It’s October 5, and I just visited my garden to pick some produce and check its progress. Two years into my Pacific Northwest gardening experience, I have finally started moving away from the expectations I had about gardening based on my Midwest experience. Back in Illinois in October, I’d be standing in the middle of my plot staring at the carnage wrought by my tomato over-planting habits, wondering if I could borrow a flame thrower to burn the brown, shriveled bean stalks off the trellis, and contemplating the downside of just walking away from the work involved in cleaning up the mess. Surely the park district had the tools and manpower to handle this, whereas I could barely muster the willpower to look at it.
Instead, I have a basket of beans, tomatoes, basil and my late-season snow pea crop, just producing its first pods now. In October. I am awaiting some gorgeous roasting red peppers, still ripening on the vine, and holding off on harvesting the leeks until I have kitchen space to process them into cheddar leek biscuits and potato leek soup. Kitchen space must be scheduled now, in our downsized apartment with its galley kitchen and regular-sized freezer inhibiting my normally exuberant harvest.
Despite the tininess of my garden plot, I still over-plant tomatoes, although now my excuses are different. Before, I planted extra because I knew I’d lose some baby plants in late frosts, or some fruits to blossom-end rot. Something would happen to reduce my tomato harvest, and, as I wanted enough for sauce and soup, I regularly planted 50 plants and crossed my fingers that 30 would survive. Now that I have discovered the depth of tomato flavors, and have explored the spectrum of possibilities, I can’t seem to limit myself. I planted a dozen San Marzano plants, and then could not resist picking up three more varieties at the farmer’s market (a sausage, a yellow pear, and a delicious large cherry), plus I started nine more Black Prince variety plants, after having fallen in love with that tomato last summer.
And then my garden sprouted about a dozen more volunteer tomatoes, varieties unclear, that I just plucked from their spot at the west end of the plot and plunked into the tomato section at the east end of the plot, in hopes that some of them would survive. So what’s that, three dozen tomato plants?
Whatever the actual number, it’s too many for a small section of a four by eighteen raised bed. There is no way to stake that many tomatoes, and at a certain point, I’ve stopped trying. The tangle of branches is too complex and there is no way to sort out which branch goes with which stem without breaking them off. In August, I stopped trying to manage them and just waited to see how the harvest came in.
One of the volunteers turned into a yellow beefsteak variety, producing two enormous 16″ softball-sized fruits. I shudder to think how many of those bad boys I’d have if I managed the plants properly.
On the bean front, I went from “oh, look! Bean season has started!” to “MAKE IT STOP!” fairly quickly. I simply do not have enough space for all the beans anymore. But I love having a second season in the ground, late-August plantings of peas and arugula and cilantro that promise to keep my garden lush and green for another month at least. My deck garden is overflowing with peas, another example of my overeager planting style, but I expect we’ll get a couple of dinners worth out of it.
In my Oregon garden, I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to get everything in the ground on a precise schedule and then wait for the season to race along, hoping I get most of my food before the first frost in the fall. And I find I don’t have to overload my garden with produce to put up for the winter, because there is so much produce available well into the “cold” months. Instead of six months without good, fresh food, we have about three, maybe four, if it’s a bad winter, and I can sustain food inside through those cold days.
My garden life has always informed my thoughts on the rest of my life. Because of the weather, the growing season, the abundance of produce and activities and opportunities, I’m less concerned about missing something, or rushing to squeeze something in before winter hits, be it vegetables or a swim in the Columbia or camping at the coast. I am starting to see the winter as an opportunity to do inside things, a chance I often forego in the sunny summer months when the rivers beckon. So in January, after a long Saturday planting trees in the rain, I’ll crack open my summer-scented frozen beans, heat up a bowl of potato leek soup, and snuggle in for an afternoon of sewing or research or organizing on a project I laid out for myself way back in September. And come February, I will start seeds that I have already bought in my sunny window overlooking the valley and renew the cycle of digging my hands into the soft earth.
Seasons change, and so did I. I am enjoying the ease and perspective Oregon has brought to my life.