“I grow old, I grow old,’ the garden says. It is nearly October. The bean leaves grow paler, now lime, now yellow, now leprous, dissolving before my eyes. The pods curl and do not grow, turn limp and blacken. The potato vines wither and the tubers huddle underground in their rough weatherproof jackets, waiting to be dug. The last tomatoes ripen and split on the vine; it takes days for them to turn fully now, and a few of the green ones are beginning to fall off.”
–Robert Finch, Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, 1994
Robert Finch’s portrait of the September vegetable garden is familiar to any New England gardener. Only the timing varies, the decline of the vegetable garden coming in the last days of September for gardeners on Cape Cod, sooner or later in the month for others. It is inevitable, for as Robert Frost reminds us, “There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.”
September is a bittersweet month in Marjorie’s Garden, pleasure tinged with sadness. The leaves of birches, maples, and oaks already show the wear of summer in their moth-eaten leaves, a month before they call it quits in a blaze of brilliant color. Viburnums and dogwoods ripen their fruits for birds that will soon leave us. The compost pile grows fat with discarded squash vines and tomato plants loaded with fruits that will not ripen. Raspberry plants that were the focus of out attention a few weeks ago have become a tangle of old fruiting canes waiting for the pruners.
The painted faces of annual sunflowers greet us on our early morning strolls along the garden paths. We plant them for the goldfinches and bees. On chilly September mornings we often find a bumblebee or native solitary bee motionless on a sunflower head, waiting for the warmth of sunlight to resume foraging.
We plant sunflowers for the dining room table, filling vases with their smiling faces. They last for a week or so, dusting the tabletop with pollen as they enrich our lives. I know, there are sterile sunflower varieties bred for use as cut flowers, varieties that do not produce pollen. What a sad thought!
In September, demands of the vegetable garden ease and there is time to regain a sharp focus on the rest of the garden. On a chilly morning, Mia the Beagle and I walk down the drive where an old yellow birch, sunlight shining on its shaggy honey-colored bark, greets me like an old friend. The rest of the walk is a reunion with trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs that I have largely ignored for months.
On a stroll through the garden in late September I harvest samples of all the wild fruits that the garden has to offer: waxy blue-gray bayberries, bright red
winterberries, wild rose hips, clusters of orange mountain-ash berries, purple-black wild raisins and elderberries, two-winged samaras of mountain maple and single-winged fruits of white ash, dried seedheads of grasses and sedges, beechnuts and their prickly husks. As I collect, I recall a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “How little observed are the fruits which we do not use!”
In late September, around the corner at the end of the drive, an arborvitae (called “cedar” by Mainers) bears sprays of old scale-like leaves in the shaded middle of each
branch. The copper-brown color of these needles combines with the apple-green younger needles for a striking early autumn scene. The old needles eventually fall through the interior of the canopy to the ground below, forming a light brown carpet.
For our family, the Blue Hill Fair, always on Labor Day weekend, is a celebration of the garden year. Hundreds of vegetable and cut flower entries representing the best of the season’s harvest are displayed in long rows that stretch the length of the exhibit hall. From artichokes to zucchini, every type of vegetable that will grow in our region of New England is represented by at least one entry. Not surprisingly, tomatoes, both ripe and green, are most abundant. There is no taste-testing; judging is based solely on appearance. A soft spot or blemish on one of your tomatoes will cost you the blue ribbon, as will lack of uniformity in size. Walking slowly through the vegetable exhibit is serious fun. It is also part of the education of a gardener.
By September’s end the vegetable garden looks tidy, all of the spent vines and stalks buried in the compost pile, all the vacant growing spaces sown to oats. I close the gate on another gardening year, already thinking about the next one.