A Cape Cod Notebook 9/23/08

listenGoing to Seed

Originally aired September 25, 2007

By Robert Finch

There's something to be said for letting a garden go to seed. In fact, I've never understood such pejorative figures of speech as "gone to seed" and "looking seedy." Metaphorically, they are used to imply stagnation and decay, but in nature seediness is a condition of ripeness and fruition. Where, after all, would we be if nothing went to seed?

On this late September afternoon my garden whirls and bursts with seed. The unpicked pole beans have turned to long, wrinkled, paper-pale pods that yield hundreds of smooth, shiny, dimpled, coffee- brown beans, more than enough for next year's planting.

The broccoli, too, has gone to seed, or at least to blossom. The secondary shoots, left uncut, have sent up spindly, curved nosegays of small lovely four-petaled yellow flowers that are visited now by black- and-yellow bumblebees with bright orange pollen sacs strapped like saddlebags to their rear legs.

The garden has managed to reach this unaccustomed state of seedfulness because for the last month or so I've not found much time for it. Had I done so it might by now be composted, limed, roto-tilled and planted with winter rye in the prescribed manner, and I would never have known its rich autumn face.

Too often, in high summer, instead of being a refuge from haste and anxiety, a garden can be a source of worry as we seek to protect it from pests, drought, and other threats. But now, in September, the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of my head. No longer blindingly bright, it throws things before me into sharp relief and deepening color.

There's a pleasure, a late season wine in returning here after an absence, more as an observer and discoverer than a would-be master. The great August flood of foliage has subsided, and I walk through the rows finding unexpected delights and surprises: here an overlooked onion, there a delicate flowering weed. There's even a volunteer cantaloupe that sprouted from a compost seed, reaching rough-skinned fruition in the potato patch.

I grow old, I grow old, the garden says. It's nearly October. The potato vines wither and the tubers huddle underground in their rough waterproof 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. The marigolds I planted around the perimeter last spring form a glowing border of colors - burnt sienna, deep orange, butter gold. They seem fitting as autumn flowers, when all things, even sunsets, avoid pastels. The garden is like a fire going out, dying from its center, but burning clear to the last.

It's two o'clock. The great oak to the west begins to cast its shadow across the garden as it did in March when I planted the first snow peas. Now it falls across me like a cool shroud. The warmth has gone out of the air, retreating back across space to the sun itself. Afternoons are starting to disappear again. It's time to go in.