back to work, and minutes later another glance out the window and we are enveloped in a cloud of white sparkles.

It was already dark, and I realized I wanted some fresh dill for the raw vegetable dip. Out into the garden with a flashlight, I shone the light down and wondered what are these small plants full of little white flowers? Crouching down, I see that they are the lacey young dill plants adorned with snowflakes.

The pick is meager in the salad greens, but it's still worth it to go out once in a while on a moderate day, and pick a few leaves from among spinaches and lettuces, brushing aside the leaves so that when the real cold hits, we can cover them with leaves--maybe the arugula and cilantro too. During a thaw the dry leaves can be brushed away, so that the small plants can briefly and the biggest leaves selected for the table. Come early spring we are talking the only fresh food available.

The time has come to cut down the old peach trees that have been in the yard for at least 30 years, many years before I came. Our plan has reached fruition, but it is not without sadness and loss to pull down those venerable trees. It's odd that the Chinese, who first grew peaches around 1000 BC, look on the peach tree as a symbol of longevity, because they are generally known to be short-lived trees. In my Internet search I found they might live only 10-12 years in Missouri due to cold winters and insect pests, but they might live for 30 years in Virginia where they don't have the low winter temperatures that kill or weaken trees, and they don't have some of the diseases in other regions. Here in the flats of Ithaca, New York, an oasis of lake-influenced mildness, the three trees lived for thirty years, I estimate. A woman in the neighbohood remembers when they were planted when she was a kid, and they asked her friend's father, who was planting those sticks, what they were, and they were amazed and doubtful when told they were peach trees. Years later, their twisting limbs danced down the yard, each year growing more skeletal and abstract, as the dead limbs were cut off, and only the essential remained. We planted new young fruit trees between the peach trees a few years ago, and now they are competing with the old trees for space, so the time has come. Will the new young peach tree ever produce peaches with the flavor of the old? No peach has ever reached its maturity from the young tree. The squirrels grab them while still small and green. They could never get all the peaches from the abundance of the big old trees. Probably they just assisted with thinning.