Friday, September 26, 2014

Garden to Bed

It is a task I do reluctantly in the bittersweet transition from summer to autumn: cleaning out the gardens. Putting them to bed, some call it. It’s not that I don’t like the work. I do – being outside amid the changing colors of fall and the sounds of animals scampering about as they prepare for winter, digging in the dirt that has provided the bounty of summer, soaking up the fresh air and – if I’m lucky – a bit more sunshine.
Truckload of spuds

It’s just that the gardens stay abed for so long; emptying them of summer growth and goodness seems such a long goodbye.

After months of coaxing seeds, then shoots, then swelling plants to grow and bear fruit (or vegetables), after tilling and weeding and plucking off tomato suckers and thinning rows of baby carrots, it is a bit of an affront to pull it all out and throw the remains into the compost heap. Yet, there is something pleasing to restoring some semblance of order to the garden plots that have grown unruly since we sowed the first neat rows in springtime.

Last week’s frost killed anything that wasn’t covered, and a few things that were. The cold was a clear indication that it was time to set to work. The sprawling leaves of the zucchini plants, which had for weeks loyally provided a squash or three each day, turned black. The eggplants, which produced a multitude of pale purple flowers through the summer, but only one tiny fruit, withered to brown. The tomato vines drooped. The basil leaves, which had been a vibrant and warmly fragrant green only the week before, hung shrunken and brittle on brown stems.

I started with the small garden boxes in the side yard, which are easier to tidy than the large garden down back. Out came the wooden stakes that had bolstered the cherry tomatoes, and with them the frost-browned plants, whose vines and leaves and roots had grown intertwined with their neighbors through hot months in the sun. Even in their wasted state the plants were prolific, with tiny green tomatoes still clinging hopefully to narrow stems.

Out, too, came the pea trellis. The early peas have long since been happily consumed or packed into the freezer, but a few withered shoots still clung to the wire fencing. These I removed before rolling the trellis upon itself to store in the back corner of the garage through the long months of dark and cold.

Working around the row of small lettuces that may still grow big enough to eat, I tilled the little garden, breaking up clumps of earth compacted during the growing season, pulling out weeds that had flourished as they hid beneath the vegetables, dragging the long, white skeletal roots of tomato and pea plants from the dry, cool earth.

Occasionally one of my children would join me in the garden-cleaning effort. The youngest picked fallen cherry tomatoes in various hues from the dirt and chucked them into the field as she kept me entertained with a 5-year-old’s chatter and giggles. My son came down with his three-pronged weeder to help rake the chopped dirt smooth.

When I headed to the big garden with potato rake and spade in hand, all three kids trotted down to help with one of their favorite garden tasks: digging potatoes. Of all the magic a vegetable garden can provide for kids (and grown-ups), digging potatoes is probably the most fun: like searching for buried treasure.

As I pushed my spade into the soil, the kids stood by eagerly, focused on the turning dirt, seeking the pale yellow and red of spuds and racing each other to scoop them up. In keeping with our family’s potato-digging tradition, the kids placed the tubers into their yellow Tonka dump trucks, meant for the sandbox, but just as useful in the garden. So, while our potato crop this year was meager (and we had already eaten many of them), we still managed to haul two truckloads up to the house.

There are still lots of weeds in the potato patch. These I’ll yank out this weekend when the sun is supposed to regain some of its summer strength. I’ve left some green beans and cucumbers in place, but have become lazy in covering them against the nighttime chill, so they’ve nearly stopped producing and look more dead than alive. My late planting of shell peas has put out shoots and pods aplenty, but the peas within are slow to ripen in the shortening days. I have hope for the second and third crops of carrots, whose frilly green tops stand tall in the garden box with only a row of lettuce left for company.

Perhaps, then, we’ll pull a bit more goodness from the earth before the gardens are completely tucked in for the season, before we say our last goodbye to this year’s bounty and wait for the gardens’ awakening next spring.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 26, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.


  1. I have been thinking about getting into gardening, since my father, my grandmother and most of my aunts and uncles have made a hobby into it as well. It's good to hear from the perspective of a gardener what it takes to clean out a garden, or "putting them to bed" as they say.

    Kristina Cobb @ Dennys Lawn

    1. Thanks for reading, Kristina... and good luck in your gardening endeavors!