My family jokes about how when my husband heads out on a trip, Mother Nature lets loose. An albino robin appears just before he’s to leave. An owl hangs around in broad daylight, staring intently into the screened-in porch. Bats flit about the house. Birds get trapped in my studio. Coyotes prowl the garden to face down the cats. Ice storms/snowstorms/thunderstorms unleash their fury. I’ve come to expect the unusual.
So I always check the weather forecast before he leaves. And sure enough, as he packed his suitcase last week, we seemed headed for a doozy. A garden-buster of a storm. Irene.
Winds? Rain? How much of which? Who knew? Saturday, after making sure the house and barns were storm-ready, I stared at the gardens, at the orchard, wondering how best to help them. Maybe I should do nothing, let things take their own course, hop on my bike instead, enjoy the beautiful day. But when I saw that big vee of snow geese heading northwest, away from the storm, I knew I had to harvest what was ripe and to protect what was vulnerable, and so out into the gardens I went.
I started by picking the peaches and the pears. That was easy, satisfying, for as I unburdened the young trees, I conjured up the evocative scents of mulling spices that soon would lace themselves through the kitchen. The next decision was similarly simple: let the wind and rain ransack those crops that had pretty much met their demise –i.e. the corn already gobbled by the gobblers. The cucumbers as well, limping along at the end of their time. Have at them, Storm. And while you’re at it, take a few zucchini plants, a cherry tomato or two, why don’t you. Knock yourself out.
But there’s no negotiating with Mother Nature. You just never know. She could ignore those very specimens and take out the neighboring eggplant, the onions, the artichokes. She could leave us unscathed or take everything. Fickle, unpredictable, wily she is.
Some choices were hard. Tall heavy-headers like the sunflowers, with their seeds still swelling, would surely succomb if a storm snarled and snapped at their tops, but I could think of no way to save them short of enclosing them in a three-little-pigs-brick-hut. Fat chance. They were headed for trouble. Likewise the quinoa. Perhaps it could be saved if I lashed each stalk to a sturdy post. No time for that. Not with the rest of the garden needing attention. I wished both the best of luck and walked over to the neighboring zinnias. Good for the bees and butterflies, but of no food use to humans, and so they were on their own except for the vases my sister-in-law filled and brought to elderly neighbors.
I turned to the entanglements of beans, debating whether to topple their poles or to let them cope as best they could. The shell beans were not ready for picking— what to do what to do—and saturated soil invites all kinds of wicked visitors of the viral and rotting sort. And so I split the difference—I took down some, left others up. The same for the tomatoes—the ripe ones came in and a good number of green for chutney but many stayed out in case late blight did not piggyback on the wet winds. I cut as many coriander and dill seed heads as I could carry, and brought in half the eggplant, the zucchinis, the potatoes, the carrots, the peppers. All the onions. The kitchen counters groaned.
Next the curbits. Phytophthora fruit rot could well set in after the storm for the pumpkins and winter squash. Post-storm breezes send in spores from all over tarnation, so to be on the safe side, I harvested a couple of pumpkins turning orange, a single winter squash that seemed big enough. I placed boards under the rest, including an alarmingly enormous Italian squash, the seeds of which were sent to me from Sicily. And wished them well.
I headed inside to make jams and preserves and sauces and soups, dried tomatoes and hot peppers. All through the storm.
Now, Monday morning, a hummingbird buzzes the window, reminds me to move the patio pots back outside; the timer goes off, reminds me that the zucchini preserves are ready. The sun is out; birds call to one another; butterflies and bees fly about the place. It could be any other late summer day. Except for the downed sunflowers and quinoa. Except for what I know is going on in other parts of Vermont.
I think of the farmers in low-lying areas and along rivers. I think of the orchardists with fruit just about to ripen and of growers like Sylvia Davatz of Hartland and her efforts at saving seeds of heirloom vegetables and grains that grow well in the North country—the amaranth and spelt, the quinoa and rice, the Alpine wheat and peanuts. I visited her garden on a glorious day last week. Irene was merely a whisper, at that point unimaginable. Unthinkable that whole farms would be flooded, gardens swept away, roads and bridges destroyed, towns inundated.
For now, as I wait for word about how to help with the clean-up, I prop up fallen plants and survey the minor damage. I make preserves. I harvest. I weed. I do what gardeners have always done—keep at it knowing Mother Nature might help, might harm--stewarding as best I can in concert with the hummingbird, the bee, the butterfly.
Also published in the September 1, 2012 Addison Independent .