This is that sleepy time of year in which people in the Northern Hemisphere begin to slow down and prepare for the winter on our doorstep. Here in Maine, it’s a contradiction at times. Shorts and a tee shirt on Monday, jeans and flannel on Wednesday, parka and boots on Friday, back to a sundress on Sunday. Heat on, air conditioner on, heat on. But we all know the inevitable track of October. We’re done with the agricultural fairs, corn mazes and apple picking, and are turning our thoughts toward weatherstripping, getting the sweaters freshened up, putting on the flannel sheets, and filling our oil tanks. We’re done with growing and now are putting up the harvest and planting the bulbs that we won’t see flower until the Spring. It’s time, literally, and perhaps figuratively as well, to reap what we have sown.
This year I planted a “real” garden for the first time. Although I had dabbled in a few plants here or there in the past, with mostly poor results, this year I asked Ric to dig me out a plot and I planted numerous rows of food right in the back yard (thanks to his excellent preparation of the soil), inside the fence, to foil the deer. I had varying degrees of success (mostly) with my attempt at growing turnips, squash, melons, carrots, snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, jalapeños, celery, beets, pumpkins, sunflowers, garlic, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, kale, chard – all organic – and a few other things I planted but which never germinated, so I forget what they were. I also had a few rogue volunteers that apparently hitched a ride in the seed packets I bought or were planted by the birds. No idea how the strawberries got in there, but they turned up last year in the front (flower) garden as well. We’re also lucky enough to enjoy the rich bounty that’s naturally growing on our property – berries, grapes and mushrooms (don’t try this at home if you’re not good at identifying wild varieties), though our apple trees don’t produce anymore, thanks to browntail moth larvae devastation a few years ago. I have barely purchased any veggies since July, and we have been loving eating something we grew ourselves at most of our meals (but not chasing squash bugs and cabbage butterfly caterpillars, nor trying to intimidate furry critters – including our cat Milo, who sees it as a giant litter box – out of our plot). It was definitely a learning experience, but a joyful one all in all. We’re already talking about what next year’s garden may look like.
Now that the harvest is just about done it’s time to process our cornucopia of fresh food. I have made jars and jars of jam, and am slowly putting the tomatoes and jalapeños in the freezer for when I have enough (and enough time) to make salsa and sauce. The squash are curing, and will likely be cooked or pureed and frozen for winter soups. Garlic is hanging in the barn. Little by little, these remnants of summer will sustain us through the winter months. And when the remaining squash, broccoli, tomatoes and brussels sprouts have finally given their last, it’ll be time to “put the garden to bed.”
I had never heard of putting the garden to bed until I moved to Maine. I don’t think it’s an inherently New England phrase, but this is the first place I lived where many of my friends were gardeners. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, it is a time when we go through our gardens, cut back and mulch the perennials (those with bulbs that will need protection to sleep through the winter), ensure that the weeds and other undesireables are pulled up, condition the soil and remove all leaf litter to discourage pests and disease from burrowing in, and otherwise prepare the land for the long nap to come. Unhooking and draining the hoses, taking in the hummingbird feeders and garden decor, removing the mower from the tractor to ready it for the plow/snowblower and similar activities that anticipate colder weather are on the agenda as well. For me, it’s a highly meditative and satisfying act, and I actually look forward to performing this yearly ritual, as much as planting in the spring. It’s a time for me to spend the last few hours with the special places in my yard, thank the Mother for her power and willingness to sustain us, and say goodnight to an activity that has been a delightful and healthful pastime throughout the last three quarters of the year.
As I have a habit of musing on everyday occurrences to try to find the interconnectedness of all our endeavors, this time of year prompts me to think about “putting things to bed” in the figurative sense as well. Any act of putting something to bed can be intimate and personal. When I tuck in my garden each fall, I feel deeply connected to the Earth, and to Spirit, and to the Universe, and to the Multiverse. It reminds me how interdependent we all are on our surroundings and on one another. Some years I plant bulbs (this year it will be only garlic, since I need to see how my flowers fill in next spring) after I clear the beds, knowing that the cycle continues, on and on. I feel just as much at peace watching the garden plot go back to bare and waiting as I do when I see it burst into color at the beginning of the growing season.
But I feel a similar satisfaction when I finish a good book, or when I finish writing a blog or take a piece out of the kiln for the last time, or text my children goodnight. And I’ve even grown into acceptance when there’s the ending of a job, a living situation, a relationship. These are all endings of sorts, of course, but they’re not the end. I can pick up another book when I finish (maybe even a sequel!). I will start a new project. I will text my kids good morning the next day. I find a more fulfilling job, a home that I love more than any other I’ve lived in before, or find the relationship of my dreams. Each loss that I have endured in the past – each act of saying goodbye or putting it to bed – has always landed me in better circumstances. Every. Single. One.
The idea of reaping what we sow may be scary (mostly because we’ve been taught to see it in negative terms, as in getting our comeuppance for misdeeds), but it’s reassuring at the same time. The key is to be sure to sow what you want to reap. But if we occasionally plant hoping to germinate a watermelon, and get strawberries instead (true story!) it’s fine, if we see strawberries as just as delicious, but in a different way. Nothing ever really ends – when you put something to bed, including a piece of yourself – chances are, it’ll wake up again; different, perhaps, but very much alive and a part of your life that you love, or grow to love.
I think that the melancholy and wistfulness that many people experience this time of year, though understandable (especially for you heat-seeking summer lovers), is misplaced. For me, along with the cooler weather I love, it’s a time for reflection and introspection. It’s a time to slow down, and have an excuse to snuggle in front of a heat source and doze a little. Again, I’m an introvert, and this comes naturally for me, so I can see where extroverts who love to play surrounded with boisterous friends, and have an outward rather than inward focus, find this uncomfortable, and rage, rage against the dying of the light. But this time – of reaping what you sow after a half-year of putting yourself out there and, hopefully, growing, is the natural progression of looking up toward the harsh light of day. In the quieter times of our life, it’s healthy to turn inward and take stock of what we’ve learned while we were bearing fruit in the warmth of the sun’s ray. The Earth will yawn, stretch, and wipe the winter sleep from her eyes and begin again – as will we.